Coming to HDS as a Mid-Career Student

Editor’s Note: As admitted students discern whether HDS is right for them, it can be helpful to hear why current students decided to come here! Please enjoy this short piece by Sally Hammel, a secondcareer MDiv student planning to work in hospital or hospice chaplaincy. 

Post by: Sally Hammel, MDiv ‘21 

When I meet people and I tell them I’m at Harvard Divinity School, they politely ask how I decided to come here. The question always surprises me—until I remember that I’m sixty-one years old, so not your typical graduate student.  

Photo courtesy of SALLY HAMMEL

I am an almost native New Yorker, having lived my whole adult life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Employed by the same company for about thirty years, I’ve had a robust career in advertising. While I enjoyed the benefits of my demanding career, I wanted more balance in my life and found myself signing up for various retreats, workshops, and online courses to help fill a spiritual need. In 2014, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma—breast cancer. Following treatment, I took a thirty-day sabbatical and walked the Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile walk across Spain. During this trip, I connected with many other seekers, and realized I really wanted to explore and grow my spiritual connection.  

Sally on the Camino de Santiago
Photo courtesy of SALLY HAMMEL

The cancer diagnosis was a wake-up call for me. I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life, but I didn’t know what to do. I volunteered at Sloane Kettering Hospital as a peer-to-peer counselor and started doing healing prayer ministry at my church. I noticed that I felt most fulfilled and useful when I was helping people cope with their problems, particularly with medical issues. One of my mentors noticed a pastoral quality in me and challenged me to apply to HDS on a dare. When I got accepted, I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to learn more about spirituality and what was happening when I did peer to peer counseling and healing prayer ministry. I quit my job in New York City and moved to Cambridge. 

I had no idea what to expect, but it’s turned out to be the best decision of my life. I LOVE being immersed in “The Academy.” I love the intellectual challenge of engaging with meaty philosophical and theoretical concepts and authors. I love the connections I’ve made with other students of all ages, all nationalities. I find I have more in common with the professors than the students, given my life experience and my current state of life: things like mid-life questions, adult children, aging parents, and the constant effort to achieve work life balance. This has been a particular delight and maybe hidden advantage? 

The coursework is demanding, but not insurmountable. I am thrilled to discover that my mind still works, and my extensive life experience adds richness to my interactions with everyone I meet. I joke that being at HDS is like summer camp for grownups—but it is. I live in Harvard graduate housing, which has been its own source of delight and joy. Every day, I get to sit down and have a meal with extraordinarily talented students from Harvard School of Education and Harvard Kennedy School. We all share a passion for changing the world. 

I plan to pursue hospital or hospice chaplaincy when I graduate in May 2021. I’ve had exceptional training here at HDS, through Field Education and Clinical Pastoral Education. The commitment and involvement from faculty here at HDS is exceptional. The access to exceptional minds and resources make this journey one I will never forget. I am so glad I decided to take the leap and come to HDS! 

Editor’s Note: As Sally mentioned, Field Education at HDS is a good way to gather Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) credits. In the Field Education program, students complete two units (oftentimes a semester and a summer) of experiential learning in a workplace that makes sense for their specific career goals. For example, those planning to peruse chaplaincy might be placed in a hospital, where they could get CPE credits to become a certified chaplain. As always, if you have any questions about Field Education or anything else mentioned in this article, feel free to email us at 

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