Listen: Alumni Discuss How Study of Religion Benefits Their Work

Earlier this month, Swarthmore’s Department of Religion invited three alumni to return to campus to share their experiences with entering the professional world with a religion major.  Speakers included CBS News broadcast associate Dina Zingaro ’13, foreign affairs officer Martha Marrazza ’09, and nonprofit program manager Lauren Cardenas ’12, with Professor of Religion and Islamic Studies Tariq al-Jamil as moderator.

Zingaro, a broadcast associate at 60 Minutes and the CBS Evening News, cited 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt in explaining that the job of a television journalist is to find people to tell a story better than the broadcast staff. She credits her religion major with helping her find people who can tell their stories well. Zingaro also shared three anecdotes regarding how her study of religion has benefited her as a journalist. She recalled a press conference on ISIS during which CBS aired an incorrect definition of Sharia law. Zingaro immediately emailed al-Jamil and together they put together a more accurate definition for the show. Zingaro also described her time covering the 2016 election in Ohio. There, she spent time with steel workers who, after previously voting Democratic, voted Republican because the steel plant at which they worked had experienced severe cuts, and many of the workers had to be retrained at a local community college. Zingaro empathized with the men on their loss of their sacred space—the steel plant. She also discussed an encounter with two evangelical women, one who loved President Trump and one who hated him, and noted that both women could defend their choice for president using their religion. 

Marrazza described her professional trajectory after Swarthmore. She worked for a congressman on immigration, received a master’s degree in refugee studies from Oxford University, worked in Kenya in refugee resettlement for two years, and currently works at the State Department Bureau of International Affairs. Marrazza noted that religion came up all the time during her work in Kenya because it is one of the five grounds of persecution that can determine refugee status; as a result she met many people fleeing religious persecution. She also saw how religion can build community, because when individuals resettle they often seek out people of the same faith, as well as how religion can be divisive, as religious taboos still existed in refugee camps. She explained how her background in religion prepared her to approach different cultural traditions with an open mind; for instance, some families she met practiced polygamy but regarded it as an issue of safety because single women were often not safe. Marrazza describes religion as “an incredibly relevant lens.”

Cardenas discussed her work with non-profits such as Planned Parenthood and her current role at the Posse Foundation in Los Angeles, an organization that sends talented high school students to top colleges with full scholarships. Cardenas detailed her research on spirit possession at Swarthmore and during her semester abroad in Vietnam, describing her studies as a useful background for her current work. A career program manager for high school students, Cardenas finds the same fundamental questions she discussed in her classes and research at Swarthmore returning in her conversations with her students. She also sees aspects of religion in her job and often thinks about how to create rituals that contribute to a healthy work environment.

The panel ended with questions from the audience. Zingaro, Marrazza, and Cardenas described the generally positive reactions they receive when their colleagues learn they studied religion, and expressed gratitude that their families accepted their choice of major at Swarthmore. “I feel very privileged that I had their support and could study what I love,” Marrazza said.