Jackson Foster is a religious studies and history double major with minors in both the Blount Scholars Program and the Randall Research Scholars Program. A junior from Fort Lauderdale, FL, he recently interned with the research division of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an independent federal agency focused on advancing the humanities.
How did you choose your major? What sparked your interest in the field?
I will admit that the route to my current majors was rather circuitous. In fact, I originally thought I was going to attend the University of Miami for a dual degree program (BS-PhD) in biochemistry and molecular biology. Of course, the hard sciences intrigued and excited me, but I did not feel ready for that path: six difficult years of singular disciplinary focus.
And so I arrived at The University of Alabama — as a declared, but uncertain, chemistry major — with the express goal of exploration. Luckily, the first week of my freshman year, I received an email from Dr. Peacock, the director of undergraduate studies for the history department. Therein, she offered to meet anyone interested in double-majoring; I immediately set up a meeting with her, and the day of, I was a budding historian.
A few months later, as I finished my introductory STEM courses, my enthusiasm for titration, molar masses, and derivatives waned. Knowing I wanted two humanities degrees, I sent a cold email to the religious studies department; Dr. Altman, the undergraduate head, got back to me quickly, astonishing me with his passion for the field. I owe much to Dr. Altman, as he connected with me at an unsure period of my life and assured me that my academic desires — to study religion, to (more generally) understand people — were worthwhile.
To sum, then, within my first semester, I had switched from chemistry to history and religious studies, diving into each fully from there.
What do you like about studying history and religious studies at UA?
In short, I enjoy studying people and the ways in which they represent themselves. Fortunately, both departments — religious studies and history — tackle questions to these ends, and do so with criticality, reflexivity, and humility. Moreover, the professors in each are driven, inquisitive, and passionate about representing different voices from different contexts and times.
What I love about religious studies particularly is how it challenges the category of “religion,” demonstrating the history, power, and rhetorical stakes behind the term. In class, we often incorporate atypical examples of “religion” — Alabama football, for instance — to push the boundaries of our inquiry, as well as to form new cross-cultural and -temporal comparisons. And such comparisons — especially as they relate to stories humans tell about themselves, their community, and their destiny — are thrilling. History is similar. I am concerned with the narratives we tell about our past, and in what manners (if any) they shine light on the present. Like E.P. Thompson, a famous English historian, I always seek to “liberate” the people constrained by our distance from them (with respect to time, geography, and context).
Simply, I cherish the opportunity that these disciplines provide: to reanimate lives and to empathize with them — their needs, wants, tragedies, and triumphs.
What are your career goals?
I have a few career goals, and I am not sure I can select between them at the moment. A portion of me would enjoy taking the professorial route, but I recognize that the market is quite saturated and the jobs few and far between. (Having discretion in this regard may be the better part of my valor.) I am also deeply passionate about carceral education in juvenile settings. To have a child in a detention center (or prison, for that matter) is to concede that our social systems have failed them; nevertheless, they deserve to commune with their surrounding environment, society, and nation — the sort of feeling a robust, humanistic curriculum creates. Building off these beliefs, then, I might pursue social work and/or public interest law (concerning prison reform and abolition).
Talk about any career-related experiences you’ve had. How did you find these opportunities?
My favorite internship experience was with the Research Division at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an independent federal agency formed to advance the humanities in the United States. I discovered this opportunity first by browsing the internet, and then via a helpful mass email sent to undergraduate history majors.
At the NEH, I spent 10 months reviewing and managing countless grant applications, each a project that could help the public better understand their world and themselves. I also interviewed public scholar award recipients, whose books are designed to limit jargon and reach non-specialists. These tasks demonstrated the significance of the humanities broadly, and of engaging unexposed audiences. I had so many rewarding, informal conversations with the NEH’s bright and generous staff, too. This dialogue, I think, would be hard to replicate in institutions other than the NEH, which is full of folks who have given much to their work and the citizens they serve.
What surprised you the most about college?
This is a tricky one. My freshman year, I was quite surprised by how — and this will sound cliche — everything seems to happen both all at once and never at all. It is, in other words, overwhelming to both experience a period of rapid change — the world appears to spin twice as fast — and to complete mundane, routine tasks.
College is, for most, the first time you have full possession of yourself: the entire world will open up to you — new scholastic avenues, new professional concerns, etc. — and, meanwhile, you will need to cook, clean, develop healthy habits and routines, and (most importantly) have fun (“adulting,” as my parents called it). This tension, however intuitive to me in theory, certainly caught me off guard in practice; and it still does to this day, of course (as Pope says, “to err is human”).
How did you make friends and find community on campus?
I was fortunate to be a member of two organizations that rapidly shrunk the UA campus. The first, the Randall Research Scholars Program (RRSP), consists of only 40 students per graduating class; so, almost automatically, my fellow RRSP students became my community — and, indeed, family. In fact, a good deal of my closest friends now are from Randall’s; and this is much the same for the Blount Scholars Program, though its numbers are slightly larger.
Outside of these programs, I met people in my courses whose perspectives and ideas intrigued me, and with whom I have shared lots of enriching conversations since. Clubs were helpful as well. I was introduced to kindred cricket-lovers through Tuscaloosa Cricket Club and other historians through the Crimson Historical Review (one of the university’s undergraduate scholarly journals).
All this said, the real key to creating a community — to me — is to discover groups (or activities) that shrink the large campus environment into spaces that are more navigable, not to mention rooted in your aims and interests.
What advice would you give to incoming students?
Like most incoming students, I struggled my freshman year; and, especially in present times, with the contingencies surrounding the covid-19 pandemic, I fear that my advice will not be particularly germane.
Nonetheless, I suggest that new college students set for themselves two simple goals: find (1) something you like and (2) some people you like. Albeit understated, these aspirations kept me from feeling swept away by the changes, stressors, and challenges of my first semester — and prohibited me from comparing myself to my peers. I trusted that if I succeeded in these the rest would solve itself, catalyzing a rich overall college experience.