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Department: Religion

Wilkerson Religion

Keith Wilkerson ’97

Senior Program Coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Region, A Better Chance

Exploring new realms

When I first made the decision to attend Princeton, I was sure that I was going to be an English major. I had always dreamed of reading the great works of literature—from Shakespeare to Dickens to Faulkner—and being able to discuss them in a community of scholars. But after I took my first classes and read the course guide to select which I would take next, I found myself gravitating toward classes in the religion department. My religion classes were definitely not the easiest on my roster, but they caught my attention and made me want to learn more about differing ideas about religion in the world.

I’d come to Princeton with a clear sense of what I wanted to study and my own personal religious beliefs, but my religion classes tested me in both of those areas. “The New Testament and Christian Origins” taught me to read the Bible with a more critical eye, and learning about the African American religious tradition from Professor Albert Raboteau gave new context to my view of the African American experience. From “Introduction to Islam” to “The Problem of Evil,” each class took a familiar concept from the world of religion and forced me to think “outside of the box”—to look at the ordinary in an extraordinary way.

As I told friends and family that I was going to major in religion, they were often confused. They thought that this meant that I had made a decision to go into the ministry or that I was planning to attend seminary after Princeton, but my decision wasn’t precipitated by thoughts of a career in religion. Instead, those religion classes became a gateway to exploring other ideas that I felt passionately about in new ways, including my love for education.

A calling to give back

During my senior year, I took a class called “Educating a New Majority” to complete my certificate in African American studies. At points, the discussion matter suggested that there were innovations in education that were taking place outside of the mainstream school system that could impact students profoundly enough to make a difference in their educational experience. Those evening discussions in that classroom in McCosh, my experiences with community service at Princeton, and my newfound way of looking at the world around me led me into a career in the nonprofit sector. I wanted to be a part of reshaping the experiences of other students in ways similar to how Princeton had transformed my own thinking.

As the senior program coordinator for the mid-Atlantic region for A Better Chance, I am responsible for providing educational opportunities for middle- and high-school-aged students of color that will allow them to occupy leadership positions in America. To accomplish this, I work with 70 private and select public schools and more than 200 families across six states. Each day, I have a chance to expand the minds of some of our nation’s brightest students, challenging them to take their assignments, which often threaten to seem mundane, and to explore them critically, think about them differently, and apply them in life-changing ways. It’s not a career in religion per se, but it is a job that allows me to do something of such value that I can believe in its inestimable worth.