The Department of Religious Studies at Michigan State University held its 2023 Undergraduate Symposium on April 14 during which three undergraduate students — Emily “Em” Perkins, Rana Omar, and DuJour Johnson — were recognized with awards for their outstanding achievements.
“Each year, the MSU Religious Studies Undergraduate Symposium brings together outstanding students from around Michigan to share their research,” said Morgan Shipley, Foglio Endowed Chair of Spirituality, Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies, and Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies. “In a collegial and supportive setting, the Symposium offers the opportunity to learn from our students, to share in community, and to highlight the amazing work our students do.
“Em Perkins, Rana Omar, and DuJour Johnson demonstrate commitments to the social good that resound far beyond their success in the classroom. As a department, we cannot be more proud of their work.”Morgan Shipley, Foglio Endowed Chair of Spirituality, Associate Professor, and Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies
“We also take time to honor and celebrate our students during an awards ceremony. This year’s award and scholarship recipients model Spartan Will — Em Perkins, Rana Omar, and DuJour Johnson demonstrate commitments to the social good that resound far beyond their success in the classroom. As a department, we cannot be more proud of their work.”
The awards presented during the Symposium include:
- Robert T. Anderson Award recognizes the Religious Studies primary major senior who achieved the highest grade point average. The award is named in honor of former Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies, Robert T. Anderson.
- Nick Rashford and Jake Foglio All-University Award for Excellence acknowledges the accomplishments of exceptional students with the intention to enhance the academic credentials of deserving students who may eventually seek admission to graduate education. Recipients are selected by a committee from the Department of Religious Studies.
- Engaged Scholar Award recognizes the Religious Studies undergraduate major who best represents the ideal of the engaged scholar and whose aspirations are to serve the wider community. Recipients are selected by a committee from the Department of Religious Studies.
- Theta Alpha Kappa Undergraduate Achievement Award, which is for $100, is funded by the National Religious Studies Honors Society, Theta Alpha Kappa (TAK), every other year. The award is granted to a student selected by the local chapter representative. Selection criteria might focus on overall academic excellence, chapter leadership, outstanding public service, or as an encouragement award toward continued excellence.
- Bob Pettapiece Endowed Scholarship in Religious Studies is named in honor of Dr. Bob Pettapiece, who attended MSU from 1959-1967 and majored in Humanities and then in Religion. He also received a teaching certificate in History and Mathematics and started to teach in Detroit in fall 1967. Later, he became certified to teach religion due to the notification of Robert Anderson, his mentor at MSU in the former Religious Studies Program.
- Bob Pettapiece Religion & Criminal Justice Award recognizes an undergraduate student who has an interest in both Religious Studies and Criminal Justice Studies.
Em Perkins, who will graduate with a B.A. in Psychology and a B.A. in Religious Studies in Spring 2023, as well as a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies, received three awards — Robert T. Anderson Award, Nick Rashford and Jake Foglio All-University Award for Excellence, and Theta Alpha Kappa Undergraduate Achievement Award. She also was recognized as part of the 2023 Theta Alpha Kappa Induction.
“I pursued Religious Studies after taking an intro class and I fell in love,” Perkins said. “I realized I could never get tired of learning about religion — religion is our human history, it’s important to understand, to comprehend our past as humanity, and to create change moving forward as well as understanding religion to be able to combat prejudice with education and knowledge.”
This semester, Perkins has focused on working on her senior thesis, which is on American identity and Christian nationalism. She presented her thesis at the Religious Studies Undergraduate Symposium on April 14.
“I pursued Religious Studies after taking an intro class and I fell in love. I realized I could never get tired of learning about religion.”Em Perkins
“I have completed a lot of projects for the Religious Studies Department, and I couldn’t have done any of it without my amazing professors, specifically Morgan Shipley. He has been selfless and reliable while always being warm and kind,” Perkins said. “The entire Religious Studies Department is compassionate, cooperative, and uplifting. These people are excited to teach and to help students learn and develop as humans as well as academics.”
After graduating from MSU, Perkins plans to take some time off from school to travel and then would like to pursue a master’s degree in Religious Studies and eventually a doctorate degree. Her goal is to become a Religious Studies Professor.
Rana Omar, a senior Honors College student who will graduate with a B.A. in Religious Studies and a B.S. in Neuroscience in Spring 2023, is this year’s Engaged Scholar Award recipient. She also was recognized as part of the 2023 Theta Alpha Kappa Induction.
Omar recently completed her capstone thesis, which focuses on Islam and the misconceptions of that religion. She presented this research at the University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum at MSU on April 14.
She says she has always been interested in religion and knew it was something she wanted to further educate herself in, and it was the Religion in America (REL 220) course taught by Shreena Gandhi, Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, that inspired her to take more Religious Studies classes and got her interested in declaring it as a major.
“It is important to understand and educate yourself when it comes to other religions in order to understand and connect with people of all kinds of backgrounds and religions. Religion gives us a sense of belonging and support.”Rana Omar
“When I took a few more classes, it solidified my interest in Religious Studies and I knew it was the major for me,” Omar said. “Many people tie so much of their identity to religion, and it is a way of life for so many. Religion will affect the way people speak, dress, act, or even their perspective of life and purpose. It is important to understand and educate yourself when it comes to other religions in order to understand and connect with people of all kinds of backgrounds and religions. Religion gives us a sense of belonging and support.”
Omar currently has an internship with MSU Pediatrics. She has been accepted to the master’s degree program in Public Administration at Cornell University and will begin that program in Fall 2023.
DuJour Johnson, a sophomore Honors College student who is majoring in Criminal Justice with minors in Religious Studies and in Law, Justice, and Public Policy, received both the Bob Pettapiece Religion and Criminal Justice Award and the Bob Pettapiece Endowed Scholarship in Religious Studies.
“I decided to pursue a minor in Religious Studies because I really enjoy the curriculum and want to gain a better understanding of people’s motivations and world experiences,” Johnson said. “I love the community the Religious Studies Department at MSU fosters. All the professors are so kind and really care about their students and their education through their individualized learning approach. The department puts a strong emphasis on understanding cultural differences and how they are important for gaining a true appreciation for everyone in the world, which is something I deeply appreciate.”
“I love the community the Religious Studies Department at MSU fosters. All the professors are so kind and really care about their students and their education through their individualized learning approach.”DuJour Johnson
Johnson has broad career interests ranging from public defense law to social justice advocacy. This past year, as part of the Social Science Scholars Program, Johnson began working on a research project regarding resiliency in Black youth from inner-city neighborhoods. The focus of her research is on Black youth from inner-city Detroit. She plans to resume this research in her junior and senior years and write a literature review on the topic.
Johnson expects to graduate in May 2025 and says she is interested in offender rehabilitation, post-release programming, and sports law and that she could see herself working in one or more of these fields.