Vineyard Community Helps Produce an HDS Graduate

Janet Holladay, a 25-year resident of Martha's Vineyard, applied to Harvard Divinity School from a hospital bed five years ago, while she was waiting for a bone-marrow transplant to treat her non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "It was my way to say, 'I'm going to align myself with a different way of living if I recover,'" she recalled recently.

Holladay had the transplant, which proved to be successful, as did her application to HDS, but she decided to defer her attendance for a year to recover her health more completely and to raise much-needed tuition money.

"I had this wrong impression that if you got into graduate school, grant money would be readily available, but I was turned down for several grants," Holladay said. Thinking she might not be able to pursue her dream of attending HDS after all, Holladay shared her dilemma with her friends. Much to her surprise, two friends—Susan Phelps and Nelia Decker—told Holladay, "We'll just have to try to raise this money ourselves!"

"They wrote this community fund-raising letter, and we sent it out to every connection we could think of, most of them on the island," Holladay said. Soon, the letter yielded enough funds for Holladay to begin the MTS program at HDS, and over four years, more than 150 donors have raised $45,000 to support Holladay's education.

"My congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha's Vineyard, was a big part of the supporting group, but there were many others," Holladay said. "People I don't even know heard the story and donated money."

Holladay found the support so touching, she says, that "I used to cry every time I told this story." But, by the time she graduated from HDS this June, Holladay had come to feel that, in addition to writing personal thank-you notes to her donors, the best way to thank them was "to bring what I learned in the 'big city' back home, to do what I can to help there."

She had already started doing just that. Last year, she did a field-study placement with the UU Society of Martha's Vineyard, followed by a field study at a hospice on the island. What's more, Holladay will help to open an ecological field studies site on the Vineyard starting this summer at the Native Earth Teaching Farm. She explained: "It's a small-scale farm and farm stand, and will provide a summer placement for an HDS student. Healing the earth is really important to me, too, and that connection with the earth is part of what makes living on the Vineyard so special."

At HDS, Holladay was, by necessity, on the "slow plan." She took four years to complete her degree rather than the usual two, because she continued to work at her day job as a book designer and commuted back and forth from the Vineyard the entire time. "I did all my reading and writing on the boat and the bus," she said. "I was usually working so hard, I didn't even see who was on board!"

Holladay said she ended up being interested in "the philosophy, science, and religion intersection," and also took "some of the practice pastoral counseling, life of prayer, and Unitarian Universalist education courses," which allowed her to experience "the two ends" of what HDS has to offer: the philosophical and the practical.

Holladay believes her graduation from HDS is a tribute to her donors. "For them to have confidence that this recuperating sick person can go up to Boston and do this work, I truly feel we did it together," she said. "People there [on the Vineyard] were always interested in what I was doing and asking me about it, which kept it out of this narrow, ego-centered, 'just me' sort of place and ended up expanding my own experience."

"The kind of support I've received, when I was sick and recovering, and to help me fulfill this dream, is one part of small-town living that you don't always have in other places," Holladay said, making her forever grateful that she decided to move to the island one summer after graduating from Smith College (and she has never left!).

"I feel so lucky to have my roots somewhere and have a community. Everyone should have a small town, in whatever way they can."