Riley Erlandson ’21
Majors/Minor: Biology, NeuroscienceReligion
Master of Divinity Student at Yale Divinity School
Anticipated Graduation Year: 2024

Please briefly describe your current program. Can you tell us about something interesting you’ve learned while there?

The Master of Divinity at Yale Divinity School is a fairly flexible degree intended to prepare graduates for careers in ministry, whether that is in a pastoral setting or reflects a call toward nonprofit, educational, or academic work. Degree requirements are relatively flexible. There are a few necessary courses in biblical studies, ethics, theology, preaching, history, etc., and plenty of room to pursue funded internships and really any academic interests you have (including courses offered across all of Yale’s schools). There are great opportunities for community life and extracurricular engagement across YDS and the university at large. In my studies, I’ve been most interested in the way religion and religious literature might encourage hopeful, new ways of thinking about faith in the face of problems in the modern world, especially related to ecological and climate disaster.

What is the best part about your program?

I’ve found that the best part of this program has been learning with and from my incredible classmates. Most have had at least a few years away from school in a wide variety of careers, so each person brings incredible life experience and ideas to each class and conversation. There is also a wonderful, communal sense of striving for justice that is generally reflected. This also arises in initiatives that people really commit themselves to — for example, Lights Out Connecticut protects migrating birds from light pollution. There’s a sense that there is so much work to be done to make the world a more just, kind, and equitable place and so much community support for the ways that people choose to live out that call.

What skills are most necessary for success in your field?

I’d say a strong sense of vocational call to care for others and the world, both through individual care and advocacy/activism against systemic injustices. Also, the willingness to continually work on maintaining boundaries and self-care while pouring oneself out into work with high demands on time and emotional energy.

How did you decide the career you wanted to go into?

While studying science at Concordia (which I really enjoyed and has been very valuable even in a non-STEM focused program!), I found myself increasingly drawn to religion courses. Though I’ve always hoped my career choice would center on ecology and climate change, I’d found myself and my peers feeling more and more disillusioned about the possibilities to make a meaningful difference in regard to the climate crisis. Bringing spirituality and religion into the climate conversation might allow us to think about the ways that hope and healing can still be found in community, even in a world with so many injustices and pending/present ecological crises in the human and more-than-human living world. With that in mind, I was very excited to study religion and ecology at YDS. After my first year in the program, I switched from the Master of Arts in Religion to the Master of Divinity degree, feeling called to work directly with people in a ministerial setting while also researching the subject academically.

What do you wish you knew in college that you know now?

I wish I hadn’t spent so much time and energy trying to discern my career path! Even now, at the end of my M.Div., so many doors are open and I’m not sure where I’ll be a year from now, let alone five or 10, and I feel much more peaceful about it than I did a few years ago. It’s good to think about what you want to do with your life — and Concordia’s focus on BREWing and thinking about vocation is very helpful with that! — but I wish I’d understood sooner that BREWing is more about personal development, ethics, and values than naming an exact career track.

How did your Concordia experience prepare you for life after college?

Looking back, I think my on-campus jobs were pivotal in preparing me for life after college. I worked at ITS all four years (shoutout, ITS rocks!) and learned a lot about working with (and eventually, as a student manager, leading) other people. Working with Res Life and Orientation were also great experiences in developing interpersonal and leadership skills. I think Concordia taught me how to build meaningful relationships, which is so important in both professional and personal life after school.

Did you have a PEAK (Pivotal Experience in Applied Knowledge) opportunity as a Cobber? If so, what did you learn?

The PEAK that has stuck with me the most is my neuropsychology class with Dr. Mikel Olson. Each student was matched with a resident at Eventide care center down the street from Concordia, and we were asked to visit them for a certain number of hours throughout the semester in preparation for a final paper. My friend Kenny and I teamed up and visited both of the residents we were matched with together. We developed such a connection with them that we continued to visit the following semester after the class had concluded. It wasn’t the point of the assignment, but I think this was a foundational moment for me in realizing my interest in chaplaincy and the importance of simply spending intentional time talking with and listening to people, especially across generations.

Why did you choose to attend Concordia?

I became aware of Concordia because it was the only college that adults in my life still cared about or felt connected to. My aunt Barb and my piano teacher, Cindy, both consistently mentioned their experiences at Concordia, especially its music program and the friends they made there. As soon as I stepped on campus for my first visit, I could feel a sense of community; people seemed likely to greet each other in passing or to study together than alone. Every student, staff, and faculty member I spoke to was genuinely warm and kind. I could tell that there was something special about the Cobber community and the way they supported one another, and I knew I’d be applying as soon as I could.

What do you value most about your Cobber experience?

Overall, I’m so grateful for the interdisciplinarity of Concordia. Between the liberal arts curriculum and the way that professors structured their classes, I had so many opportunities to bring questions and topics from one course to another: ecology into religion class, creative writing and art into neuroscience class, and so on. Everything is so interconnected and entangled in real life, so I appreciate that Concordia encourages students not to “silo” their academic experiences into a single topic or field. Singing in Chapel Choir was also one of the best parts of my time at Concordia, and I’ll never forget some of the music we made together or the friends I sang with.

If I had to pick one standout memory, it would be my book club. The group of students in my first-semester inquiry seminar class, “C.S. Lewis: Religion in Fantasy,” ended up with majors spanning from neuroscience to music to business to political science, but we all loved this discussion group so much that we’ve kept our reading group going long after the class ended. Though we all graduated in 2021, we continue to read short stories and books together and meet on Zoom at least once a month (along with our professor, Dr. Roy Hammerling!) to discuss them, and we did so in person throughout our years at Concordia. It’s such a wonderful group of people who became my closest friends and I think it’s a great example of the way Concordia brings people together.

What advice would you give to a current student or someone who is considering Concordia?

If you want to develop lifelong friendships with your classmates and be challenged to think across multiple academic disciplines in every course you take, Concordia should be at the top of your list. Whether they’re your professors, staff, or student employment supervisors, the staff and faculty are such warm people who will make sure you don’t feel alone if you’re ever struggling. Also, the food is great. :)

If you want to develop lifelong friendships with your classmates and be challenged to think across multiple academic disciplines in every course you take, Concordia should be at the top of your list.”

Do you have any advice for Cobbers considering grad school?

Talk to your professors — they’ve all been through grad school. I know it might seem weird or difficult to ask them to be mentors or to write letters of recommendation for you, but I guarantee you the reason they’re teaching at Concordia is because they want to support and connect with students and see you succeed. Also, if you email any graduate admissions office, they can connect you with students enrolled in the program you’re looking at, and a call with them can help you get a real idea of the program more so than websites. Finally, don’t assume that it’s financially impossible! Look out for funding while you’re researching schools — in many disciplines, including seminary, you may not have to pay for grad school and may even get a stipend.

What’s the best professional advice that you have received?

Bring all of yourself wherever you go. Moving from studying science at Concordia to religion at YDS was quite a shift and, in vocational discernment, I spent a lot of time worried about what was “right” to pursue: a career in ministry, environmental work, teaching, and/or writing. However, great mentors (including Dr. Roy Hammerling from Concordia) have encouraged me not to worry about this. They’ve both encouraged me and demonstrated from their own career paths that it’s not only possible but also incredibly enriching to bring all your seemingly disparate passions into any career(s) you pursue! So if you’re interested in film studies, music, or art even though you’re studying economics or chemistry, I’d highly recommend taking a course or joining a club and letting that part of yourself grow — even if you don’t think it will directly apply to the job you’ll have after college.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’m so grateful for my time at Concordia and all the wonderful people who supported me through it. Soli Deo Gloria!

Published January 2024