Our Stories

Journeying for Knowledge

Rositsa Atanasova '07 has never been afraid to explore, either geographically or intellectually. The Bulgaria native traveled to America, first in high school, then again for college, seeking educational opportunities she couldn't find at home. She has studied eight languages, including Arabic, Greek and Hebrew, and while she was a Willamette student, she lived in France for a year to immerse herself in the country's Muslim immigrant community.

This fall, with the help of a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Scholarship, she heads to the East Coast to study for a master of theological studies at Harvard Divinity School. She sees the program as the perfect way to continue exploring the topics she embraced in her classical studies major at Willamette -- language, philosophy and religion.

"People tend to underestimate the importance of religion in our lives," she says. "A lot of our politics and conflicts relate to religion. People among the religious communities need to talk more one on one to realize they are not as different as they think."

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship program, one of the largest and most competitive in the nation, provides $50,000 for up to five years of graduate study in any field. Atanasova was chosen based on her service and leadership, interest in a broad range of subjects, strong character and excellent communication skills. She is the first person from Willamette to receive the award.

At Harvard, Atanasova plans to continue investigating Islam, a religion she researched while at Willamette. During her junior year, she obtained a grant to interview young Muslim women in France about a French law banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in primary and secondary public schools -- mainly affecting Muslim girls donning headscarves. The grant from the Lilly Project, which engages people across campus in research, service and discussion to help students discover their vocation in life, helped Atanasova make a documentary film, "Behind the Veil: A Quest for Identity."

She found that the Muslim girls faced a tough choice: Remove their headscarf at school, denying their religious and personal identity, or stop going to school. Due to difficulties in obtaining permission to interview these students, she sought perspectives from university students who were no longer bound by the law yet had chosen to wear the headscarf.

When she asked these young women whether they identified themselves more strongly as French or as Muslim, they often answered "Both." Many said they wore the headscarf because it was comforting and served as a shield between them and the world.

"Here we have an emblem that others say symbolizes political radicals, but they all had different reasons for wearing it," Atanasova says. "The fact that they said they were both French and Muslim, to me this was the clearest evidence that they're not militant. If they were, they would negate the West. Many of them said very good things about France and how it had changed their lives."

The deeply personal struggles caused by these types of conflicts between religion and public life continue to intrigue Atanasova.

"I've always been interested in identity issues, in particular the way religion shapes identity. We live in this world where cultural or physical borders become so blurry, and I want to know how that affects the way we identify ourselves."

For more information on this scholarship and others, contact Monique Bourque in the Student Academic Grants and Awards office on the third floor of Putnam University Center, or visit www.willamette.edu/dept/saga.