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Did you know that today's college graduates will hold 12 to 15 different jobs over their lifetimes? The Philosophy and Religion major equips students with foundational and transferrable skills that most employers are looking for:

  • critical thinking
  • intercultural competency
  • research and communication skills
  • ability to work with people of diverse viewpoints and backgrounds

Training in philosophy and religion has prepared our alumni to enter a wide variety of fields and sectors. They are educators and journalists, consultants and lawyers. They fight terrorism, serve religious communities, teach, or start their own businesses. Others work in international development, public health, and humanitarian aid. We host a Pre-Law program to prepare students for law school, as well as a Pre-Theology program that supports students as they prepare for graduate studies in theology or divinity and careers as religious leaders, counselors, chaplains, and more. See below for some examples of the interesting career paths our alumni are pursuing!

How alumni are using their degrees in Philosophy & Religion:

Lauren (Brittigan) Armbruster, class of '18: Systems Engineer at The MITRE Corporation

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Lauren Armbruster is currently working as a systems engineer at The MITRE Corporation, a government sponsored think tank in McLean Virginia. Her major in Interdisciplinary Religion is an asset to her developing career by preparing her to assess divergent perspectives and engage in critical problem solving. The MITRE Corporation offers extensive benefits and advanced academic opportunities that Lauren plans to take advantage of in pursuit of a Master's degree in the fields of intelligence or international affairs. Lauren was also an Intelligence Analysis major and research intern with the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Terrorism and Peace during her time at JMU. She looks forward to engaging with current students for recruitment and networking opportunities.

Jonathan Coleman, class of '18: Sales Administrator for The Winvale Group

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Jonathan Coleman is the Sales Administrator for The Winvale Group, a government contracting and management consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. Jonathan graduated from the department in 2018 with a concentration in Religious Studies.

“In my corporate environment, I am often asked how my educational background has any relevance for the work that I do now. Those who are more forthright inquire how I even managed to get the job in the first place. To answer these questions, I call to mind one of the first statements made by a professor in my first class in the major: 'Religion is an intrinsically human phenomenon.' That simple sentence profoundly shaped the way that I conceptualized Religious Studies. I realized that by studying religion, I was studying people. Looking back, I see that by being exposed to an extensive range of philosophical and theological thought, I became engaged with the beliefs, worldviews, ethics, attitudes, hopes, and fears that are common to the human experience. I am able to say to others, 'I see where you are coming from,' with more honesty than ever before. The JMU Religion degree taught me how to meaningfully and effectively relate to and communicate with people across an immense spectrum of social, cultural, political, religious, and non-religious categories. I am well equipped to assess and meet the needs of others in a myriad of industries and disciplines.

Additionally, I learned that the path to true mastery of Religious Studies demands the utmost precision in thought and speech. For this reason I was held by my professors to a high standard of research, documentation, and written and oral communication. Words and ideas do matter.  I am thankful that I was entreated to pursue excellence in my work as it prepared me to speak and write professionally and persuasively every day to a variety of people, including members of my own team, government officers, and corporate executives." 

Najeeha Khan, class of '17: JMU Engagement Fellow with Valley Scholars Program

Najeeha Khan '18 co-organizes community dialogue about Islam

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from the Winter 2018 issue of Madison:

Recent graduates Najeeha Khan (’17), an international affairs and religion double major, and Kayla Barker (’17), an Honors student and sociology major, grew up in Greene County, in central Virginia, and went to the same high school. Their friendship grew at JMU, despite different interests and majors. Then, an event back home spurred them to form a partnership for a very special reason—civic engagement.

In November 2016, they learned about an event, “Understanding the Jihad Threat,” being held in Greene County. It was garnering plenty of reaction, both positive and negative, in their hometown and beyond. They worried that misinformation, or a one-sided presentation, could be problematic.

“There weren’t a lot of people my age practicing my faith in my hometown,” says Khan, a Muslim. Both she and Barker were aware that ignorance was fertile ground for fear.

As president of the Muslim Student Association at JMU, Khan had been taking the initiative to organize campus events to educate and build awareness of the need for open dialogue. “I have learned from religion classes at JMU how nuanced and complex religious interpretation is and what that learning looks like,” she says.

Both Khan and Barker felt that they had to do something to counter the negativity that had arisen back home. What if they brought the model of constructive dialogue they had learned at JMU to their hometown?

Read the rest of the article here. Najeeha is now a JMU Engagement Fellow with the Valley Scholars program.

Jake Salem, class of '17: U.C. Irvine's post-baccalaureate program for Psychology

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I was a Religion major at JMU, focusing on Western traditions, before graduating in the spring of 2017. As a religion major, I gained the skills necessary for critical thinking, reading, and writing. Also, through studying scholarship of the Bible and Quran, I was introduced to ideas that have stayed with me and continue to influence the way I think about the world and everyday life. Lastly, and I think most importantly, I learned just how central religion and spirituality are to every culture; so, I can understand and empathize with other people I meet more effectively. I gained all of this, while at the same time exploring my life-long interest in religion.

I was somewhat apprehensive to become a religion major, as I was under the impression that there were not as many career opportunities as, say, for someone who majors in business or political science. While this may (or may not) be true, my uncommon major has made me stand out among my peers, and has even allowed me to obtain an assistant position at a Georgetown University psychology lab, as they do research on the cognition of religious belief.

More recently, I have gained acceptance to UC Irvine’s post-baccalaureate program for psychology, and intend to pursue a Ph.D. afterwards. I look forward to a future, hopefully, in academia, and am thankful for the classes and faculty in the JMU Religion department that gave me the critical and interpersonal skills to get me there.

Valerie Stocking, class of '17: Masters Degree in Experiential Education at Minnesota State University

Valerie Stocking

Valerie Stocking is currently enrolled at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota, pursuing a Master’s in Experiential Education. This program is focused on the idea that we learn best through experiences and reflection, and can lead to several different career paths. Valerie is working at the university as a Graduate Assistant in the Adventure Education Program, managing the university’s rock wall and challenge course programming. She will graduate in the spring of 2019 and hopes to pursue a position at a university adventure program. Valerie is incredibly grateful for her time at James Madison University as a Religion major. She knows it has some of the best and brightest educators and appreciates the wonderful exposure to critical thinking, scholarship, and respecting people’s experiences and opinions.

Rosemary Williams, class of '17: Masters of Arts in Religion at Yale University Divinity School

Rosemary Williams

Rosemary Williams is a scholar and musician whose work focuses on the intersections between musics, religions, liturgies, and spiritualities. Beginning in the Fall of 2017, she will attend Yale Divinity School in collaboration with the Yale Institute of Sacred Music to study for a Master of Arts in Religion with a concentration in Liturgical Studies. While at James Madison University, Rosemary pursued dual degrees in Music Performance and Interdisciplinary Religion, served as Music Minister at Canterbury Episcopal Campus Ministry, and performed in the orchestra for numerous student opera productions. Rosemary holds memberships in Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, Theta Alpha Kappa, and Phi Sigma Tau.

Sara Scherer, class of '14: Law student at George Mason University

Sarah Scherer

Majoring in Philosophy and Religion was one of the best decisions I made as an undergraduate at JMU. Aside from being intellectually challenging, the courses exposed me to a variety of belief systems. It was through this process that I improved my critical thinking skills and learned how to address complex issues in creative and effective ways. Perhaps more importantly, my studies at JMU led me to become a more curious and compassionate individual.

My time at JMU has prepared me very well for a career in law, which I am currently pursuing at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. After graduation, I will be working as a law clerk for the Honorable Michael F. Devine at the Fairfax Circuit Court. I plan to pursue a career in criminal defense and criminal justice reform.

Kurtis Hagans, class of '14: High School English Teacher

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When I graduated from JMU in 2014 with a degree in Philosophy, the question I received the most (with varying levels of tact) was "what are you going to do with that degree?" We shouldn't pretend that there isn't a stigma against liberal arts degrees broadly and Philosophy and Religion degrees specifically. I won't lie; I had concerns of my own as I left Harrisonburg and moved into the wide world. We live in a society that favors STEM degrees. My forays into the private and public sectors, however, have shown me that the skills learned in the course of obtaining a Philosophy degree are incredibly valuable.

Following my graduation, I worked with a company called FedBid. FedBid assists government organizations with their procurement needs through market research and data analysis. Most of my colleagues had graduated with business degrees and were certainly competent and able employees. What helped me stand out was the attention to detail, the ability to think critically and outside-the-box, and the ability to see and work with other perspectives that I learned and cultivated studying Philosophy at JMU. I found that I was often able to predict client issues and provide solutions before my teammates.

After several years at FedBid, I moved to a company called ManTech, where I negotiated contracts between ManTech and their partners in support of government contracts. Again, I found that my Philosophy degree helped me stand out by giving me the tools to parse through complex language carefully. 

I have recently taken on the new challenge of high school English teacher. In this role, I continue to apply the critical thinking and communication skills I acquired in my studies at JMU. I also get to use my more specific studies in ethics as I consider how best to shape the next generation. 

Regardless of the role, I have found that my ability  to consider and work through complex information has made me a valuable member of the work-force.

Kelsey Ostergren, class of '13: Analyst at the Cadmus Group LLC, Homeland Security Sector

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My journey since graduating JMU has been rewarding, humbling, and not something I would have ever imagined.

I obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in History and Religion from JMU in May 2013. My focus was race and religion in America. Between undergrad and grad school, I interned at the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy in Washington, D.C., focusing on religion’s role in conflict resolution, countering violent extremism, and diplomacy.

I received my Master’s Degree in Religious Studies, with a Concentration in Religion and Public Engagement (the first group of Masters students to do so) from Wake Forest University in May 2016. My studies there focused on race, religious intolerance in America, and religion and violence. Between grad years I also interned at the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington in Washington, D.C., where I helped implement interfaith dialogues across the DMV.

My most rewarding work came last year. I piloted a regional Countering Violent Extremism/Terrorism Prevention program for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. As terrorism prevention requires community engagement, relationship building, and multi-disciplinary approaches, my religious studies background was extremely important and beneficial.

That work has propelled me further into the homeland security field. I currently work at the Cadmus Group LLC and its Homeland Security Sector in Arlington, VA. I plan in the next year to obtain another Masters in Homeland Security, focusing on terrorism prevention and counterterrorism and specifically addressing religious violence, terrorism, and race.

I am an anomaly in my field. People are surprised that I have a Religious Studies background. However, I have found those studies to be integral to my professional development, community engagement, and my growth as a person. 

Neal Devdas Samudre, class of '13: Masters of Divinity candidate at Gordon-Conwell Seminary

Neal Samudre

I am currently attending Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, working towards a Masters in Divinity degree. The Religion faculty at JMU equipped me to make a positive impact on the world. They did so by first allowing me to see the perspective and worldviews of different religions around the globe. From there, my studies moved me to gain more depth into understanding my own faith, from doctrines and theology to its history. This was a crucial progression for my education seeing as it helped me develop more clarity on why I believe what I believe. From this understanding, I can use my education at JMU as a springboard to leap into a role of being an agent of change in the world.

My time as a part of the Religious Studies program has already given me a glimpse of the world-changing potential it gives its students. During my time in the program, I have published numerous articles to national magazines as well as receive a full-ride scholarship to attend seminary in Boston. On top of that, I am currently working on publishing a book, which will release in April 2014.

The JMU Religion Department encourages its students to make big waves in the global community; I am truly proud to say that I am one of many results of this tremendous love, encouragement, and support.

Anna Wilson, class of '13: Master of Public Health candidate at Boston University

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Anna Wilson is a Master of Public Health candidate at the Boston University School of Public Health, with a focus in program design, implementation and evaluation in global health. Her specific interests within the field are war-affected youth and the promotion of effective cross-cultural communication. She recently completed a fellowship with the newspaper El Nuevo Dia in Puerto Rico, where she wrote articles on Hurricane Maria’s continuing impact on population health. Anna is currently an intern at Physicians for Human Rights and will be working as a teacher’s assistant at BUSPH in the fall of 2018.

Charles Maimone, class of '12: Philosophy Instructor at Colorado State University

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After graduating from JMU as a philosophy major I attended Colorado State University where I earned my master’s degree in philosophy. As a graduate student I worked as a graduate teaching assistant. This role allowed me to experience teaching philosophy for the first time, something that I enjoyed so much I decided to continue to do after graduating from CSU. Since earning my M.A. I have been working as a philosophy instructor at Colorado State University teaching introductory philosophy courses, and more recently I have also begun to teach at Aims Community College. My time as an instructor has provided me with the time I needed to decide if I wanted to continue my own education and pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy, something I have decided to do and hope to begin soon.

My time in JMU’s Philosophy & Religion Department was truly the catalyst for not only my decision to attend CSU’s Philosophy Program, and ultimately my work as a philosophy instructor, but also what I believe will be a lifelong love of philosophy. Initially, I made the decision to further my education in philosophy after attending a session held by JMU’s Philosophy Department which informed interested students of the possibilities of furthering their education. Beyond this guidance concerning further educational and employment opportunities, my time in JMU’s Philosophy Department has also had a long-lasting effect on my own philosophical interests. When it came time to write my master’s thesis at CSU I decided to write on a topic that I was first introduced to in an undergraduate philosophy course I took at JMU. I am truly grateful for the experiences I had as a philosophy major at JMU and know they have been crucial to my current and future career aspirations.

Connor Brindley Gwin, class of '12: Masters of Divinity at Virginia Theological Seminary

Connor Gwin

The Religion Department at JMU completely prepared me for my studies in seminary. While some of my classmates at Virginia Theological Seminary are struggling to understand concepts and terminology, I come to class with a firm grasp of the basic elements of religious studies. Because of the Religion Department at JMU, I came to seminary already "speaking the language" of theological education - which is an amazing advantage. From the Introduction to Religion courses all the way up to the Capstones, the faculty of the Religion Department prepared me for my Graduate studies and my future career as a Priest in the Episcopal Church. Their teaching and assistance was invaluable and I am thankful for it everyday.

Anna Owens, class of '12: Office Service Specialist for VA State Police

Anna Owens

Choosing to major in Religion was the best decision I made as a student. You are all extremely fortunate to have access to some of the most fascinating classes offered by an incredible group of professors. My biggest piece of advice is to go to office hours! I currently work as an Office Services Specialist for the VA State Police in the Drug Enforcement Section. I never imagined working in this specific position but the skills I learned in my Religion Studies continue to help me perform in my job.

William Alexander Grasmeder, class of '10: Ph.D. in Economics at George Mason University

William Alexander Grasmeder

My name is William Alexander Grasmeder. I'm a computer programmer for the Center for the Study of Neuroeconomics at George Mason University. When I tell my colleagues in my Economics Ph.D. program that I have a religion degree, they usually ask if I wish I had chosen a different undergraduate major, such as Economics or Business. On the contrary, a religion degree provides me with unique insight and contextualization skills that few people have, thereby providing a leg up as an economist (to say the least). I rely on my training as a religious scholar and philosopher almost every day as something to keep me grounded, help find meaning, and give me direction in my work.

Samuel Funkhouser, class of '09: Masters in Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary

Samuel Funkhouser

Graduated May, 2009, B.A. Philosophy and Religion

Valedictorian of College of Arts and Letters

Master’s of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary

Working in Family Counseling with plans for a Ph.D. in Religious Studies

I am very grateful for my time spent as a Religion Major at JMU. When I graduated from JMU, I enrolled in the M.Div. program at Princeton Theological Seminary, and it soon became apparent just how well prepared I was for graduate studies in theology. Because of my previous coursework at JMU, I was able to test out of or get credit for a number of introductory classes, to the point that one of the classes I took during my first semester at Princeton was an upper-level Biblical Studies course on Ezekiel (in which I was more comfortable than many of the third-year Princeton students). I knew Hebrew well enough when I started seminary that I was able to serve as a teaching assistant for Biblical Hebrew during my second year—and was one of only a few non-Ph.D. students to do so. But most importantly, the reading, research, and writing skills that I developed in my capstone courses at JMU made for a very smooth transition to graduate school. The faculty of the Religion Department equipped me with the skills necessary for success in seminary, and instilled in me a passion for the academic study of religion—a passion that has now led me to consider Ph.D. studies as well.

Michael McKinney Hickman, class of '09: Instructor in English Department, JMU

Michael Hickman

As an undergrad, I dual majored in Religion and English. Both majors helped me refine my critical thinking skills, and Religion helped me step outside novels to interpret cultural and religious texts, films, and related writings. The pair pushed me to become intellectually flexible which strengthened my academic endeavors overall. Also, I felt comfortable discussing religion and its implications in ways I never had before; as I delved into religious studies, I often ‘nerded out’ about religion to others because many are misinformed or misguided (which often leads to distorted or bigoted worldviews). I majored in Religion simply because I was interested in it; however, I came to realize that the world is infused with religious thought which led me to better contextualize and question the world.

After graduating, I began the terminal English M.A. program at JMU, and during my second year, I had the opportunity to teach GWRTC 103. Once I finished that program, I began teaching full time as an adjunct. My time as a Religion major provided a deeper understanding of history and human motivation which, in turn, helps me push my students to better grasp humans’ complexity. I want them to cultivate their critical analysis skills in order to better dissect the world, as I came to do through this major.

Ashley Nicole Tickle, class of '09: Masters of Arts in Religious Studies at University of Iowa

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I entered JMU as a biology major. I decided my sophomore year to change my major to Religion. I did this for many reasons, one being that I have always been drawn to learn about other cultures and belief systems. Religion and spirituality have always been an integral part of my life. I come from a small rural town with very little diversity and this degree gave me a chance to learn about other people’s beliefs and cultural practices. I enjoyed my studies in this program so much that I want to become a professor and inspire others just like my professors inspired me. I am currently pursuing my M.A. in Religious Studies at the University of Iowa and will hopefully complete my doctoral studies there within the next few years.

GeorgeAnn Palmer Valentine, class of '08: Pharmaceutical Sales

Palmer Valentine

I am often asked why I chose what could be considered an unusual course of study. Originally when I came to JMU I wanted to study Philosophy and go on to law school. However, after taking a few of courses in Religion as electives, I was drawn to the subject. I enjoyed the fact that the religion courses provided worldview and demanded very critical thinking. Learning cultures through their religion was fascinating, and I was able to look at the world differently. I felt that through my study of religion I could relate to and understand others in a way in which I could not before.

Upon graduation, I decided I wanted to pursue a career in professional pharmaceutical sales instead of a law degree. Throughout my interview process I was questioned on why I chose Religion. When I took the hiring managers through the process of religion as a study of worldview and culture they were immediately impressed. My religion degree continues to serve me well as I interact with all types of people from every walk of life. My understanding of culture and other people's worldview allows me to operate in a way which encourages open communication and healthy business relationships. I would highly recommend the study of Religion to students looking to enter the business world.

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