To Jennie Wilber ’17, interfaith and intercultural dialogue is important as a means to understand other people and build empathy across cultural boundaries. With its diverse group of immigrant and refugee communities, Utica is an ideal place to study intercultural interaction. Wilber is doing just that this summer through an Emerson Foundation grant. She’s working with the Interfaith Coalition of Greater Utica (ICGU), a group that aims to build relationships across diverse cultural, ethnic and religious traditions, and studying the unique work they do in the community. Her research advisor is Visiting Instructor of Arabic Mireille Koukjian.
Interfaith dialogue has always been important to Wilber, and it’s something she’s participated in actively for years. She said that growing up, her family “stressed service as part of our belief in the humanity of all people.” While in high school, she joined a program called Walking the Walk that brought youth of different faith traditions together to share their experiences and perform community service together. Later, as a Hamilton student, she worked as an intern at the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia with support from Hamilton’s Summer Internship Funding.
Major: Interdisciplinary Studies
Hometown: Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
High School: Downingtown High School West Campus
Her passion for interfaith dialogue has also helped to shape her major. Wilber began as a religious studies major, but she soon realized that she wanted a stronger emphasis on studying the Middle East. She was able to design her own interdisciplinary major incorporating courses in Arabic, religious studies, government and politics, and peace and conflict at Hamilton and Colgate University, and additional studies in colloquial Arabic, intercultural communication, and development while studying abroad in Amman, Jordan with CIEE's language and culture program.
Wilber believes deeply in the importance of interfaith communication. She explained, “The more we learn about other people, the easier it becomes to shed stereotypes, increase empathy, and, in a religion-specific sense, appreciate others’ connection to the divine.” These connections can help people to avoid extremism and to create more empathetic communities. Wilbur noted, “Employing these methods in smaller communities is just one step in a larger process that can bring the world and its people into deeper connection and deeper appreciation for one another.”
This summer, Wilber is focusing on understanding how one organization, the ICGU, is employing interfaith dialogue. She is interviewing ICGU members, attending the organization’s meetings, and speaking with directors of similar interfaith centers. From these interviews, Wilber’s creating a video that explains interfaith in Utica and explores the work that ICGU does in the community. She is also writing a report for ICGU’s executive committee, which she hopes will help them to expand their coalition and their community involvement.
Wilber plans to build on her research in a senior thesis on youth in interfaith communities. She also hopes that in the future, she’ll be able to work in a non-profit with an interfaith focus, similar to the ICGU, so that she can continue contributing to “the beauty and healing that interfaith dialogue can generate.”