In 2017, Sarah O’Brien received a Master of Theological Studies degree from Iliff School of Theology. Despite her earned degree, Sarah’s time at Iliff was a journey more than a destination. O’Brien’s Iliff experience and degree program led her towards freedom; to explore, to “follow [her] bliss,” and towards a freedom that “changed the… outcome of [her] academic and professional trajectory,” the current Ph.D. student articulates.
Prior to her time at Iliff, O’Brien attended Vanderbilt Divinity School. Although a successful undergraduate of Vanderbilt, graduating with a Bachelor of Art, after one year at the divinity school Sarah chose to pursue a degree at Iliff. O’Brien cites three main reasons for her move to Iliff, a rather non-traditional theological school when compared to Vanderbilt: location, freedom, and scholarly diversity.
For O’Brien, Iliff awakened new scholarly passions and insights never thought possible at a theology school. As a non-Christian in a Master of Theological Studies program (a small program itself), O’Brien found an experience that was uniquely her own and uniquely freeing from the constrains of typified conservative theology. She notes that while there are conservative theologies, there is still ample room to maneuver and “play” within theological scholarship that does necessarily exist in other disciplines. This ability to maneuver, something perhaps only possible at an institution such as Iliff, “lends itself to fruitful discussion and diverse perspectives.”
Sarah found the professors at Iliff to be open, engaging, and most importantly, supportive of her journey towards scholarly freedom. Dr. Albert Hernandez, O’Brien glowingly recalls, changed her perspective on scholarship and empowered her to imagine the reaches of her work. Dr. Hernandez went above and beyond to encourage Sarah to pursue her passions including facilitating a research trip wherein Sarah traveled around Nepal for three months studying women, the environment, and religion.
South East Asia became O’Brien’s final classroom, and the people were her teachers. She found that despite her excellent educational background, learning from the people in these communities challenged the knowledge she had previously acquired. The “realities of these topics,” O’Brien states, “vary greatly from what I have learned.” Completing that Independent Study began a new academic pursuit for O’Brien. The groundwork was now laid for her current academic work and research, and solidified her future goal to complete a J.D.
O’Brien has an insatiable desire to learn but also to use her knowledge for scholarly pursuits that cannot happen behind a desk or buried in a textbook. O’Brien has always been eager to earn a Ph.D. as well as a J.D. but struggled to determine which of these degrees to pursue first after her M.A. from Iliff was complete. She decided that doing a dual Ph.D./J.D. was not in her best interest. O’Brien’s credits her time at Iliff as the solidifying moment—or moments—in deciding what and how she would pursue her passions. Before Iliff, O’Brien was unsure about a degree program as well as a research interest. However, through the classwork, coursework, and mentorship she found at Iliff, Sarah tapped into her interests and goals.
Having just began her second year of course work at Drew Theological School, pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophical and Theological Studies, O’Brien’s academic journey is far from over. She intends to pursue a J.D. in gender based violence and international policy (after her current program) that will allow her to work on a global scale, particularly with organizations in Nepal working on gender based violence and climate change. Sarah’s love for the Colorado Rockies will always call her back, but she knows that global causes may call her away.
O’Brien’s journey will continue internationally, as she remarks: “I am open to moving around the world to find the right place that will allow me to continue to pursue my research while teaching. I am returning to Nepal next year to do more research, and learn Nepali, and [I] plan to spend my year writing my dissertation in Nepal.” With years of wisdom, despite still being in her twenties, Sarah’s ambitions remain worthy and selfless. Her journey towards academic and scholarly freedom did not stop at Iliff but had humble beginnings as a 2015 transfer student hoping to change the world.