From the Fall 2018 edition of Skylight.
Bill Zangeneh-Lester is a man with a mission: a mission to bring the GTU’s model of interreligious and interdisciplinary engagement to the 30,000 students at American River College (ARC), a community college in Sacramento. Even as he completes his GTU dissertation on the topic of interreligious learning in civic spaces, Zangeneh-Lester is already putting this scholarship into action as chair of the Department of Humanities and Religious Studies and director of the Honors Program at ARC, where he has taught since 2015. In the process, Zangeneh-Lester is furthering the impact of the GTU’s work to expand interreligious
dialogue and understanding, while also creating a path for other GTU students and recent graduates to teach in this culturally diverse college community.
Understanding the central role that religion has played in shaping culture and history around the globe, Zangeneh-Lester has invited GTU PhD students and MA graduates with diverse religious and scholarly backgrounds to teach classes in the humanities, give guest lectures, and participate in panel discussions at American River College. The impact of the GTU scholars’ presence at ARC extends beyond the students in their courses. For example,
when the Muslim student group on campus organized a panel discussion, “A Bigger Table: Abraham and Hospitality,” GTU doctoral student Susan Aguilar (Historical and Cultural Studies of Religion, Center for Jewish Studies) and graduate Daniel London (PhD ’17, Christian Spirituality) joined Zangeneh-Lester and a local imam to discuss the commonalities of the Abrahamic faith traditions before a packed room. In addition to Zangeneh-Lester, Aguilar, and London, three other scholars from the GTU have taught classes at ARC: Rania Shah (MA ’16, Center for Islamic Studies), Cogen Bohanec (doctoral student with the Center for Dharma Studies), and Daniel Moceri (doctoral student in Interdisciplinary Studies).
As department chair, Zangeneh-Lester has created and grown a program at ARC that recognizes the significance of the world’s religions in shaping the humanities, at a time when programs in religious studies are being closed or cut at other colleges and universities. With 55 percent of all current undergraduates in the U.S. attending community colleges, the program could also build valuable connections to the GTU in terms of future recruitment. “Students go on to Stanford, Columbia, and Yale after attending ARC,” Zangeneh-Lester said. “Why not the GTU?” Zangeneh-Lester himself is a product of community college, having attended Sierra Community College in Rocklin, CA. He pursued his teaching at American River College with the support of his GTU advisors Fr. Eddie Fernandez (GTU/Jesuit School of Theology) and the late Ibrahim Farajajé (GTU/Starr King School of the Ministry). “There’s no such thing as a standard path in the community college world,” he said. “At ARC, over half of the students are the first generation in their families to attend college; 60 percent are from historically underserved and underrepresented groups, mostly working-class folks.”
“The students at ARC are varied in terms of age, ethnicity, and religious background, but they are all very interested and curious to learn, receptive, and responsive,” said Susan Aguilar, who taught “Introduction to World Religions” at ARC as a summer intensive and is teaching it again this semester. “You’re not just teaching fact-based content, but religious literacy. You really get the opportunity to foster interreligious dialogue, to think critically about what you see in the media and become an educated and informed member of the community. This fosters respect and curiosity about other faith traditions.”
One of four colleges that make up the Los Rios Community College District, American River College is home to a diverse student community. Students come from all over the globe and from many cultures and faith traditions. The local area includes the largest group of Afghani refugees in the country, as well as many Russian Protestants. Other than English, the most common languages heard on Los Rios campuses are, in this order, Urdu (Pakistan), Farsi (Afghanistan and Iran), Arabic, Russian, and Spanish. No matter where their students came from or what, if any, religion they practice, Zangeneh-Lester and his colleagues from the GTU see firsthand the huge need for education that enhances interreligious understanding.
Daniel Moceri believes religious literacy is particular important in the current political environment. Moceri acknowledges the sensitivity required to be an effective educator in the ARC community. “Alongside the more ‘conventional’ recent high-school graduates, we also have students from populations that are typically underserved: combat veterans, those returning from incarceration, recent immigrants, displaced workers, along with working adults from lower socioeconomic locations seeking professional advancement,” he said. “Bill [Zangeneh-Lester] understands these complexities and values innovative pedagogy, diverse viewpoints, and the creation of a safe classroom environment. As someone who is very concerned with justice issues around identity, I am grateful to be teaching at ARC and hope that my work contributes towards increasing harmonious and compassionate relations.”