Jessica Williams is a fellow with Memorial University’s School of Graduate Studies. She currently holds her Bachelor of Management from the University of Lethbridge. Her current thesis is on the religion of tarot and she recently presented her findings at the Popular Culture Association American Culture Association national conference. Jessica is an avid tarot user and teaches tarot around the St. John’s area.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?
I had been in HR management for ten years, and I needed a career change. I decided to attend Memorial because of the folklore program. Before I could do my masters, I had to do some courses to boost up my GPA. I enrolled at Memorial do some more humanities and social sciences. So I started as an undergrad and developed my critical thinking and writing skills. I had heard that Memorial was a smaller university and that I would not get lost in the crowd. That was true. I did not get lost in the crowd. I love the smaller class sizes - they perfect for me.
What drew you to explore religious studies originally?
While doing my courses in folklore, I found that I had a profound interest in belief studies. During my upgrading, I participated in the folklore department’s Harlow program. My material cultures project was on tarot cards, and it was through that process that I decided to study the history and current belief around tarot. As I learned more about the religious studies department, I switched my focus from folklore to religious studies and applied to the program and was accepted.
Can you tell us a bit about your current projects?
My current thesis is on the religiosity of tarot. I am doing an ethnographic study. By interviewing actual practitioners, I found that many of them religiously approach tarot. Stepping outside the colonial idea of what religion is, I am looking at contemporary religion and how that looks in our post-modern world. By doing this thesis, I have had the opportunity to meet with and talk to many practitioners from around the world who have shared their passion for tarot.
A supervisor can be key to the success of any grad student. What does your supervisor bring to their role as your advisor and mentor?
My supervisor is Dr. Jennifer Porter. She is definitely playing a role in my success. She is a wonderful resource to bounce ideas off of and keep myself on track. She has been my biggest cheerleader when I feel like I can’t keep going. Dr. Jennifer Porter is aware of my capabilities and keeps pushing me to be at my best. My supervisor is not the only one working with me; the entire religious studies department has been helpful, supportive and approachable. Even though writing your masters is a solo project, there is a group effort of support to see me to the finish line.
How does studying in the humanities and social sciences affect your worldview?
Studying in the humanities and social sciences have shifted my world view politically. I have come to realize that there are extremists on both sides of the political spectrum. I have learned that life is a series of grey areas that is larger than I can comprehend. I have learned to listen, and to speak, and to hold my ground when necessary. Concerning my personal skills, the most significant shift has been in my critical thinking. I look at issues and problems by listening to others, reading and researching before responding on a topic matter. Lastly, studying in this field has assisted me in understanding written communication better. Writing is one of my weakest skills due to my ADD and dyslexia. Doing this thesis has provided me with a great foundation with writing - understanding how to link ideas together in the written form is not as easy as one would think!
What, in your opinion, is one thing Newfoundland and Labrador could do to make the province more attractive for young people and/or immigrants?
Newfoundland and Labrador could make the provide more attractive for young people and/or immigrants, or even other Canadians by allowing this province to be more accessible. Put efforts into developing the economy in niche areas, rather than focusing solely on resource extraction and making the middle-class population larger, so there are opportunities for young people and immigrants and Newfoundlanders themselves. This issue is not 'one size can fix all.' The approach requires the assistance of many different groups, so everyone has a chance to participate. We need the older generation working with the younger generation, so there is an understanding of the deep rich cultural history that exists here in Newfoundland. There is a balance required to preserve the values of previous generations while embracing the new changes that are brought in with young people and immigrants.
Are you involved in any organizations on-campus or off? If so, can you explain and detail such involvement (and how it might relate to your studies)?
I am involved in other organizations off-campus. I belong to the new age community in the St. John’s area. We get together for mediations and discussions about spirituality and experiences that people have. It is in this group that I have taught beginner tarot classes. This group is a very fluid group of warm-hearted people that help keep me grounded. They are interested in what I am learning, so I can share openly my thoughts and how things are linked together. They are equally interested as I am in understanding religion differently. We will get together for mediations and focus on developing our intuitive skills. As being a member of this community, it does impact my studies, as I am researching contemporary religion from an emic point of view. The interaction I have with the new age community provides additional insight into what scholars say about contemporary religion. I work full time as well, so to relax, I do enjoy playing characters in the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons at the geek bar on Sunday.
What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?
I like being a grad student at Memorial because of the resources I have access to on campus. I have to shout out to Dr. Patricia Dold, who has worked very hard to make sure that the graduate students have a place to be able to work. The grad room in the religious studies department is like my second home. The professors in the religious studies department are so supportive, and that is one of the best things one can hope for as a graduate student.
What do you hope to do after completing your graduate degree?
When I graduate from Memorial, I do hope that I will have the opportunity to do my PhD. However, I am considering applying to the University of Amsterdam for their one year MA program in Western Esoteric studies. I have not thought too much about what I will do in the future as my thesis is not complete. Almost there, though.