Philosophy and religious studies major Ryan Reisner graduated with honors this past December. On April 1 he will leave for Beijing.
How does a UW-Eau Claire student raised in Wisconsin end up on a flight to China just months after graduation? To find out, I caught up with Ryan in the weeks before his new life would begin.
Let’s start at the beginning. How and when did you end up at UW-Eau Claire?
I’m from Bayside, Wisconsin, a town of 2,000 in the northern part of Milwaukee. I didn’t know about UW-Eau Claire until the summer of 2011, just before the end of my junior year of high school. I was involved in Camp Campus, a project of the communication sciences and disorders department that allows a group of prospective college students with Asperger’s syndrome to experience campus life for a week. I chose to attend UW-Eau Claire mostly because I wanted to get away from home, but not too far. I can’t believe I didn’t realize how amazing UWEC was when I first arrived on campus in the fall of 2012.
Did you join any student organizations, or participate in other activities on campus?
I found it easy to get out of my shell right off the bat. I tried an assortment of organizations, including Philosophy Club, Horan Hall Council, the Residence Hall Association advisory board and InterVarsity. I was active with the Services for Students with Disabilities Office, where I worked with Dr. Andy Strowig, who, like a number of other faculty, exhibits an incredible personality. I also was a custodian, first in housing and then in the Davies Center, which taught me the value of hard work. I just have to say Brian Heller, Mike Lynch and Adam Kirby are some of the coolest people.
Why did you choose to major in philosophy and religious studies, and what have you learned from your studies?
Religion became an interest to me when I learned the story of the Buddha in sixth-grade history class, but I never thought I would major in it. Philosophy became an interest after reading a quote attributed to Socrates, "The unexamined life is not worth living." I actually changed my major nine times, including psychology, math, history, sociology and political science. Between the spring of my sophomore year and fall of junior year, I had some personal struggles which led me to reexamine my life. Before that, I had more or less been letting other people decide what I was going to major in. When I realized living a fulfilling life would involve doing what I wanted to do, I decided to stick with philosophy and religious studies.
I gained a particular interest in Eastern religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism) and continental philosophy (Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre). Philosophy and religion as a whole taught me how to think independently and showed me the value of freedom of thought, diversity of thought and respect for other cultures. The great part about religious studies is that it examines religion through the lens of many other fields, including history, psychology, philosophy and sociology.
I received several scholarships for excellence in philosophy and religious studies, and graduated with departmental honors in religious studies in the fall of 2016. But the highlight of my experience in the department was my study abroad experience in Nepal.
Through Dr. Manuel Lopez, I found an opportunity to study Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal, at Rangjung Yeshe Institute. RYI is situated within Seto Gumba (the White Monastery) in Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal. There are many Tibetan refugees within that area of Kathmandu, and I learned about meditation from actual Tibetan teachers. I also studied Buddhist philosophy from Western scholars and lived in a homestay with a Tibetan man. While I was there, I explored many sites that were important to both Hindus and Buddhists, such as Swayambhunath (the monkey temple) and the cremation ground at Pashupatinath Temple. The highlight of my time in Nepal was a 10-day meditation retreat at a monastery in the hills of Pharping. We spent six hours a day practicing meditation with a lama (a Tibetan teacher who’s said to be the reincarnation of a previous teacher), while remaining silent and using no technology. It really gave me a sense of how much dedication controlling the mind can require, and it was also was wonderful being detached from the world for over a week.
Was there anyone who really made an impression on you, faculty or otherwise?
My adviser, professor emeritus of religious studies Dr. Scott Lowe, was very knowledgeable on a variety of religions, and his way of thinking has been influential on my own. His class on Eastern religion in America helped solidify my focus on Eastern religion, and helped me realize I belong in the department.
Tell us about your upcoming studies in China.
I will first be going to Bejing in April to learn Mandarin Chinese. I hope to do plenty of exploring. Then, in fall 2017 I will attend East China Normal University in Shanghai to study Chinese philosophy, an opportunity I found out about from Dr. Sean McAleer, professor and chair of the philosophy and religious studies department. My research will focus on Mengzi and Xunzi’s debate on whether human nature is good or evil. I also plan to supplement my studies with continental philosophy. My goal is to go on to a Ph.D. program somewhere in the West; ultimately, I would love to become a college professor. If that doesn’t work out, I plan to use my knowledge of Chinese to find a job opportunity of some sort. I just really love the idea of teaching and researching simultaneously.
Thoughts about UW-Eau Claire?
I plan on seeing hundreds of cities in my lifetime, but none will have quite the impact on my heart that Eau Claire did. I found that the faculty here truly care about the students. The university has a number of resources, and opportunities, which everyone should look deeply into. I personally feel that this place helped me to get out of my comfort zone, as well as increase my confidence in myself. I would recommend to incoming students that they find what they love, and then major in it or find a way to incorporate it into your studies. I also recommend studying abroad — it will greatly expand your horizon wherever you go.