HDS Students Find an Education Beyond the Classroom

September 26, 2019
Allison Rosen
MDiv candidate Allison Rosen in Puerto Rico, the site of her field education work during the summer of 2019. Photo: Courtesy Allison Rosen

In July, Puerto Rican protestors took to the streets, and so did Allison Rosen.


The third-year master of divinity (MDiv) candidate planned to spend her summer doing field education in Puerto Rico working with El Departamento de la Comida (The Food Department), a local nonprofit that builds sustainable food projects throughout the territory. What she had not planned was to be swept up in a political movement, partially organized by her supervisor, protesting the actions of the island’s governor.


“It was pretty big on the first day, I thought,” Rosen said. “And the second day it was growing. And by the third day, a sixth of the Puerto Rican population was on the streets.”


Ultimately, her time on Puerto Rican streets was inspiring. Generally not hopeful about the state of American democracy, Rosen was delighted to be a part of a protest, “a grassroots protest, queer lead, [that had] this much momentum, to actually have the results they were hoping for, eventually. . . . I felt like maybe there is still some power in the hands of the people.”


And this was only a small part of Rosen’s remarkable summer. She spent most of her time farming, building furniture and a website, and working in El Departamento de la Comida’s growing library of seeds, tools, books, and oral histories, all readily available to Puerto Rican farmers seeking sustainability and independence from the U.S. monocrop culture.


Allison Rosen


Rosen was among the approximately 40 Harvard Divinity School (HDS) students who participated in the school’s Field Education Program this summer. HDS students worked in a range of settings—from non-profits, educational and health care chaplaincy, and congregations in locations from Tennessee to Northern Ireland to Italy.


While in-class learning is a vital part of what it means to be an HDS student, the education HDS students receive doesn’t just take place in the classroom. That’s where field ed comes in: the program helps students deepen the knowledge they gained in the classroom while simultaneously developing new skills, concepts, and insights that will allow them to contribute in new and dynamic ways when they return. Students who participate in field education engage in a cycle of in- and out- of class learning that constantly deepens and expands.


Unsurprisingly, then, Rosen’s work in Puerto Rico expanded on the coursework she’d done at HDS. She’d recently finished a two-part course on the connection between human and non-human life with Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies Janet Gyatso, and at El Departamento de la Comida she was able to experiment with the knowledge she’d gained in class. As she spent time caring for plants and animals, she reaffirmed one of the pillars of her ministry: “the interconnectedness among non-human and human forms of life and their dependence on each other to thrive.” Or, in other words, “Stop thinking all the time and go pet a dog. . . . the fact that we don’t value that higher than we do is actually crazy and I think a lot of human suffering—and nonhuman suffering—is because of that lack of physical connectedness.”


This reassessing of social values is not an uncommon side effect of field education. Third-year MDiv candidate Salvador Peña, who just returned from a summer working with El Arca Argentina, agrees with Rosen that society’s values are backward: “Caring for others and working with the land are the least remunerated kinds of jobs and they’re the most rewarding, so I think our society has it in reverse.”


El Arca Argentina, a chapter of the international L'Arche organization that allows people with and without intellectual disabilities to grow in competence, helped Peña ground and broaden his studies. In addition to bringing meditation and mindfulness to the community (they now meditate several times a week), Peña’s HDS studies came into play as he counseled with a community member whose mother died the day before his arrival—something Peña was prepared for by taking "Spiritual Care and Counseling" and "Compassionate Care of the Dying" with Cheryl Giles, Francis Greenwood Peabody Senior Lecturer on Pastoral Care and Counseling, and by studying death extensively during his first year.


Salvador Pena


Peña’s experience not only grounded the things he had been learning, it also allowed him to come to a new understanding of what it means to serve. In L’Arche, they emphasize that their volunteers “work with, not for.” Peña said that this motto “had an important impact on how I served, and worked as a check through my time with the community, especially coming from experiences were volunteers can easily get into savior mode.”


Working with, not for meant that Peña built strong connections with the people in his community and allowed him to learn from them. In particular, he learned more about surrendering.


“A lot of things they allow to happen and we sometimes resist,” he said. One thing I learned from them is that sometimes letting go makes things go a better way.”


One of the ways Peña learned this was by helping a community member put his socks on everyday. Though the man couldn’t speak, when Peña was preparing to leave, the man “would say, ‘I so appreciate you helping.’ . . . He would use sign language and say, ‘I’m thankful for you to help me doing this.’”


Salvador Pena


Rosen and Peña’s experience with field education—that of deepening and expanding their knowledge and finding connection—is exactly what those who oversee the Field Education Program hope for their placements.


Emily Click, assistant dean for ministry studies and field education, emphasized that experiences like Rosen’s and Peña’s are due in part to the student’s willingness to seek out people and places that will provide the specific training that they’re looking for. In doing so, students will be able to deepen and broaden their education.


Click explained that this is an important part of the HDS experience. She said that students “come here out of a love of learning and reading and writing and all the sort of traditional things you think of in academia. But a lot of our students, whether they’re MDiv or MTS [master of theological studies] would find only doing that really insufficient even just for the learning project, let alone as a human.”


by Marissa Compton