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Research on the Road with Pilgrims


A religious studies course about pilgrimages plus boundless curiosity propelled Estella Brenneman ’20 on a 300 mile trek across Spain. Here’s how it happened.

After taking “Sacred Journeys” at Hamilton, first-year student Brenneman couldn’t stop asking herself questions about millennials who go on pilgrimages: How do secular millennials interact with historically spiritual pilgrimages? How do they use technology as pilgrims? How does that influence their experience?

Which prompted her advisor, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Seth Schermerhorn, to ask her why didn’t she find a way to conduct a summer research project to answer her questions? Light bulb. “I hadn't even considered that before,” Brenneman says. “And he led me to all of the resources that I needed.” She received a grant from Hamilton’s Levitt Center to spend the next summer in Spain researching the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. That meant making the trek to talk with pilgrims and walking some 300 miles, which is more than half the route.

Estella Brenneman '20

Major: Religious Studies

Hometown: Wellesley Hills

High School: Wellesley High School

More about Hamilton

The experienced shaped Brenneman and her studies in many ways. “Coming back to Hamilton I think it just made me more intensely interested in religious studies and made me want to explore how religion has historically shaped and still shapes our social identities. I like learning about people, and I like learning about religions, so this was the perfect major," says Brenneman, who will present her pilgrimage research at an American Academy of Religion conference in Montreal.

Now a junior, she spent her fall semester in New Mexico in a Native American studies program that focused on the Pueblo Indians. As part of the program, she worked as a teaching assistant at a school for Pueblo students. “After doing that I was able to apply for a job as a teaching assistant/program developer in Ecuador this summer,” Brennaman says. She’ll work with a nonprofit to develop English-language programs for children and adults and help with fundraising and grant-writing.

Brenneman chose Hamilton in part because she liked the sound of the religious studies courses offered by the college. The decision paid off for her. “The professors here really do select courses that are are truly interdisciplinary and appeal to so many different students,” she says. “Religious studies, I think, by nature is really interdisciplinary because religion influences so many areas of life — like economics, politics, gender, history, art history. It influences everything, and so there is something for everyone.”

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