Although Dr Calvin Ullrich (28) does not know where his career path may lead in the future, he does know that he has to come back to Stellenbosch University (SU) one day. SU is his home, he says, even though his love for it is both “deep and complex".
Ullrich arrived in Stellenbosch from Germany a few days ago to receive his PhD degree in Systematic Theology at the SU's third graduation ceremony on Wednesday (03 April). He has to head back to Ecumenical Institute at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany soon after the graduation to continue his work as a research fellow.
This trip is but one of many world trips he has undertaken in his life, which started in Fish Hoek, Cape Town. He lived here until he was 16. “My family then moved to Qatar where I finished high school. After school, I lived in the USA for a year. In 2011, I came to Stellenbosch and started my bachelor studies in Theology."
He resided in Metanoia Residence where he later became Prim. As he continued his studies, first obtaining his bachelor's degree in Theology up till his master's degree, SU also became a physical home to him. His parents remained overseas where they were part of expat communities.
After completing his master's degree in Theology cum laude, he continued with his PhD studies straight away. This led him to Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen where he continued his research for two semesters. This was part of an exchange programme arranged by SU's International Office. In 2018, he also completed a research visit at Christ Church in Oxford, before accepting a job offer as a research fellow in Bochum.
He describes his journey with theology as motivated less by the search for spiritual fulfilment, than by the pressing nature of societies' challenges, especially in South Africa.
“I was always quite inspired by the life of faith. But I became so terribly disillusioned when I encountered certain manifestations of it – in particular, where it seemed to corrupt politics and weaken societal cohesion. For this reason, I am deeply invested in the South African situation. For me, the study of theology brought out the deep injustices in our society.
“That is something that continues to motivate me to pursue academic research. I think South Africa deserves nothing less than a careful, close and diligent reflection on the issues affecting all of us," he says.
His theoretical and philosophical orientated dissertation is consequently an attempt to reflect on the social implications of faith in a secular world. Some of the questions he asked, included: How can we still have faith in a positive relationship with politics? How is faith still possible when it seems as if everyone is losing faith?
Until the day he is able to return to Stellenbosch, he will continue his work in Bochum and use this to sharpen his language skills, network and learn valuable lessons from other contexts.
And of course, he will stay connected to his home – SU. He already agreed to assist the SU Alumni Office in establishing an Alumni Hub in the region of Köln, Düsseldorf and Dortmund for expat Maties in Germany. He will also be appointed as a research associate at the Faculty of Theology at SU.
Ullrich supports philosopher James K Smith's words that “human beings are what they love". If this is true, one can understand why Ullrich shares some of the same qualities as this University – qualities such as excellence in quality-driven research, innovative ideas and compassion to bring change to society.