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MOREHEADS LOOK BACK: Swift plunges into religious studies

Catherine Swift Catherine Swift

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It’s not often that Henderson County sends a Morehead scholar to UNC at Chapel Hill. It’s rarer still for the county to send two. Four years ago, Catherine Louise Swift, of West Henderson High School, and Andrew H. Wells Jr., of Hendersonville High School, each won the prestigious four-year scholarship, now called the Morehead-Cain. The award is a full scholarship covering all costs including housing and meals plus a summer enrichment program. Both Swift, the daughter of Rebekah Ellsworth, and Wells, the son of Dr. Andrew Wells and Katherine Wells, were inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. The Lightning caught up with Swift and Wells after graduation to find out about their college experience and what they plan to do next.

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Catherine Swift smiles easily when she talks about her experience as a Morehead-Cain scholar at UNC at Chapel Hill. You’d never know how much death is a part of her life.
“My personal experience includes growing up in Elizabeth House,” she says. Instead of going home after school, she went to Four Seasons hospice’s end-of-life care facility, where her mother, Rebekah Ellsworth, was director.
Catherine’s father, Tom Swift, suffered under the long and certain death sentence of ALS, sometimes known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He died in January 2013, in Catherine’s freshman year at UNC.
“Conversations (at home) were often about death in some way and I spent a lot of time in hospice facilities,” she says.
Swift’s personal experience gave her an almost insatiable curiosity about how people respond to imminent death — both the dying and the loved ones — and how a third-party counselor can help ease that transition.
Under a special program in UNC’s honors college, Swift designed and taught a course called Modern Perspectives on Death and Dying. In the two-hour class once a week, she led 12 students through the curriculum and guided class discussion in a study of “how different people look at death and dying in different ways,” she says. “There’s not a right way and a wrong way. I was hoping to get at some of those things you can’t get through textbooks. One thing I tried to do in the class was bring in their own ideas and their own questions.”
The Morehead’s summer enrichment program starts with a challenging outdoor leadership experience and continues through fully funded experiences in public service, personal exploration and private enterprise.
Swift’s Morehead summers took her to exotic places.
The summer after her freshman year she flew to India to work in the city of Ahmedabad, an experience she recalls as the most meaningful of her four Morehead summers.
“You actually did work that people want and need,” she says. “Everyone who works there has become part of this family. They start every single day with an all-religion prayer … in nine different religions or something like that.”
If the leaders were spiritual, the work was practical.
“They had a preschool,” she says. “They had boarding school for orphans. They feed tons of kids in the city. They had health programs, they had programs for the elderly.”

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Her third and fourth Morehead summers each brought challenges.
After her sophomore year, she signed on as an intern for Spirituality & Health magazine, which had editorial offices on the island of Maui in Hawaii. Two weeks before she left Chapel Hill, she got word that the magazine was scrapping its print version.
“That was kind of weird walking into a company that was in the midst of shutting down,” she says. She still had a job, working for the online version. “It was interesting to see how things can shift.”
The summer between her junior and senior years, she took an internship with a nonprofit in Ecuador. It was not as good an experience as India had been. She found the nonprofit organization to be dysfunctional.
“It was kind of the opposite experience,” she says. “I learned how to trust my moral compass. I learned to deal with conflict… I worked really hard. I learned a lot of Spanish. So that was an interesting summer.”

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Growing up, Swift attended Blue Ridge Christian Church and a United Methodist Church and sometimes attended St. James Episcopal with her father, who was an active member.
At Carolina, her course of study presented itself naturally.
“I just really fell in love with religion and studying religion and how people interpret religion in their personal lives,” she says. “I just loved every single class in religious studies. It combines anthropology and history and literature and the social sciences and psychology and brings them all together to try to understand this thing, religion, that touches every single person.”
Four years of studying the religious imagination left her with an informed objectivity.
“I can’t say that any religion is right,” she says. “I think they all have a lot of truth in them and they all have a lot of bad in them.”
Asked what she’ll miss the most about UNC, she says her friends and professors.
“Honestly, the best part of it was the people,” she says. “It’s an incredible family, incredible mentors…. The professors at UNC generally are just incredible and the religious studies department has some of the rock stars of religious scholarship worldwide.”
Although she’s delaying graduate school for a year, she’s moving to Pittsburgh, where her married sister, Emma Swift Lee, lives.
She plans to participate in a Clinical Pastoral Education program. Used primarily by seminary students, the program trains hospital and hospice chaplains in spiritual care of victims of trauma and their families and in end-of-life counseling and support. Swift plans to begin pursuing a masters degree in social work in the fall of 2017.