Karen Nelson Villanueva, alumna of the Women's Spirituality program at CIIS.
Alumni News

Karen Nelson Villanueva: From Loss Comes Life

The Wounded Healer

March 27, 2019

Karen Nelson Villanueva, Ph.D., WSE '13, is Adjunct Faculty in the Women's Spirituality program at CIIS. She also works in the University's Center for Writing and Scholarship (CWS) as a Senior Lecturer for the Academic Writing Fellows program and co-facilitates the Ph.D. Bridge Scholars program.


Tell us a little about your path. Who were you when you began at CIIS and who are you today?

My journey to the Ph.D., and later to chaplaincy, began with my mother's death in 2001. She was the ground of my being, and her death caused me to question whether I was living this short life journey for myself or to please others’ visions of who I should be. After her death, I quit my full-time job with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to focus on graduate studies.

After the sudden death of my husband, the love of my life, I completed my dissertation while tutoring with CWS and soon began teaching at Holy Names University, San Francisco State University, and the Institute of Contemporary Buddhist Ministry, as well as CIIS.

I conducted a research project at UCSF on the use of mantra and meditation to alleviate anxiety in patient care, which built upon, and put to practical use, my dissertation research: “Invoking the Blessings of the Tibetan Buddhist Goddess Tara Through Chanting Her Mantra to Overcome Fear.”

Last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer and determined to continue pursuing my dreams, so I applied for the UCSF Chaplain Intern program. I trained in interfaith ministry with some of the most wonderful people in the world. I found that my experiences of loss and grief, and my own bouts of illness, made me good at what I do; I am the wounded healer.

Who inspired you in graduate school? How were they a game changer?

I encountered Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum as she received the Serpentina Enheduanna Award for her book, Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers. She is an inspiration, and soon after meeting her, I signed up for a life-changing tour with her to Spain.

How well did CIIS prepare you for both the challenging and rewarding parts of your career?

As I reflect on my time at CIIS, I believe the professors encouraged me to get practical experience through being a Teaching Assistant and a Writing Fellow. This prepared me

to teach in front of a classroom and to meet with people in order to address their needs one-on-one, whether as a writing tutor or interfaith chaplain.

What books or music are you enjoying right now?

My current inspiration often comes from the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” produced by Vanessa Zoltan, Casper ter Kuile, and Ariana Nedelman. The Harry Potter series has always resonated with me as a sacred text. In my Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the mother is revered, and in the Harry Potter books, there is no greater magic than a mother’s love. The podcast thematically examines the books chapter by chapter and applies contemplative textual analysis from varying spiritual traditions. Any lover of Harry Potter will appreciate this deeper consideration of its themes.

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