Twenty-two days of January have come and gone, and the best thing that happened was that I was increasingly sure of something. January 6 was the turning point. When the chaos at the US Capitol ensued, I began to reconsider my decision to apply to four universities in the States. I almost withdrew one of my applications, and I decided to keep the process going to its inexorable end.

As of this writing, the schools have not told me anything related to my applications, and it may be that in February and March, the schools might confirm my worst suspicions. I can do nothing concerning their decisions if it does not go the way I hoped; there is no room for appeal or reconsideration.

However, at least four or five people have already told me in some form that it would not be a good idea to be in the US right now. These are friends whose advice I value and who I trust. The political and social situation is somewhat uncertain, even if a new president is in office.

People like me, who are foreigners, are in a sensitive position, to say the least because there will still be racist and xenophobic tendencies that manifest themselves sometimes in subtle ways. I may be lucky to be going to corners of the country that may be more tolerant, but one never could tell.

I want to think that the waiting will have to continue. This wait happens even if my best option is elsewhere, and I am preparing for it to come to fruition. The best option is in another part of the world, namely Europe, and it is at the Katholieke Universitet Leuven in Belgium, just twenty minutes away from Brussels. I applied to it in November, and in December, the university accepted me for the prosaically named Research Master: Master of Advanced Studies in Theology and Religion.

The Research Master degree, as its name suggests, is research-oriented, and one requirement is to write a 40,000-word maximum thesis. From its structure and function, it is preparatory to the research-only Ph.D. program and analogous to the coursework phase in the North American Ph.D.

I chose to pursue this degree program on the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies admissions officer’s advice. She told me that this is the degree they often recommend for those new to the faculty and who want to pursue a doctorate.

One of the things that make this time of waiting crucial is where we are right now outside of the political chaos. In a pandemic, anything different can happen. An online forum poster told me that, pre-COVID, it was possible to get accepted to a doctoral program in the US without being interviewed, particularly if one either met with a faculty member or visited the campus. I do not think that it is possible anymore, except with the former.

I mentioned last time that the SOP was critical. That is still true. However, one bit of advice I have often received is to get in touch with faculty at the school rather than apply cold. In every instance where I have applied in North America, I contacted one or more faculty members. In two cases, someone agreed to supervise me. One of them did so with the proviso that the admissions committee would still have to accept me. It was, he added, a challenging program to enter.

His last statement is a fair and honest thing because it is somewhat reassuring that it would not reflect on me if I do not make it. I am reminded of the advice I got at the AAR-SBL meetings in San Diego more than a year ago from a senior administrator at a theology school I was applying to, and it was reassuring in the end. A competitive program means that the chances are high.

I want to keep my options open in the end, and a professor at another university urged me not to write myself off. I want to keep a sense of realism about the process, knowing when I should give up and when not to, but I want to believe that there are other options.

However, given the way things are in the US, it is probably the best thing to head for Europe at this point. Since the last application cycle, the option has been there, and I did not opt to apply then. Now that I did, this option is available. If nothing happens between now and mid-February, I think it will be a good idea to prepare for it.

I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I am preparing to do so. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

P.S. Yes, I know there is xenophobia and racism too anywhere. That is a consequence of the Fall that needs to be addressed.

Ren Aguila is a writer, independent researcher, and theologian from the Philippines. He recently completed his MA at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.