Five Lessons I Learned My First Semester at HDS

Last fall our first year HDS students made the decision to join our community amid uncertainty brought on by a global pandemic. In this post, MDiv student, Cassie Montenegro, shares some of the lessons she learned in her first semester at HDS.  

Post by Cassie Montenegro MDiv’23 

Photo Courtesy of Cassie Montenegro

Like some of you, I found myself applying to divinity school after taking a less than linear route. I’m a trained attorney, experienced teacher, and former TEDx organizer. I am also a queer cis-gendered Cuban American woman who was raised on café con leche, the Rosary, and Tibetan chanting. And I am a first year MDiv with a penchant for Religion and Literature and a love of sacred space. However, it took me about six and a half years to muster the courage to apply to Harvard Divinity School. As I find myself a few weeks into my second semester, I would do well to remind myself of the lessons learned last semester about the Harvard community, about student life on Zoom, and about myself. 

  1. There is no “right time” or “wrong time” to go to Divinity school. Although joining the HDS community would quickly prove one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, when the time came to leave a profession I loved, to begin a new vocation amidst a global pandemic, the decision was not an easy one. Should I try to defer? Take a reduced course-load? However, the more I networked with and spoke to other current and admitted students, especially those within my Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, I knew I had found my people, my place. 
  1. Seek and accept help early on. While I was initially discerning whether Harvard would be the right fit for me, I kept hearing from staff, current students, and alumni that this school has exceptional resources. Little did I know what that largely meant was the access to incredible people who will meet with you after sending an email or attending a drop in space. As someone who had just returned to higher education after ten years and who had a limited background in the academic study of religion, within the first couple of weeks of the semester I began regularly seeking feedback from our Writing Teaching Fellow, Mafaz Al-Suwaidan, for Theories and Methods. Life has taught me that no one ever really does it alone, and, at a place like Harvard where there are so many kind, brilliant people, why would you ever want to?  
  2. Sacred community and connection can be co-created anywhere—even on Zoom. The spaces we co-create during and after class can be transformative as well. Early on, a couple of burgeoning friends and I made our own Zoom study room, which we called Terra Incognita. We invited others to join, and it became an informal drop in study and communal space of mutual support. Though we weren’t always reading for the same classes, this space became an anchor to ward off isolation. One of the most nourishing HDS sponsored healing spaces has been the monthly HDS Breathing Space held by Melissa Bartholomew, Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging and Steph Grayson Gauchel, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, a space where I can share what’s been on my heart and open my heart while listening to others, a sacred space for the work of anti-racism and anti-oppression. 
  3. Finals period—if you let it—can be the most creative and energizing time of your life. When at Harvard, use the time to bring your whole self where you can, write into the stories of who you are, and lean deeply into those spaces—they exist. At first, I didn’t think this was true, but my Professors and Teaching Fellows urged me to delve more deeply into my questions and take greater risks. Yet with no library to study in, the promise of a reading period spent at my dining room table left me feeling nervous about my ability to get into enough of a flow to do this work justice. Thankfully, I still manage to listen to my mother from time to time. Her advice? Clear out your schedule that week, as much as you can. I excused myself from most meetings and commitments, and simply focused on writing what was closest to both mind and heart: a paper and a sermon about Virginia Woolf’s unsettling endings; a playbill putting several theologians, my Teaching Fellow, and myself into dialogue; and an essay on my ethical responsibilities to my Abuela Yeya and her devotion to La Virgen del la Caridad del Cobre. At HDS, I have not only been able to experiment and deepen my understanding of my authorial voice, but to begin to honor my ancestors’ place in it, too. 
  4. It’s important to make space for grief, and not turn from it, but also to find the joy where you can. Last Fall I grieved the loss of a family member—many of us did. Yet I found myself comforted through the connections fostered by virtual and interactive altares made by the GSAS Latinx Student Association, as well as those classroom spaces where we could openly discuss loss. One of those classes was in Introduction to Ministry Studies. At the end of the semester, Professor Matt Potts implicitly challenged and empowered us to lean into the grief around us as “the world needs people who are willing to turn toward suffering or grief.” It was one of my most important takeaways from my first semester of Divinity school, as was recognizing instances of sincere joy, whether in developing a new idea together, as in Professor Stephanie Paulsell’s Virginia Woolf, or in taking pleasure in an idea in Professor Mark Jordan’s and Teaching Fellow Sage Moses’ Christian Sex seminars—sacred learning spaces where grounding laughter penetrated our grief. It’s in those spaces, in search of the real, where I felt continually blessed. 

Perhaps I should have titled this text “Five Blessings I Received My First Semester at HDS: An Unexhaustive List.” For some, a blessing is an invitation for God’s presence; for others, it’s an areligious boon. Permit me to offer you these final blessings in the space in which you may receive it: Many blessings to those of you soon-to-be admitted students who will find yourselves in the midst of discerning whether you will soon be joining our Harvard Divinity School community—we welcome you; we love you. And many blessings to those of us who are reminding ourselves of the lessons we each learned this past Fall, and how to bring them into the present.  

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