Donatus Nnani is a religious studies and psychology senior from Detroit, Michigan. He spent more than 5 years in the United States Army prior to his studies, serving as a crew chief and squad leader. After arriving at UT Austin, he became a Mellon Engaged Scholar Initiative Fellow. This spring he was named a 2021 Dean’s Distinguished Graduate, one of only 12 liberal arts students honored each year. He plans to pursue his doctorate in religious studies at UT Austin. In this Q&A, read more about his time in the military and his undergraduate research experience.
What did you learn from your time serving in the military?
My time in the military was transformative, educational and taught me about serving causes greater than yourself.
Who made the biggest impact on your life while serving?
A non-commissioned officer by the name of Brence Burden. The time I spent with him was when the idea of the military being a family finally registered for me.
What drew you to your majors of psychology and religious studies?
I have always had a strong desire to understand and help others. I think my attraction to psychology was fueled by an intense curiosity about human nature and what shapes it. My interest in religious studies came about due to my time working as a teaching assistant in Dr. Donald Becker’s philosophy course at Austin Community College.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned at UT?
The most important thing I’ve learned at UT is the value of engaging opportunities as they are presented to you. So much of what I have managed to achieve results from pursuing different opportunities, even when I felt I wasn’t necessarily good enough.
Tell us about your role as a student researcher and data analyst with the IC² Institute.
I’ve been researching how COVID-19 has impacted rural communities and all the places you tend not to hear about in national discussions.
How are your spending your time with the Engaged Scholar Initiative?
I’m learning how to marry academic scholarship and research with genuine community service.
What is your undergraduate thesis about?
My undergraduate thesis is about the complex and dynamic relationships involving religion, society and the economy in the Texas Hill Country.
How was the writing process?
Enjoyable would be the first word that comes to mind. The thesis was my first time doing that particular brand of academic writing. Additionally, it deepened my relationship with my faculty advisor and mentor, Dr. Chad Seales.
What are your goals for your professional life?
I would like always to have some involvement in academia. Professionally my goals are still evolving and changing. Looking back over the past year, it feels like every time I have made a significant achievement, another door for a potential career has opened.