By Alex Tilsley
After Haiti was struck by an earthquake in January 2010, Mike O’Sullivan was one of many reporters who departed for the small Caribbean country. Along with other journalists went searching for stories at hospitals or destroyed homes. Unlike many others, however, O’Sullivan also went to church.
O’Sullivan, who earned his Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from USC in 1981 and now works as the West Coast Bureau Chief for Voice of America, spent two weeks in Haiti visiting tent cities, emergency centers, and different churches—some only damaged, some completely reduced to rubble—and talking to parishioners and leaders of different faiths. Equipped with a video camera, he captured the spirit of the Haitian people as they attended church services in courtyards next to destroyed buildings and took solace in their faith as they grieved for the dead.
The broadcast O’Sullivan produced for Voice of America, an American news service that broadcasts to an international audience, was named the 2011 Religion Newswriters Association National Network/Cable News Report of the Year. You can view the video here.
“You realize that religion is really part of the fabric of the country,” O’Sullivan said, recalling the experience of reporting from Port-Au-Prince. “Religion really does help people get through.”
O’Sullivan’s appreciation for religion began in a course he took on Renaissance and Reformation history, when he realized how integral religion can be to people’s everyday lives.
“Religion was something that people in the sixteenth century took very seriously, and the disputes were just fascinating,” he said. “People’s lives were based around this. And with many people today, lives are still based around religion, and it’s fascinating to try to understand.”
After several jobs with small, weekly newspapers, this fascination with religion and its role in people’s lives eventually led O’Sullivan to USC.
“I decided that to give myself an edge as a religion writer I needed at least a master’s degree, which is why I initially applied,” O’Sullivan said. “But I found it so interesting I kept going.”
Aiming to inform and enhance his reporting, O’Sullivan took a broad approach to his study of religion in hopes of gaining a foundation in all major traditions. He said having a background in a variety of traditions has helped him him better understand where people are coming from in any story he reports.
“What you are studying is the history and sociology of different religious groups, but also different cultural groups, so that cultural and that cross-cultural understanding is really helpful in news reporting because it gives you breadth and context. Even in areas you don’t specialize in, you have a basic understanding,” he said.
Sometimes, that understanding allows O’Sullivan to see the religion angle in a story where others might miss it.
For example, he cites a story he produced in response to a study about poverty in Nevada. In talking to people around the state, O’Sullivan stumbled across an organization called Family Promise, a secular charity that works with churches, synagogues and mosques to provide homeless families with temporary shelter and food. The charity was unique, and for O’Sullivan told an interesting story about the role of religious institutions in a state with high poverty and high unemployment.
“I see other people do stories about poverty, but they just aren’t tuned into this important institutional aspect of religion,” O’Sullivan said. “I think [my religion degree] helps me to see things that are happening in a society that you might overlook, and to appreciate the important roles of religious institutions.”
O’Sullivan believes the importance of religion and religious institutions to public life is growing, especially with the increasing prominence of Islam, the recent scandals with the Catholic Church, and the rise of the Christian right.
“It’s not just devotional stories or just internal private matters,” he said. “It’s tied in many places to institutional or political concerns.”
With that in mind, O’Sullivan advises students to consider a major in Religious Studies as a gateway to a number of fields, including journalism, education, or law, or any career involving cross-cultural interaction.
“A double major in IR and Religious Studies will expose students to that important dimension of culture — religion — that’s so important in many parts of the world, especially Asia, majority Muslim countries, and the United States,” O’Sullivan said. “Religion continues to shape economic and social policies around the world.”
For O’Sullivan, the role of religion in economics, politics, and everyday life remains fascinating – and his international listeners seem to be fascinated, too.
“One guy who’s now a major opera singer, he lives in France, told me how he was shipped off to the countryside to live with peasants during the Cultural Revolution, when they closed all the colleges,” O’Sullivan said. “He got a hold of, somehow, parts to build a shortwave radio, and he said it was illegal, but under his covers at night he would listen to VOA [Voice of America] … It’s satisfying to know you’re reaching so many people.”
By Ali Mendoza
Dr. Mark Kaufman, a religion major from the class of 1979, always knew that he wanted to be a dentist. “Everyone who wanted to be a dentist went into the biology major. People told me its what I had to do. I had a rebellious nature and did not want to do that.”
Temporarily suppressing his rebellious nature, the young Mark Kaufman started his USC experience with general education courses. He paints a vivid picture as he reminisces about Professor Peter Sugarman’s Biology 106 classes held in Bovard auditorium with 1200 students. In these large courses, face-time with professors was always minimal. If students wanted to meet with the professor, they had to sign up for a ten-minute time slot on a registration sheet. USC’s academic curriculum was very different in 1979, Kaufman explains, and opportunities for pursuing less conventional paths into traditional professions were limited. But Kaufman was determined to expand his horizons.
He first learned about the Religion Department when he took a class with Professor Don Miller to fulfill a general education requirement. In stark contrast to the overcrowded science classes, this GE course, Religion 120, only had 30 students. The introductory religious studies course caught Kaufman’s attention, and he decided to become a religion major. The class examined psychological and sociological approaches to the study of religious experience and religious institutions. In the Religion Department, Kaufman found, the learning experience was more personal, the professors were more accessible, and the students all knew each other. Some of the classes were so small that lessons were taught at the professor’s home. According to Kaufman, “It was like college is supposed to be.”
Fascinated by the study of religion, Kaufman continued to explore courses with Professors Don Miller and Jack Crossley, as well as Wes Robb. His studies focused on ethics, sociology of religion, and neo-orthodox Protestant theology. Kaufman enjoyed his ethics courses in particular. “If you accept the premise that most of the activities in your life are going to affect others, then most of the decisions you make are fundamentally ethical,” he explains. “I would say that [the study of] ethics helps you do—whatever it is you do—better: business, law, teaching, dentistry, medicine, social work … . If you have that background [in ethics], you’re going to be better at doing [your job].”
It’s clear that Kaufman really enjoys talking about his study of religion at USC. His memories are bright and his passion fresh. Shortly after graduating with a degree in Religion, Kaufman was accepted into several dental schools. He ultimately decided to attend Northwestern University, where he obtained his doctor of dental surgery degree. Dr. Kaufman opened a private practice in Burbank in 1983, and he has been teaching as a clinical instructor at the USC Ostrow School of Dentistry since 1988.
Dr. Kaufman drew on his study of religious ethics during his six-year tenure as a member of the Judicial Council of the California Dental Association. The council is responsible for enforcing the Association’s code of ethics. Dr. Kaufman found that he was the only one on the council with ethics training. Most council members had chosen undergraduate majors in the hard sciences and had never had the opportunity to study ethical thought in a systematic way. Concerned that the council had fallen into the habit of enforcing rules without reflecting upon them thoughtfully, Dr. Kaufman encouraged his colleagues to consider the issues brought before the board in a deeper, more disciplined fashion. His undergraduate degree in Religion, he says, enabled him to provide much-needed leadership in his chosen profession.
By Alex Tilsley
As a freshman at USC, Derek Schujahn learned quickly that Aerospace Engineering, his declared major, wasn’t the right fit. Searching for an alternative, he stumbled upon a class in Judaic Studies.
“I loved it so much,” he says. “It turned my whole heart around to studying the motivations of human behavior in terms of religious sentiment. From that moment on, from the spring of my freshman year of college, I realized, ‘I really want to study this full time.’”
Seventeen years after graduating with a B.A. in Religion and Philosophy, Schujahn says he has no regrets.
“My experience was more about personal development and education and learning to be a lifelong learner,” he says. “It wasn’t about getting a certification… rather, it really was about the experience.”
Schujahn has used that experience and his newfound love of learning in a variety of settings since graduation. He earned his seminary degree from Fuller’s Theological Seminary and has worked with a range of humanitarian organizations around the world, including House Church Networks in China; Stop Child Trafficking Now, based in New York; Freedom’s Promise, an anti-trafficking and community development program based in Cambodia; and the YMCA of Middle Tennessee. He has helped mobilize thousands of volunteers, has developed new charitable organizations in countries including South Africa and New Zealand, and, most recently, helped rescue child soldiers in Southeast Asia through his work with Project: AK-47.
Though he was never hired specifically because he was a religion major, Schujahn believes studying religion gave him the tools for success in his career. All of his work, he says, has relied on his ability to relate to people, and often he connects to people through his knowledge of religion.
“The dynamics of religion really do define cultures, and so being able to understand those religions has helped me to understand a lot of cultural dynamics,” Schujahn says.
Schujahn studied a variety of religious traditions at USC, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. He believes this has given him the ability to relate to people on a personal level in a way he might not have been able to without an understanding of religion.
He says he learned a bit about people and history from his philosophy classes, too, but he views the difference between the two fields as the difference between engaging the head and engaging the heart.
Because of its relevance to society and to people’s lives, Schujahn says he found religion to be the more practical of his two majors.
“You read the news, and so much of it – our ideals, our dreams our expectations – whether it’s explicit or implicit, a lot of them are based out of our religious experiences and understandings,” he says.
Schujahn’s appreciation for religion as forming a basis for people’s ideals, dreams, and expectations has been invaluable -- both in his humanitarian and ministerial work and, more surprisingly, in the job-hunt.
Schujahn believes a liberal arts background can be useful in anything from teaching to business to non-profit work, and he encourages students to follow their intellectual passions.
“If [students] are looking for something deeper,” he says, they should consider the study of religion. “Major, double major, add it on. Do whatever you can do to experience something more than just a certificate on the wall.”