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ASU graduate uses religious studies degree to understand world politics

Madeleine Steppel photographed in a multi-colored button down shirt, wearing dark glasses.

Madeleine Steppel

April 24, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Madeleine Steppel enrolled at Arizona State University, joined Barrett, The Honors College and spent most of her freshman year online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In fact, one reason why she chose to attend ASU was because of the ASU Online infrastructure, though she was eventually able to move on-campus.

During her first year, she quickly realized her interest in religion and decided to explore her interest by changing her major to religious studies with a concentration in religion, politics and global affairs. Not long after, she learned of the certificate program in political history and leadership and decided it would fit well with her interests and future career goals. 

Steppel earned many awards including the New American University Provost’s award, Steve and Margaret Forster Memorial scholarship, Northwest Federal Credit Union Financial Awareness Network scholarship, Palo Verde Republican Women’s Club scholarship and the Program for Political History and Leadership scholarship.

She was also the president of Olami at ASU, the Jewish heritage chair for Alpha Epsilon Phi and a board member for College Republicans at ASU.

We caught up with her to talk about her time at ASU as she is graduating this spring.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: When everything became related to how religions interact in the world, religious studies became the place to be. I have wanted to become a defense attorney specializing in First Amendment law the entire time I have been in college, but it is only through my time in religious studies that I have realized I actually want to focus more specifically on religious freedom law.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I have learned so much while at ASU, mostly from experiences interacting with my fellow students and professors. Probably the most important thing I learned, though, is that there is no perfect definition of religion, it comes down to personal experience for each individual. No two people have the same exact background, and thus each person comes to the table with their own perspectives that are informed by this belief or lack thereof. Therefore, being able to explain one's thoughts and actions, as well as acting in accordance with one's morality, is a primary objective of life in society.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU for a variety of reasons. Barrett is the best public honors college in the country, so that was a very strong pull. In my college search, I visited about 30 colleges. ASU is one of the few universities I visited that consistently ranks "green" on the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression's free speech rating system, and as someone who loves being involved in politics, this was important to me. In addition, there is a great Jewish community on campus here. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: The political history and leadership program's capstone seminar involves writing a 20-page research paper. At the time I took that class, I had just turned 19 years old, the longest paper I had ever written was eight pages, and I had never written a serious research paper. I was terrified of this essay that was supposed to take me all semester to write, because I know that I am prone to procrastination, especially on big assignments. By talking with affiliate Michael Kenny and Professor Donald Critchlow, who co-taught the class, they reassured me that by breaking the assignment into smaller sections, I would be fine. Now, I am finishing writing my honors thesis, and I have been much better about breaking this large paper into smaller sections in order to not overwhelm myself all at once. Big things can easily become smaller ones with some strategy and planning.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you would give to students?

A: Talk to your professors. I get that office hours are scary, so it does not always have to be during then. Simply walk up to your professor before or after class and talk for a few minutes. Believe me, they want to get to know you. Also, one of the best ways to elevate a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation from "good" to "wow" is by simply finding a free, themed template online that relates to your topic. Suddenly, even with the same text, the whole thing looks better, and you feel more professional when giving the presentation. Finally, do not underestimate the power of a community. For me, this manifested in my engagement with the Jewish community, but it does not have to be a religious one for everyone. Just because you can spend only class time on campus does not mean that you should. We have thousands upon thousands of students at ASU and hundreds of clubs. Your people are here. You just have to find them.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I meet my friends at the Memorial Union at least a few times a week. Normally, because the weather is so nice here in Arizona, we are able to sit outside and enjoy each other's company under the shade of the solar panels above. Sometimes, we will meet up inside, especially upstairs on the comfy chairs outside the ballrooms.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be getting a master's degree next year, but I am still figuring out where and in what. As of now I have been accepted to the MA in Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Uppsala University, Sweden. I am waiting to hear back from a 13-month dual-master's program, during which I would earn an MA in conflict resolution and Mediterranean studies from the University of Malta, as well as an MS in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University. I should be finding out soon what my admission results are for that program, so until I know I cannot decide which program I will attend.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: With $40 million, I would try to tackle the problem of political polarization for Gen Z and younger generations. Perhaps this would come in the form of public service announcements and ad campaigns, but most of the money should be used for education efforts in having effective conversations with people with whom one disagrees on fundamental topics. I would focus these sessions on middle- and high-school students, because I have noticed that by college many people's minds are made up, especially now that social media reaches younger and younger children. America was built on the idea of tolerance of opposing opinions, yet as a society, we have moved away from that in recent decades. As the leader of the free world, the diplomacy and peace-seeking of countries halfway across the planet depend on American positions. If the U.S. is to continue as the opportunity-driven meritocracy it was intended to be, the problem of intolerance of opinion must be stopped in its tracks as soon as possible at all levels of society. This does not just affect my generation, or even Americans as a whole, but instead every single person around the world.

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