So many courses in the religious studies department are cross-listed with history, psychology, anthropology and even political science. It’s like anything and everything combined into one.
Some students know their major long before their first day on a college campus, while others decide shortly after they arrive. Then there are students like Paris Gallagher '23 who discover what they're truly passionate about by happy accident.
After switching her major from international relations to political science, Gallagher became fascinated with the complexity of social identities like race, class, gender and religion, and their powerful impact on society. That's what led her to a seat in Professor John Penniman's religious studies class on martyrs. But having grown up without a personal connection to faith, Gallagher struggled at first to grasp the course's core concepts.
"It was hard to make sense of what we were learning about because I was absorbing it all through a highly critical lens," says Gallagher, who hails from New York City. "I was hyper-focused on what was scientifically plausible, which made me quick to dismiss beliefs I considered to be 'untrue.' "
Soon, Gallagher found herself staying behind after class to discuss these thoughts with Penniman, who welcomed her skepticism and issued her a challenge.
"He encouraged me to focus less on what is provable and more on the role faith plays in people's lives and the influence of religion on society as a whole," Gallagher says. "Once I made the distinction between what I thought was true and what is true for a believer, that's when religious studies really opened up for me. I ended up falling in love with it."
Gallagher is now pursuing a major in religious studies alongside her political science degree. The deeper she digs into the discipline, the more surprised she is to find connections to fields across Bucknell's College of Arts & Sciences — from critical Black studies and women's & gender studies to environmental studies & sciences.
That mixture of social sciences, humanities and cultural studies is the essence of Bucknell's liberal arts curriculum, which allows students to explore a variety of subjects no matter their major. It has provided the perfect sandbox for Gallagher to further analyze the prominent and sometimes controversial forces that shape our world. She hopes to eventually produce an honors thesis on the intersection of politics and modern religious movements like Scientology, Jonestown and the Branch Davidians (known for the compound siege just outside Waco, Texas).
In the meantime, Gallagher is working to promote the humanities on campus through a fellowship with Bucknell's Humanities Center. As one of three fellows, she helps plan, advertise and facilitate monthly talks and workshops led by professors.
Much like her religious studies major, Gallagher applied for a spot in the fellowship program with enthusiastic support from Penniman, who also serves as her academic adviser. Receiving guidance from a professor who not only champions but also challenges her has made all the difference in Gallagher's college journey.
"He isn't afraid to let me push back on theories and ideas but is also willing to point out when I've just plain got it wrong. It's improved my ability to think in ways I hadn't before," she says. "I feel lucky to have found such a helpful mentor basically by accident. I definitely wouldn't be where I am now without that."