From REL Undergrad to an Air Force Major: Learning to Analyze and Construct Arguments

Smiling man in beige coat standing before rolling hills
Maj. Rhodes Berry near his home in Germany

Within the study of religion undergrads are told that you can apply “these skills” anywhere, but
what exactly are these skills? Maj. Rhodes Berry, an alumni of our department was able to
apply the reading, writing and critical thinking skills learned in his undergrad to his work in law
school and now in his profession.

Maj. Berry graduated in 2010 from the University of Alabama with a major in Religious Studies
and a minor in English. He always enjoyed reading and philosophy so Religious Studies
naturally drew him in when he first came to college. While here he was involved in the Religious
Studies Student Association (RSSA) and even considered doing an MA in Religious Studies.
Eventually he chose to use his undergrad degree to tackle law school, attending the University
of Mississippi.

Maj. Berry gave one example of how an approach to history and scholarship that he learned
about through Religious Studies forever changed the way he understood studying and analyzing

“My junior year, Professor Bruce Lincoln presented as the Aronov Lecturer. Professor Lincoln came to my seminar where we discussed that any written history is itself an act of storytelling—a story that has a particular perspective (with the use of certain connotative words) and is told to reach a preconceived conclusion. This idea forever affected my studies because it emphasized that when I read history (or any other scholarly piece), the writer typically has a particular perspective and conclusion they want the reader to reach. This encouraged me to be skeptical and to critically think about what perspective a writer has (and the words they use) or what conclusion they want the reader to reach.”

He now works as a “JAG” (Judge Advocate) for the US Air Force, at the rank of Major. He will
read, analyze and interpret various cases that can range from prosecution of a military member
that had violated the law to advising government procedures. He mentioned in his interview that
his undergrad in Religious Studies has been essential.

“My Religious Studies degree was critical in my career as a lawyer because my degree taught me how to write coherently, concisely and persuasively. Law school is about your ability to understand and convey abstract thoughts (Religious Studies students: sound familiar?). When providing feedback on a writing assignment or oral presentation, Professor McCutcheon would explain “you have to take the reader/listener with zero knowledge about a subject from point A to point Z.” I think of this comment every time I present my opening statement to a jury because I will have worked on a case for months and the jury is sitting there with no knowledge about the case. These skills I learned at the Religious Studies Department are critical now in my representation of the U.S. Air Force.”

Maj. Berry has been able to adapt what he learned in his undergrad as a Religious Studies
major to success in law school and now a successful legal career. Throughout his interview for
this article, Major Berry gave some advice to current undergrads. Remember to be prepared for
class and focus on being the best person you can be daily. Develop your brain and critical
thinking skills in college, and you should be prepared to enter into a challenging world.

But what does this have to do with Religious Studies?

As Maj. Berry explains, the Department of Religious Studies prepares students for a wide-range
of situations. In his classes, he learned to evaluate texts analytically, whether they are scholarly
arguments or texts that people identify as religious, recognizing that any author or text comes
from a particular perspective. He learned to think critically about the structures and systems that
inform our knowledge and perspectives. And, he learned to write persuasively, considering the
position of the audience and how to move them forward. All of these classroom experiences
provide the vital skills that have enabled him to succeed in law school and in a legal career in
the Air Force.

This post is part of a series that highlights the range of accomplishments that students in
Religious Studies achieve while at the Capstone and in their lives after graduation. We all hear
questions like, “What are you going to do with a Religious Studies degree?” As this series makes
clear, the skills that students develop in Religious Studies, including critical thinking, interacting
with diverse viewpoints, social analysis, and the ability to communicate to multiple audiences,
contribute to a broad range of activities and careers.