DU Alumni

DU experience takes alumnus to Oxford for debate, master’s degree

Gabe Rusk, who had been a member of the DU debate team, in March opened for the opposition in a religion-themed debate at the famed Oxford Union. Photo courtesy of Gabe Rusk

Gabe Rusk, who had been a member of the DU debate team, in March opened for the opposition in a religion-themed debate at the famed Oxford Union. Photo courtesy of Gabe Rusk

After graduating in 2014 with dual degrees in philosophy and religious studies, Gabe Rusk returned to the University of Oxford — where he had studied abroad during his time at DU — to pursue a master’s degree in religious studies. In May, Rusk, who had been a member of the DU debate team, opened for the opposition in a religion-themed debate at the famed Oxford Union.

The University of Denver Magazine caught up with Rusk to talk about his days at DU, his interest in religion, and how he came to be part of the debate at Oxford.


Q: What brought you to DU originally?

 A: I was born at Porter Hospital and grew up in Washington Park, so DU had always been a space that I knew intimately and had grown to love. When I was a tour guide for DU, I always dropped the joke that since I was born in Porter Hospital, I had seen the University six blocks away and decided I’d come back 18 years later. My parents both worked in the DU admissions department in the 1980s. While they eventually left, my mother returned to the University a few years ago and works in the Burns School now. Given all this background, DU was always in my purview. I loved the size of the departments/classes, the campus was beautiful, and we had an up-and-coming debate team.


Q: What events or individuals at DU had the biggest impact on you?

A: There were three consequential moments for me at DU. The first was joining the debate team in 2010. At that time we had about four or five active members and a master’s student as a coach. The team now exceeds 35. The debate team offered me a scholarship and a chance to travel. The style of debate we did was called British Parliamentary, which meant we would debate American universities but international universities as well. It transformed the way I wrote and processed information. I had done debate in high school for years, and after winning the national championship in 2010, I couldn’t live without it.

The second most consequential moment at DU was my choice to randomly take a class on the Quran. I was a philosophy major at that point and hadn’t thought about religious studies. I wanted to take a course to meet a prereq, and it fit the bill. Andrea Stanton’s class changed my world. There were only four or five of us in the class, and I came to love studying religion after that. I declared myself a double major a month or two later.

That third consequential moment came when I studied abroad for a year at Oxford. I fell in love with the institution and vowed to come back for my master’s. I came back in fall 2015 and will graduate this summer with a master’s degree in religion.


Q: All three of those consequential moments came together in April, when you took part in a debate at Oxford, with religion as the topic. Can you tell me more about how you became involved with the event?

A: While at Oxford, I got involved with student government. I was elected graduate officer for international students and was elected a LGBTQ access officer at Oxford Union. Due to my leadership role and work in religious studies, I was afforded the opportunity to lead one of our famous debates. It was one of the best nights of my life. The topic for the debate was: “This house believes religion remains the opiate of the masses.” I was lucky enough to have a myriad of friends and peers give comments on the speech as I researched and wrote drafts. This includes one of my greatest friends, Cam Hickert (BS, BA ’16), DU’s president last year and my former debate partner. The prep involved taping a few practice speeches and sending them to friends — and a lot of sleepless nights trying to parse the best ways to convey a simple message on a partisan topic. After the debates finish, the chamber votes on the motion by going through a door: One door says aye and one door says nay. Out of the 450-plus members in attendance, we only lost by 20 or so votes. Our bench called that a success.


Q: You just received your master’s in religious studies from Oxford at the end of July; what’s next?

A: I hope to teach religion at a community college for a year upon graduation and then enter law school in the fall of 2017. After law school, I would love to join the civil rights team in the Department of Justice or the solicitor general’s office. I want to serve the U.S. in some form in our great and vast judiciary or judicial system. I really believe in those words etched in stone above the Supreme Court: Equal Justice Under Law. In that sense, my interest in religious studies overlaps well. Law and religion usually interact in the sense of liberty and expression. How can we best ensure that religious pluralism and religious liberty flourish in a Western democracy like our own? I wrote my dissertation on how we balance protecting religious liberty and religious pluralism with the law. I sincerely want to protect liberty of conscience, be it for a Buddhist, atheist, Christian or Muslim. They should all be able to participate in our laboratories of democracy without fear of rebuke. The law helps defend those rights, either in abstraction — like in research and scholarship — or in action, with litigation. As it happens, the best schools along this intersection are the University of Virginia, Stanford, Harvard, and Yale. Stanford even specifically has a religious liberty clinic. We will see how the admissions process goes this fall.



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