ELKHART — Two Elkhart natives may have more reason to believe in fate since discovering that they are both in the six-person cohort of Ph.D. students at Syracuse University’s Department of Religion that will begin studies this summer.
They never met in Elkhart – at least they don’t think so – despite both attending Roosevelt Elementary School. But there is an explanation.
Sarah Nahar finished her K-12 experience, graduating from Bethany Christian High School, in 2002, while Rachel Carpenter graduated Elkhart Central High School in 2012.
Nahar did her incoming student visit to Syracuse in May, after most students had left for the summer. Carpenter, who did her master’s degree at Syracuse, had lived in the city for two years, and they both ended up at a social event supposed to welcome new students.
“I just overheard you say something about northern Indiana, and I usually don’t interrupt people, “said Carpenter. “But I was like, ‘What about northern Indiana?’”
“‘This is amazing,’ Nahar recalled shouting out when she realized someone with shared roots would be part of her small cohort away from home.
“There’s so much love for this place,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful place to be from and to come back to.”
Having Carpenter at Syracuse, despite the two not having known each other until now, warmed Nahar’s heart, she said.
Carpenter could hardly believe it when she found out, especially given the small size of the incoming group.
“It’s not even like there are 40 people and then one other person is from (Elkhart). It’s truly absurd,” she said.
The religion department at Syracuse, according to Carpenter, is like their hometown in some ways, because people there are interested in so many different aspects – rather than all being alike – while still being jumbled together in a small group that forces connections.
Nahar got her master’s degree from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart in 2011. She was a Fulbright scholar in Argentina after finishing her undergrad at Spelman College in Georgia. Over the summer, she and her husband have lived and helped out at Jubilee House, which is operated by the Prairie Street Mennonite Church and helps men transition into society after being incarcerated, she said.
Carpenter hasn’t lived in Elkhart since graduating high school but comes back to see family when she can. Then it becomes obvious how Elkhart is changing, for good and bad. It’s sad to see the lack of stores at Concord Mall, she said, but then, things are happening in Downtown Elkhart again.
“We went to a new ice cream shop, the Vanilla Bean. Very good,” she said of a store that opened on Main Street just this summer. “It’s always interesting to go through here.”
One thing tends to make the trips home a bit of a struggle.
“I suddenly have no idea how to drive, because all of the roads have been moved,” said Carpenter. “East Jackson is wild.”
Coming back is a weird blend of the familiar and the strange, she said, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that both Carpenter and Nahar ran into former teachers during the interview for this story, at The Electric Brew, which they used to know as The Daily Grind.
Both have now left town again and will begin their Ph.D. studies later this month. That will be the next five years of their lives.
It’s still way too early to say what their dissertation topics will be. First will be a few years of classes and other projects that will help shape their fields of interest and ways of thinking. But Carpenter and Nahar have some general ideas about the way to go.
Carpenter, who received her bachelor’s degree from Indiana University, Bloomington, is focused on literature and studying language and metaphors.
“What does it mean when a character is talking about prayer, but they’re not really talking about prayer, they’re talking about connecting with another human person. But prayer is the right word to use,” she said. “I think that is so interesting and very confusing.”
For Nahar, how religion has healed and created separations is appealing. She also wants to understand religions’ takes on waste.
“For many older societies, waste didn’t exist. They had closed-loop ecological systems that meant nothing is wasted, everything feeds something else,” she said. “What is away? Where is away? There is no place called Awayland.”
Nahar takes an interest in social movements and activism, and she has recently campaigned for the Democratic candidate for Elkhart mayor, Rod Roberson.
Social movements, she said, are much like bowel movements: you have got to keep the flow regular.
“So I guess I’ll be a plumber,” she said.
That could mean helping people in social movements think about how they want to be transformative.
“I definitely hope to be back here,” she said. “Or just flowing through. Pastor Andrew Kreider at Prairie Street, my home church, often said ‘Sarah, you’re on a giant rubber band with Elkhart. It doesn’t matter how far you go, you’ll just bounce right back.’”
Carpenter said the job market for people with Ph.D.s in religion is abysmal, especially in academia. She isn’t sure teaching is for her but looks forward to exploring that while working as a teaching assistant as part of the Ph.D. program.
Another option for Carpenter is publishing, and that could take her close to home.
“The Midwest has some phenomenal micro-presses. It’s a really good place for publishing houses, because a lot of communities here support local micro-presses,” she said.
Getting to challenge how readers think, or what a novel even is, are some of the ideas drawing Carpenter to that field.
“So I’ll probably end up back in the Midwest if I’m doing that,” she said.
As for matters of the present, the two Elkhart natives are still getting to know each other. When they met for the interview for this story, it was only the second time Carpenter and Nahar had spent time in the same room, but, given their small cohort, that will soon change.
“This, for me, marks something cool that is about to happen,” said Nahar.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus