Sean Massa

My Education

Yale University

MA | Ethics and Religion

Sean recently graduated with his Masters in Ethics and Religion from Yale in 2018. Sean completed his undergraduate studies in 2015 at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Health and Societies with a concentration in Global Health and minor in Philosophy. During his junior year, Sean studied abroad in Vietnam, South Africa, and Brazil through the International Honors Program in Health and Community, a program coordinated by the School for International Training. Following his graduation, Sean sought additional international experience by teaching as a university lecturer in Yogyakarta, Indonesia through a Princeton in Asia fellowship from 2015 to 2016. The experience motivated Sean to study religion, specifically to research the history and role of Islam in Southeast Asia.

Q:  Why are you passionate about your academic field? When and how did you discover your love of your subject?  

My interest in religious studies stems from my life experiences. When I was young, I was introduced to Christianity through my family. Since then, I grew up and critically realized that religious is a complex institution that shapes communities in social and political dimensions. During my years at Penn as an undergraduate student, I was first exposed to many different faith traditions as a student in an interfaith course. This course as well as a comparative study abroad experience in which I studied spiritual health in Vietnam, South Africa, and Brazil opened up my eyes to how people use religion to find meaning and connection throughout the world. While living in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim majority country, I was confronted that my conceptions of Islam were fairly misguided by the American media. Religion can be expressed and manifested in diverse ways and in accordance to local traditions and histories. I learned this lesson best when in Indonesia, where I found that there is even a multiplicity of religious expressions of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Catholicism . Following my time abroad, I wanted to learn more about how religion influenced the Southeast Asia region and shaped its contemporary political climate

Q:  What are your three top recommendations for a student targeting a masters in your field? What if they are preparing to switch their major to your field?  

Having applied and been accepted to masters programs during my final year of undergraduate study at Penn, my advice is as follows

  1. Be specific about what area in religion you are interested in and how it relates to your goals.[Text Wrapping Break]One thing I’ve learned about graduate school is that the more focused you are on a research topic, the better. This can give you clarity in how you can best plan out your program as it relates to your future career goals in public policy, non-profit work, law, etc.
  2. Do your research on schools and programs![Text Wrapping Break]There are a lot of different programs out there, but each one is so different in terms of its emphasis. For instance, Harvard definitely has more of a multi-religious curriculum while Yale tends to emphasize more of Christianity, specifically within the Episcopal tradition. That being said, you can always craft your own program while utilizing resources from throughout the university! Just be cognizant for what kind of two year commitment you are signing up for! Really research what courses you will be taking, what professors will become your instructors and mentors, etc. Take this very seriously!
  3. If you plan to switch into religion from another field, look for overlap![Text Wrapping Break]I switched over from an undergraduate degree in Health and Societies to a masters in Ethics and Religion. If you’re thinking of making this switch, make sure you find ways in which your past academic experiences and involvements make you a strong candidate for the program. For example, my minor in philosophy probably showed the Yale admissions committee that I had a strong analytical background and could handle taking ethics courses. If you’re already in a master’s degree program and would like to additionally study religion at your university, look to see if your credits can transfer or if you can take on a dual degree program!
Q:  What resources can students use to educate themselves on your subject?  

Religion always is something discussed in the media, in pop culture, in songs, in book themes, etc. It’s pretty ubiquitous. Some preliminary religious education can take the form of reading some famous texts (e.g. Torah, New Testament, Quran, etc.) as well as commentaries on those books (especially since the language they employ is archaic and the knowledge they hold can be esoteric). Others can read religious texts from famous spiritual leaders or books that engage religion within other fields such as health, politics, or international relations.

Q:  What are your top tips to showcase an applicant  

While high grades and standardized test scores can take you so far, I think that a few important strengths to showcase are the personal narrative and the extracurricular experiences. Regarding the former, make sure that your program is an obvious fit to your story: be clear on how this next step in your academic career fits with your past pursuits and future goals. Make sure to emphasize your personal connection to the subject. With regard to extracurriculars, be clear and explicit about how your internship or study abroad experience connected you to the field. Who did you meet? What text did you read that changed your worldview? What are you wrestling with that requires two years of academic deliberation and research? Be sure to name drop specific courses and professors you want to work with. Read their articles and books. The more passion and interest you show, the clearer it is to admissions committee that you know what you want - something they can reward with an acceptance offer!

Q:  Any pitfalls or mistakes an applicant should be aware of as they apply to your program?  

In terms of schools for religion, not all theological/divinity schools are the same. Don’t be deceived by the names. Harvard Divinity and Yale Divinity are miles apart in terms of their ethos, missions, and resources. Make sure that you really know the personality of each school and the details of each degree program before decided to put in all the work of applying! I think another mistake is that most people think that pursuing a masters at a top institution will be expensive. The reality is that many of these religion schools designate much of their funding the financial aid in order to provide partial or full tuitions scholarships for students! In a way, religion is an academic gold mine for funding!

Q:  Why did you apply to your university and program? What other universities and programs were you admitted to?  

I originally applied to Yale because I wanted to do a dual-degree masters program there in religion and public health. While I did gain acceptances to both the Divinity School and School of Public Health there, I unfortunately did not receive funding for the public health degree, which required me to drop it. That being said, I still chose to attend Yale because 1) I received a full-tuition scholarship from the Divinity School, and 2) I could take courses from all other schools at the university, which gave me curricular flexibility and creativity. Other schools that admitted me were Harvard (Divinity), Columbia (Public Health), and Vanderbilt (Divinity).

Q:  What are the common career paths for graduates in your field?  

Honestly, I don’t think there is any one career path for students who attend programs in religion! Some of my classmates used their knowledge to apply to PhD programs, attend law school, work for the U.S. government or the United Nations, and start their own non-profits. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and drive!

Q:  What aspects of the campus culture are your favorites? Which aspects surprised you? Which would you change if you could?  

Graduate and professional student culture is great at Yale! Most other graduate students I met were really down-to-earth and relatable. I hardly met any that were overly pretentious, yet all were brilliant in their own ways! If I could change anything, I wish the university had more opportunities for students of various schools to interact more regularly. It is too easy for graduate students to get silohoued into their own niches and not meet students from other disciplines. I was able to mingle with others students through my involvement with the graduate student government, the Yale Senate, on campus, something I would highly recommend!

Q:  What is your favorite fun fact about your university? Any special events or traditions or legends?  

Yale is old. Really old. It was founded in 1701, which was before the United States officially became a country! That being said, the university has a huge alumni network with people do all kinds of interesting work. I am still only learning about how to make use of this resource.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]Yale is also rich. Really rich. It has an endowment of 27.2 billion USD, making it one of the wealthiest universities on Earth! What this translates to for practical graduate students is one very important thing: funding! While every school at Yale will differ in how they use their endowment funds, most often any student can use it to do research, travel to conferences, go abroad for language learning, get great financial aid, and so on. If Yale has given me any gift, it is the gift of opportunity through monetary provision.

Q:  How did you spend your summer vacation during university? Any advice for making the most of summer?  

During the summer between my two year masters program, I traveled to Indonesia in order to 1) continue learning Bahasa Indonesia and 2) work as an intern with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Because I was proactive in applying to funding, I was able to get grants from the Council for Southeast Asia Studies and the Divinity School. This allowed me to live comfortably and to truly make the most of my summer in working with refugee students in Jakarta. [Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]My advice is to always plan out your timeline for funding and to make the connections you need with professors that can support whatever projects or work you wish to do!

Q:  What makes you smile? Share more on a favorite hobby.  

Traveling makes me smile. Not because of the luxury or the curated instagram photo opportunities. When I travel, I really enjoy engaging with a culture so different from my own that it forces me to rethink my own intuitions of what is “normal” or acceptable. I like being challenged to have an open mind and to just observe and listen to others world views.

Q:  Why are you excited to mentor Dyad Scholars?  

I’m excited to work with students to share the valuable admissions knowledge that I have learned from my past experience in applying to graduate programs in religion and public health. This process is one that isn’t limited to these disciplines, but also is applicable to all programs in the humanities, social sciences, and others that require the GRE exam. I’m also ecstatic about the opportunity to engage with students in overcoming intercultural and international barriers as well as reexamining ways in which local worldviews can be used as powerful assets in constructing an applicant narrative. In other words, I’m excited to help you tell your story on your terms so you can pursue your passions wherever they may be in the world!