From BA to MA: Female alumni reaching new heights with a Briercrest education

Posted: December 1, 2011

From the start of my freshman year I sensed that Briercrest was attracting top female students to its programs.

As I watched my peers venture into both Hebrew and Greek language study in the same semester or campaign for student body president, I realized I was in the presence of what some have called “one of the most rigorous groups of learners at Briercrest.”

It’s no surprise that I first met many of these women in the dormitories named after Briercrest’s own Annie Hillson and Isabel Whittaker.  Alumni continue to follow after Mrs. Hillson and Mrs. Whittaker with “lives of service” that are “shaped profoundly by the Scriptures.”  To name a few examples, I’ve seen women go on to become directors for community gardens; mothers of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (!) children; professors; nurses; camp directors; pastors; musicians; and the list goes on.

It seems timely to highlight some of our more recent “women of Briercrest” as we celebrate our 75th anniversary year, and as we continue to petition for university status. At present, a growing number of female alumni are pursuing graduate studies in public and confessional institutions.

I visited with five of these women last spring at Briercrest College and Seminary’s convocation to ask them how their undergraduate education had prepared them for further study and life in the church.

Miriam DeCock from Pincher Creek, AB, came to Briercrest to play basketball and left with a B.A. in Biblical Studies. Last fall she was one of three students from a biblical studies field to be accepted into McMaster University’s M.A. in Religious Studies program.

In a recent letter to President Dwayne Uglem, Miriam’s professor, Dr. Stephen Westerholm, wrote, “The School of Graduate Students at McMaster has (understandably) always been cautious about treating students from ‘confessional’ schools on the same level as those from provincially funded universities and admitting them directly into our graduate programmes. That no questions are raised about students from Briercrest is a direct result of the outstanding performance within our programme of students who have come from that school.”

Miriam is one of eight Briercrest alumni to receive a scholarship for study at McMaster University. She says that studying the Bible at Briercrest is how she “came to genuine faith in Jesus.”

Rebecca Tait, Miriam’s fellow biblical studies grad, is just an hour north at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) on the University of Toronto campus. Rebecca grew up in Houston, BC, where many of her Dutch relatives reside. When I asked her how it felt to be in a Master of Philosophy program, she said candidly, “I feel like telling Briercrest grads that if I can do philosophy with a biblical studies degree, you can do anything!”

It was not, however, just Rebecca’s keen sense of humour that landed her a full scholarship at ICS. Former Briercrest professor, Ryan O’Dowd, highlighted her critical thinking skills in his reference letter for Rebecca’s grad school application, and if there’s one thing that grad schools are hearing repeatedly, it’s that a Briercrest education is unique in pushing students to engage in academic study as a kind of spiritual formation. Last year, Rebecca participated in a campus ministry at the U of T that gathers students for a mid-week early morning communion service. 

Ottawa native Keltie Davidson returned to her hometown with a B.A. in Humanities, and is heading into her second year of the M.A. in Conflict Studies program at St. Paul University. The Briercrest Humanities degree has been tagged as an initiation “into the rich cultural legacy we share as human beings.” This was certainly Keltie’s experience, and while her studies at Briercrest focused on philosophy, English, and history, she says that “the great thing about a Briercrest education is that it stimulates interest in subjects beyond your program.” For Keltie, these interests have taken her around the world; in June, she completed a one-week intensive course at the University of Ulster, in Northern Ireland. Following her trip, she returned to Nova Scotia to spend another summer in leadership at Malagash Bible Camp.    

On the west end of Canada, Jessie VanderHeide is making history at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC. Jessie grew up in Nova Scotia and northern British Columbia where her father has served as a pastor for 11 years in the Christian Reformed denomination. She finished at Briercrest with a B.A. in Biblical Studies and a B.A. in Humanities. After her first year at TWU, she was awarded a scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council–one of Canada’s highest awards for graduate study–for her outstanding grades and promising research proposal concerning the history of women in America. When news spread of Jessie’s success, people began to ask how a career in research and writing would fit with her service in the Church–a key part of any Briercrest grad’s education. Jessie sees an essential relationship. “I want to bring a little hope to the academic world,” she explains, “And I want to teach young people that understanding history is central to life in the Church.”

The fifth alumnus of the group, Johannah Bird, is originally from Portage la Prairie, MB, and served as Briercrest's First Nations and Metis Coordinator last year. While she was hard at work in this role she was also busy applying to graduate programs in English Literature. She received scholarship offers to attend the University of Waterloo, the University of Saskatchewan and Trinity Western University, and also captured a spot at world-class Durham University in England. Johannah had several study-abroad experiences during her undergraduate years; she completed a semester of her Briercrest degree in Russia at St. Petersburg Christian University and travelled to Israel with a group of Briercrest students and professors in May 2009.

For now, Johannah won’t be returning overseas. She’s accepted her offer at the University of Waterloo and is looking forward to “seeing what church life is like in southern Ontario.”

So what is it about a Briercrest education that’s equipping so many students for direct entry into graduate programs at both Christian and public universities around the globe?

I think it has something to do with a Briercrest grad’s “list of things to bring” to her next destination. An extra raincoat and Lonely Planet’s Europe on a Shoe String are just two of the things on my list. I leave Calgary, my hometown, this fall to travel with Johannah to Durham where I’ll begin an M.A. in Christian Theology: Anglican Studies. However, there’s one thing I’ve packed that’s causing my suitcase to exceed the baggage allowance; my B.A. degree from Briercrest is at the top of my list and it’s taking up too much room! Four years in an environment where I was challenged to consider my area of study through the lens of Christian Scripture and tradition has shaped me and countless others for a life of service with God’s Church–a truly unique undergraduate experience.