Six years ago, Vanessa Lourdes Lipa had an epiphany.
For more than a decade, she had worked in the supply chain management industry in the Philippines. Lipa, who had studied electronics and communications engineering in college, helped develop hair products for two global fast-moving consumer goods companies: Unilever and L’Oréal. She was also a devout Catholic since childhood—or so she thought.
In 2013, a colleague confided in Lipa. She told her she had decided to leave the Catholic faith.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that. [The problem was] my own spirituality … I couldn’t really say anything about it [to her],” Lipa recalled. “I only knew what a grade school student would know about the faith. I wasn’t really growing my faith, in terms of the church’s teachings.”
“And the thing is, I love my faith. I know how beautiful it is. So I started questioning myself: Do I know my faith in a way that I can share it with others?”
That conversation changed Lipa’s life. Since that day, she started to learn more about the Catholic faith—online, in books, in discussions with friends and family. In 2014, Lipa and her mother left the Philippines for a Marian pilgrimage across Europe. In Rome, she scaled the famous Scala Sancta steps—a set of 28 holy steps that Jesus Christ is said to have ascended—with her knees. At the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, she prayed to the woman from whom she takes her second name—Vanessa “Lourdes” Lipa. And at the holy Catholic shrine in Fatima, Portugal, she knelt towards a little chapel and prayed the rosary.
Lipa said the goal of the pilgrimage was to rediscover Catholicism, deepen her emotions, and appreciate the beauty of her faith. It worked.
A year later, Lipa resigned from her full-time job at L’Oréal. Instead, she devoted her days to doing research on spirituality, religious struggles, and mental health.
In 2017, she started to pursue a Ph.D. in applied theology at De La Salle University in the Philippines. Then a year into the Ph.D. program, she discovered an opportunity she said she couldn’t pass up—Fordham’s master’s program in Christian spirituality, a program abroad that would complement her studies in the Philippines
Last August, Lipa became the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education’s first on-campus student from the Philippines, made possible by a recent partnership with De La Salle University. She now lives in Jersey City with her husband via an F1 visa.
In just a semester-and-a-half at Fordham, Lipa has taken in-person and online classes on the Old Testament, spiritual direction, church and society, and theology of the human person. One of her favorite activities is reading the work of other biblical scholars and comparing it with the modern take on the Bible.
“It was a very different world when people wrote them [the Bible verses],” said Lipa, who will graduate from GRE in 2021. “We’re also reading them from a different context, and so you kind of have to really make sure—is this what they meant during that time? And learn from it as well, coming from where we are right now.”
She’s also met many non-Catholic classmates—a contrast from her life in the Philippines, a country that boasts one of the largest Catholic populations in the world.
“The Philippines is almost homogenous in terms of Christianity and Catholicism. In the U.S., there’s a lot of other denominations within the Christian tradition,” Lipa said. “I see that through my classes. I have classmates who are not Catholic. We get to share that in class, and share our experiences.”
After she graduates from Fordham and returns to De La Salle to finish her Ph.D. degree, she doesn’t know what’s next. Perhaps she’ll be a pastoral counselor in the Philippines, she said, or find a career that blends all her strengths—academics, religion, counseling, math, and analytics. One day, she wants to share the fruits of her Fordham education with her fellow Filipinos, the way the GRE dean, Faustino M. Cruz, S.M., a Filipino native, did.
For now, there’s one thing she doesn’t regret—the epiphany that hit her in 2013.
“It’s drawing me closer to God,” Lipa said.