When it came time for Malcolm Foley to decide where he wanted to pursue a doctoral degree in religion, his impressive academic background presented him with many good choices. With baccalaureate degrees from Washington University in religious studies and finances, as well as a Master of Divinity degree earned at Yale, the Rockville, Md., native could have easily moved on to one of the prestigious universities in the East that his colleagues suggested –– Notre Dame, Harvard, or maybe Yale again.
But Foley surprised those well-meaning colleagues when, after much study and thought, he chose to earn his doctorate in theology at Baylor University. And the factors that brought him to Waco from Yale are some of the same ones that have been transforming graduate education at Baylor during the past two decades.
Bigger and Better
Baylor has offered graduate degrees since 1891, and in the fall of 2017 the university enrolled 2,743 students in graduate and professional degree programs –– 637 of those in the College of Arts & Sciences.
“We have 34 master’s programs and 17 doctoral programs in Arts and Sciences, and we expect to grow all of those in the future,” said Dr. Lee C. Nordt, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.
The number and size of Baylor’s graduate programs –– and the quality of its graduate students –– have grown significantly in the past 15 years, largely due to the emphasis on strengthening research and graduate education contained in the university’s recent long-term strategic plans –– Baylor 2012 and the current plan, Pro Futuris. For example, GRE scores for incoming graduate students at Baylor have improved by more than 60 percent since the two strategic plans were put into effect.
Among its goals, Pro Futuris challenges Baylor to approach the profile of Carnegie Foundation’s Research Universities with “Very High Research Activity” by adding master’s graduate and professional programs and increasing the number of doctoral degrees awarded each year, including degrees in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines.
“As part of becoming a top tier Christian research university, graduate program education is critical to the achievement of goals articulated in Pro Futuris and affirmed in the College of Arts & Sciences’ strategic plan, A&Spire,” Nordt said.
“It has taken a lot of time, effort and money to build Baylor’s graduate and professional programs to their current levels, and we still have a way to go,” said Dr. Larry Lyon, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School. “However, if we take our vision of becoming a great Christian research university seriously, that is what we must do.”
But the expansion of opportunities to do high-level research is not the only reason increasingly better-qualified graduate students are coming to Baylor, as a quick survey of students demonstrates.
Malcolm Foley: Changing Direction
As he considered doctoral programs in theology, Baylor was not on Foley’s radar until one of his Yale professors came to Baylor to teach.
“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life, and so when he went to Baylor, I thought maybe I should consider Baylor,” Foley said.
During his interview at Baylor, Foley immediately sensed the university and the academic program were different from others where he applied.
“I’ve found this to be totally true in the years that I’ve been here –– Baylor has a different collegial environment, especially in the religion department and the study of the history of Christianity,” he said. “I have friends at other institutions that feel like the atmosphere is more cutthroat, and I get none of that here.”
After the interview, Foley knew Baylor was the place he should earn his doctorate in theology, but then came a twist. “One of the church history professors called me and said, ‘we actually want to take you as a church history student’,” Foley said. That was not a problem.
“There are a number of significant resources for American religious history at Baylor,” he said. “Widely recognized scholars in American religious history are here.”
As Foley pursues a doctorate in the history of Christianity, he plans to focus his dissertation on the church’s resistance to and justification of the lynching of African Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“For the past three to four months I’ve just been kind of stewing in those materials,” he said. “It’s been an intense few months.”
Foley has lectured in some Baylor classes, and in his fifth year he will teach the Christian Scriptures and Christian Heritage classes that all students must take.
“The fact that I’ll have this opportunity to shape the kind of scholarly narrative that these students are going to come into contact with when it comes to scriptures, Christian theology and the history of Christianity –– I’m humbled by it and also excited,” Foley said.
Elise Leal: A New Perception
“Oh, you got your bachelor’s degree here at Baylor and you’ve just stayed on, right?”
It’s a question that Elise Leal heard regularly after she arrived at Baylor for graduate school. But her answer was, “No, I came from somewhere else and intentionally chose Baylor for my graduate work.”
Leal, who is at Baylor pursuing a PhD in history, was president of the Baylor Graduate Student Association from 2015 to 2017. Born in Austin and raised in Georgetown, Leal earned a BA in communication studies from Regent University in Virginia. When her interest shifted to history, she went to Texas State University to get her masters degree.
Leal’s perception of Baylor as an institution focused on undergraduate education changed when she began looking at whom she might study with in pursuit of her doctorate.
“Honestly, growing up so close to Baylor, it was a bit of a perspective shift for me when I started to think of Baylor as a research institution or a place for graduate school rather than the school that used to have a bad football team,” she said. “When I was considering PhD programs I was looking first and foremost at the different scholars I could study with. I knew I wanted to do something on 18th and 19th century America and I knew that Dr. Thomas Kidd at Baylor was one of the leading scholars in that field. At that time I didn’t even realize how much of a big deal he was, but I knew he was important.”
Leal had kept Baylor near the bottom of her list because it was so close to home, but a visit with Kidd and the graduate program director, and exposure to all the resources that would be available to her, pushed it to the top.
“I let myself admit that Baylor was my top choice,” she said. “In applying, that’s when I started paying more attention to Baylor’s mission and Pro Futuris, and I saw in the history department this very sincere, very intentional push for research and the desire to start a top-notch graduate program.”
Baylor’s PhD program in history is relatively new, and Leal is in the third cohort to be admitted, with the first group of history PhDs graduating this year.
“In that sense I knew I was taking a bit of a risk with a young PhD program, but the sincerity of the commitment to the research mission that I saw in the history department and also the graduate school helped outweigh that risk,” said Leal, whose dissertation concerns how the Sunday school movement was started and its impact on children in the church.
Beyond the classroom, Baylor has exceeded Leal’s expectations.
“It’s been more than academics. It’s been community of a kind that I’ve never seen before in academic settings,” she said. “Baylor has helped me grow as a whole person. It’s been a very holistic experience, which is more than I would have hoped for from a PhD program.”
Elias Oziolor: In Search of Good Science
Elias Oziolor wanted to know how fish overcome the impact of pollutants, and he traveled all the way from Bulgaria to Baylor to find the answers.
“I knew I wanted to do science, and the state of science back home is not up to par,” he said.
Oziolor began his academic journey at DePauw University in Indiana because he wanted a small liberal arts college experience at a university with a strong biology department. With only 2,400 undergraduates, DePauw was a good fit and gave Oziolor a BA in biology and biochemistry.
“My senior year I got an email from the Baylor Department of Environmental Science advertising open positions, and Baylor was the only school I applied to,” he said. Oziolor soon paid a visit to Waco and spent time with his potential major advisor at Baylor, discussing what his studies would look like and what expectations would be placed on him in the program.
“I chose Baylor mostly because of my advisor, Dr. Cole Matson (assistant professor of environmental science), and the quality of research that he did. The level of support the university gives to graduate students also helped my choice,” he said. That support included, among other things, a graduate stipend.
“I was oriented towards the medical field beforehand, but I chose to study evolutionary toxicology at Baylor,” he said. Evolutionary toxicology is a subset of environmental toxicology, and Oziolor’s dissertation looked at how Gulf killifish populations have evolved to resist the negative effects of industrial contaminants in the Houston Ship Channel.
“Baylor is definitely up and coming in environmental toxicology and has incredible promise in building a program that is one of the best in the country,” said Oziolor, who received his PhD in environmental science from Baylor in August 2017. “This can only come with investment into the department.”
Jacob Robinson: The Personal Touch
Jacob Robinson, who earned his second Baylor degree in August 2017, said the personal and collaborative nature of his graduate school experience allowed him to discover his true calling.
Robinson, a Burnet native, first came to Baylor to earn a BA in film and digital media in 2012. In his undergraduate studies, he concentrated on cinematography and the more technical aspects of filmmaking. After graduation he spent time as a freelance cinematographer, and also worked for a year in Baylor’s Department of Spiritual Life. But when he felt the need to get more training in cinematography, he returned to Baylor and enrolled in the MA in Communication program, with an emphasis on film.
Soon after beginning his graduate studies, Robinson found that he had incredible access to his professors.
“Because there were only three of us who came in at the same time in the masters program in film, the professors were able to say, ‘Jacob, what do you want to do? Let’s sit down this week and talk about this stuff.’ I could talk to multiple professors about that,” he said.
One of his professors helped him find a summer internship through the Baylor in New York program, which allows both undergraduate and graduate students to get hands-on experience through internships in the Big Apple. Robinson spent two months one summer in New York City working with a special effects cinematographer and his wife.
“Whenever they had a big shoot in the studio I would help them. And getting to meet and talk to writers and directors on the sets was helpful for me,” he said.
As he continued on in the masters program, Robinson found that his experiences in class and his talks with professors helped him acknowledge a growing feeling that the technical aspects of filmmaking were not what he wanted to study.
“My professors were really helpful to say, ‘Do you like this? Maybe you should try that instead. You seem to be into writing –– maybe you should try writing a project,’” he said.
Robinson explored his passion for writing and found that he was most interested in becoming a screenwriter and playwright, as well as a director. He changed his plans, and the flexible and interdisciplinary nature of the program allowed him to affirm his new focus.
“There’s a lot of freedom in the master’s program to shape what you want. So, I was able to take two classes in the theatre arts department and focus more on the history and theory of directing in a theater setting, and I was able to do that because the program is so open,” Robinson said. “It’s focused on what you want to do, and it shapes the program around that.”
Lyndsay DiPietro: Baylor All the Way
While Baylor wasn’t Lyndsay DiPietro’s first choice for either her undergraduate or graduate studies, it has proven to be the best choice every step of the way in her chosen field.
DiPietro, a PhD candidate in geosciences who will graduate in December 2017, came to Baylor as an undergraduate from Frisco, when the university offered her the best scholarship. “I’d been hoping to get out of Texas for college, but Baylor just made the most sense financially at the time,” she said.
As she worked toward dual BS degrees at Baylor in geology and anthropology, both of which she completed in 2011, DiPietro began considering her career options and decided that graduate school was the best step to take next.
“The kinds of jobs you can get with a bachelor’s degree in either field weren’t what I was looking for long term,” she said. “Aside from that, I’ve always enjoyed school, so graduate school seemed like a logical next step.”
DiPietro narrowed her focus to geology, and was advised by graduate students and professors in the field that choosing a location wasn’t as important as choosing an advisor and a program. She was also told that a different school might offer her a fresh perspective.
“With that in mind, I started looking for schools that had strong terrestrial paleoclimate research groups and projects that had some sort of archaeological component,” she said.
DiPietro sent applications to SMU, Rutgers, the University of Utah, the University of California, Davis and the University of Arizona.
“The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that Baylor has one of the best terrestrial paleoclimate research groups in the country and that, if I were an undergrad anywhere else, I would have applied here, so I wound up sending an application to Baylor as well,” she said.
While waiting to hear back from SMU and Rutgers, DiPietro got an acceptance letter from Baylor, and said it just felt right.
“My current advisor, Dr. Steven Driese, was someone I really wanted to work with, whose work I respected,” she said. “I liked Waco, the department is extremely close-knit and everyone has a great working relationship. In terms of research it was a good fit. Socially I was already really happy here and felt like it was somewhere that I could really grow as a person and a scientist, so I accepted the offer. The geosciences department at Baylor also has great funding for its grad students, which helped the decision along.”
Full Speed Ahead
As Baylor continues to work toward achieving the goals outlined in Pro Futuris, and as the College of Arts & Sciences completes the acts of determination found in A&Spire, each will carry forward plans to strengthen graduate education because of the value it adds to the university –– and to the world.
“Baylor is a university that proudly claims its Protestant, free church heritage while offering more than 60 strong masters-level degrees and 40 nationally competitive doctoral-level degrees,” Lyon said. “No other university can make that claim, and in the final analysis that’s why we devote resources to graduate education.”
“Improving graduate education and research will always be a priority for the College of Arts & Sciences,” Nordt said. “After commencement, our graduate students leave here and make an impact on society by assuming key leadership positions in academia, industry and government. They join our undergraduates in flinging the green and gold far and wide across the globe.”
This story appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine