Ria Van Ryn ’02


Ria Van Ryn has strong beliefs about religion:  that commonality is much stronger than faith differences.  As a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, she works with young teens of different faiths in an effort to bring them together before religion has a chance to drive them apart.

By Donna Parker

In the nine years since Ria Van Ryn graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and religion, she’s earned a master’s in religion from Vanderbilt University and is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina.  Along the way, Ria has discovered her purpose in life—bringing children of two opposing faiths together.

Ria, who teaches undergraduate courses at UNC while finishing her degree, also conducts workshops for middle school kids who are of both the Jewish and Islamic faith.

“At the beginning of the workshop, they wanted to talk about their separate faith differences.  That is not a problem easily solved.  Instead, I encouraged them to see the similarities in their religions and their shared values,” explains Ria.

“Being young teens, they latched on to pop culture and quickly began asking who was on ‘Team Edward’ (from the Twilight movies) or who had seen the latest Harry Potter movie,” laughs Ria.

“They talked on Google chat about musical artists—who liked Eminem and who didn’t!  I certainly did not predict that they would uncover all of these similarities.”

Ria loved the workshop experience so much that she sought and obtained a grant from UNC to continue her work with the seminar Befriending a Stranger and Caring for the Orphan, which concentrates on shared Muslim/Jewish values.

“I still study both religion and sociology and actually Trinity was instrumental in furnishing the methodology tools in sociology to research religion.  It provided that framework.”

“I found Trinity to be the perfect balance of challenge and empowerment.  There was always something new going on, causing me to push myself, but with a consistent network of support.”

“In fact, both of my advisors, Randy Nadeau (department of religion) and Meredith McGuire (department of sociology and anthropology) are now colleagues!”

“Trinity was the first place I’d been where I found people interested in things I was interested in.  Let’s face it—there aren’t a lot of scholars of religion in high school,” Ria jokes.

“The first time I was in one of Meredith’s classes and realized she had written a book, I was so excited.  There were only eight of us in that class, which nurtured participation.  I’ve tried to bring that to my classes at UNC, but with 40-50 students per class, it’s difficult to implement that model.”

When Ria isn’t working with students, she trains for marathons.  She’s run 13 so far.  She does travel a lot for work and takes the chance to run in each new city, providing herself new paths for exploration.

She describes herself as enthusiastic, compassionate, and driven, particularly when it comes to her work.  

“Now that I’m involved in my community schools, I never want to leave.”

You may contact Ria at:  Ria.van.ryn@unc.edu

After reading this story if you feel strongly about any Trinity alumni who the Alumni Office should profile in future AlumNet issues, please submit your suggestions.  We are looking for suggestions in these four categories:  1) recent grads, 2) grads who innovate, 3) grads in business, and 4) grads who serve the world. Feel free to nominate yourself if you fall in these categories. -- AlumNet Moderator