A Religious Awakening: Princeton's Hispanic Theological Initiative Helps Latino Doctoral Students Launch Careers as Religion Scholars

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For now, Elias Ortega-Aponte's doctoral dissertation--"Raised Fist in the Church! Afro-Latino/a Practice Among the Young Lords Party: A Religious Humanist Model for Radical Latino/a Religious Ethics" is a work in progress but it got the attention of some publishers at the American Academy of Religion, where he spent a weekend in late October shopping his manuscript and looking to land a faculty post.

Ortega-Aponte, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary, knows that the Young Lords Party, a decades-old former turf and street gang turned social movement, has been a neglected topic by Latino scholars of religion and theological ethicists but that has made him more eager to bring his scholarship to the academy. For Ortega-Aponte--a self-described Afro-Puerto Rican who earned degrees in communications, continental philosophy and divinity on his way to the seminary--and other Hispanic doctoral students in religion, and in particular Latin American and Hispanic religion, the academy can be a lonely and complex place to navigate. He is the only Hispanic student enrolled at the nation's largest Presbyterian seminary.

But since 1997, Princeton Seminary's Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI) has helped doctoral students like Ortega-Aponte build community and succeed in launching their careers. The HTI is the only academic program of its kind that brings together Hispanic doctoral students and is ecumenical, multi-ethnic and multi-denominational.

Students who participate in HTI represent a consortium of 18 academic institutions, including the Graduate Theological Union, Drew University and the University of Notre Dame. They come to Princeton at various phases of their doctoral and postdoctoral work in religion, Biblical studies and theology. They take classes, attend workshops, work with mentors and editors but earn degrees from their home institutions. This year, nonprofit Excelencia in Education recognized HTI for its efforts to increase access and opportunity for Hispanics at the graduate level.


"The need for an integrated plan to help Latina and Latino students is evident when you study the changing demographics and religiosity of our culture," says HTI Director Joanne Rodriguez. "The U.S. Census projects that Hispanics will represent more than 20 percent of the U.S. population by 2020. They will represent nearly 25 percent of the college-age population by 2025. Yet, as of 2008, only 19 percent earn a college degree."

The deficit grows more glaring in religion's faculty ranks where only 3.5 percent of professors at schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) are Hispanic. At HTI, increasing the number of Hispanic faculty is an important result. "When I started teaching in the United States in 1969, there was not one other tenure or tenure-track Latino professor at a Protestant seminary in the country," says Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez, former executive director of HTI, noting there are now more than 136 Latina/o professors working in ATS-accredited schools.

Of HTI's national Excelencia recognition, Gonzalez says, "I didn't think this success would happen so rapidly."

HTI counts 69 graduates. Ninety percent of students who enter HTI are ordained, and the majority enter the academy after earning their doctorates, Rodriguez says. One alumna is Dr. Mayra Rivera Rivera, a constructive theologian and former chemical engineer who joined the faculty of Harvard Divinity School in July. …


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