When I was debating between attending seminary or not, my sister said, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions,” a quote often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. She meant that no matter my experience, or why I was being “called” even if it didn’t make sense, I would walk away with a completely new outlook on life. I would learn and grow in ways that I never would have imagined. As I reflect back on my first year at seminary, this has definitely been the case. From acclimating to going back to school and reading five hundred pages a week to creating a community with the Hispanic Summer Program, below are the five things I would tell myself if I were starting seminary all over again.  

“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”

1. Workload – You will be doing a lot of reading and writing. This may sound obvious, but I don’t think I quite realized how much of a workload I was taking on when I first started seminary. In my first semester, I was taking four classes and each class assigned about one hundred pages of reading. Additionally, some classes had weekly reflection papers due every week. Thankfully, during my first semester, I met with the director of the writing center who helped me create an organized schedule to stay on top of my reading. Every student has to figure out what works for them, but as a general rule of thumb, I try to stay ahead of my reading and writing by at least three days. This is not always doable, but this goal provides wiggle room for the days that I’m falling behind in my schoolwork. Lastly, on the days when you feel like your work is never going to get done, just imagine yourself 3 months from now, when you’re past this, knowing that you DID accomplish it all.

2. Stretching of the mind – Referencing back to the quote above, prepare to take in and learn a bunch of new things! Your mind will be stretched in uncomfortable ways it’s never been before, your beliefs will be challenged, and you will see things in a way that you’ve never even thought of. This growing pain may be uncomfortable, and may even be scary at times, but the knowledge that you are building is invaluable. Trust in the process and in what you are learning, knowing that by the end of it, you will have a vault of knowledge in your chosen field. The key here is to allow yourself to learn and maybe even let go of preconceived notions you may have had about a subject. You can always go back and may find yourself back where you started, but you must first allow yourself to explore the scary parts and ask challenging questions in order to come back and know where you stand. Your beliefs may also change and evolve over the course of your seminary journey and that is okay and completely normal. Something that’s helped me stay grounded is reminding myself why I started this journey in the first place.  

“This growing pain may be uncomfortable, and may even be scary at times, but the knowledge that you are building is invaluable.”

3. Be open to others’ points of view – In seminary, you will be around people who have many different points of view from your own. Just like you, they have lived their entire lives committed to their beliefs. It is important to stay open-minded without judgment. The fact that you find yourself in the same place at the same time, means that you have some similarities and maybe even a common goal. If you find someone else’s beliefs or comments challenging, first ask yourself why. And then lead with curiosity. Seek to learn and understand from them, as opposed to judging them or trying to convince them of your own views. I had the fortune of taking a class with Dr. Cornel West and the main thing I walked away with was to always lead with love. We are all in this together, so lead with love.  

4. You’re (probably) not going to change anyone’s mind – When I first started seminary, I was determined to convince people who were anti-LGBTQIA+ that queer people were not sinners who were going to hell. I wanted to go to seminary to learn for myself what the Bible actually said about queerness in its original languages, Hebrew and Greek. It took me about a week into my Hebrew Bible class to make me realize, that 1) bible interpretation is its own profession that takes years of study, and 2) how am I supposed to tell my mom that she’s been reading the bible wrong her whole life? These realizations, Dr. West’s class, in addition to other amazing teachers and classes I had during my first year, helped me see that it’s not about proving people wrong or getting them to be on your side – what’s more important is focusing on the oppressed, helping those in need, and, to my earlier point, leading with love. Some people may never come around to see things from your point of you. After taking Dr. Patrick S. Cheng’s Queer Theology class, I learned that the real work is in the doing, not in the telling. All you can do is continue putting good work out there – whatever it may be – and if someone is really interested in learning more, they will come to you.

    “How am I supposed to tell my mom that she’s been reading the bible wrong her whole life?”

    5. Prepare to be lost…and embrace it – In the past year, I have had many epiphanies and also many days of feeling like I’m on a deserted island. I’m not a person who does well without a plan. I like to know where I’m going and often make five, ten, and twenty-year plans for fun. What I realized is that I cannot do that while I’m in seminary because I have no idea what God is calling me to do next. Sure, some people go into seminary knowing that they want a PhD, or to be a pastor or a chaplain, but that has not been my experience. Technically, seminary marks my third career, my first being Social Media Marketer, my second being Actor/Director/Writer, and now Seminarian? It doesn’t make sense! But I know that somehow it will. I felt called to seminary to help queer communities heal, and in the process, I discovered that I needed healing too. Slowly, my focus has evolved from helping queer communities to helping Latinx communities, specifically with intergenerational trauma. I’m now also discovering that I’m able to integrate my past experience as a performer, to what I’m doing now by helping people find healing through embodied movement and performance. The puzzle pieces are all there, I’m just figuring out how to put them all together.    

    6. Bonus Tip: Find your community! – Seminary can be an isolating, mind-altering, spiritually-filled journey and it is crucial to feel like you are part of a community in order to stay grounded. The first few weeks of school felt pretty lonely. I was in this new chapter of my life, in a new city, trying to figure out school and my workload, in addition to being inundated with a ton of new information I hadn’t heard before. It was such a relief when I found my community in the Latinx Caucus at school. It was there that I was encouraged to apply to the Hispanic Summer Program Summer Session, as well as the Hispanic Summer Program Fellowship. These three things changed the course of my seminary experience. Latiné people make up about twenty percent of the U.S. population, but only about six to seven percent are enrolled in ATS (The Association of Theological Schools) member schools. So when I found the Hispanic Summer Program community, I finally felt seen. Words can’t even begin to describe the life-changing, spiritually moving experience that the Summer Session was, but I will definitely never forget it. I encourage every Latinx student to get involved with the Hispanic Summer Program, in some way.

    “I felt called to seminary to help queer communities heal, and in the process, I discovered that I needed healing too.”

    I hope this article helps someone out there feel less lonely or overwhelmed by their experience in navigating seminary for the first time. Have any thoughts you want to share with me? Email me at lmartinez@hispanicsummerprogram.org. If you’re interested in learning more or signing up for one of our year-round programs, head to our programs page here. We look forward to seeing you, and have a great 2023-2024 school year!

    Leslie Martinez

    Leslie Martinez

    HSP Fellow for Communications and Marketing

    Leslie Martinez is a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary getting her M.A. in Religion, where she is concentrating in Queer Theology, Biblical Studies, and the Arts. In addition to attending seminary, Leslie is also a storyteller and filmmaker having written, directed, produced, and starred in over ten projects with her production company, Supervāse Video. 

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