The Religion and Philosophy Department has a long history of encouraging research-intensive senior capstone projects that comprise both traditional thesis work and less traditional, creative projects. It is always a pleasure to celebrate our students’ work, and it’s gratifying that their work runs the gamut from very fine traditional projects, like AJ Beran’s thesis that won the thesis award in Philosophy this year, to the kind of creative project for which Ashley Mendez was honored with the thesis award in Religion. Ashley’s project was especially compelling, not only because of the quality of her research and biblical exegesis, but also because she incorporated two arts: sculpture and poetry.
Ashley Mendez completed her double majors in Worship Ministry and Youth and Family Ministry at the end of fall semester 2019. Then she headed to Iquitos, Peru, for a two-month internship, a time of discernment in preparation for her anticipated commitment to two years of service with Restoring Sons and Daughters ministry there.
She returned to Ohio, as scheduled, on February 29, planning to return to Iquitos in May. After the relative isolation of Iquitos, where she had limited access to the internet, Ashley was rapidly acquainted with COVID-19 within a short time, including the news of Americans who had been stranded in Peru when the borders closed.
“I went from one world with no knowledge of COVID-19 to one where everyone is anxious – so difficult, so surreal!” Now she is working with hazardous duty pay as a manager in a local food store, and looking forward to the time she can take up that two-year contract and return to work with young people in Iquitos – students whose goals include education beyond middle school and exploration of possibilities beyond their local community.
Ashley describes in excited tones the richness afforded by her own liberal arts education at Capital University. Throughout her four years, she regularly took courses in studio art and creative writing, as well as in religion and in the Signature Learning program, and “in the end, those [fine arts] courses tied into my major.” Her creative and effective integration of sculpture and poetry into her capstone project in the Religion and Philosophy Department was affirmed when the department faculty awarded Ashley the 2020 thesis prize in Religion, including a $300 monetary award, for “Room Makers: Giving Voice to the Voiceless.”
In the departmental thesis seminar during fall 2019, Ashley researched and reflected on the biblical accounts of three women: Deborah, Hagar, and the Levite’s concubine. She wrote a traditional essay based on her research, and in addition wrote a poem and created a sculptural piece describing each woman’s experience. When one of the ceramic pieces fractured during firing, Ashley reconstructed it, appropriately – given her subjects’ fragmented experiences –using a Japanese technique in which gold dust is applied to the repair medium, honoring the object’s history, including breakage.
Remembering with appreciation her Yoga and Philosophy course with Professor Emeritus David Belcastro, Ashley describes herself as a “reflective person,” who values the courses she took that were formative of her own personhood, where “you process what you’re going through, [in a way that is] formative to what you’re doing,” in her case, preparing her for ministry work. She noted that she particularly appreciated professors like Brian Hurt (English), who stayed in touch and welcomed conversation even though he knew she would not be completing a major or minor in Creative Writing.
When the time arrived to choose a focus and methodology for her senior project, Ashley shared with Professor Joy Schroeder, her advisor, an interest in using art “to process biblical texts and communicate [that analysis] to others in a way that would be more accessible than typical scholarly presentations,” while still grounded in the academic rigor she had learned in Schroeder’s classes. To her delight (and surprise, perhaps), “Dr. Schroeder was, like, go for it!”
In the departmental thesis seminar during fall 2019, Ashley researched and reflected on the biblical accounts of three women: Deborah, Hagar, and the Levite’s concubine. She wrote a traditional essay based on her research, and in addition wrote a poem and created a sculptural piece describing each woman’s experience. When one of the ceramic pieces fractured during firing, Ashley reconstructed it, appropriately – given her subjects’ fragmented experiences –using a Japanese technique in which gold dust is applied to the repair medium, honoring the object’s history, including breakage. Ashley describes her pleasure at rediscovering the value of art as important to biblical scholarship, even “in the midst of all the [more typical] reading and writing.”
How does all of this tie into Ashley’s work with the young people of Iquitos?
“I have a big heart for education,” she says. Hoping to support young people in looking beyond their immediate needs, Ashley is now completing advanced training in teaching English as a second language, which she will use to help prepare teenagers in Iquitos for university studies, even medical school. Commenting on the desire of many of these young people to study and then perhaps pursue careers in the United States Ashley says she encourages them also to consider how they can serve their home communities. She notes that her own family came to the U.S. from El Salvador, and “I know that the American dream can be deceptive.”
Internet service is minimally available in Iquitos, so Ashley stays in touch weekly with her colleagues using WhatsApp. She reports that the hospitals in Iquitos are now badly compromised by COVID-19 cases, and it’s difficult to predict when she will be able to return to start her two-year commitment. But she’s added the monetary portion of her thesis award to her savings and is looking forward to the future.
“I’m basically optimistic,” she reports with a smile.