Roman brings death to life in humanities classes

Brittany Nikodym | Staff Writer

April 10, 2014

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Instructor Santos Roman helps his students explore death, life, culture and religion, with genuine enthusiasm and a tint of humor.

“I love teaching, the performance of it; you can see how students change their mind,” Roman said. “Even when they are negative that inspires me more to get through to them.”

Roman teaches a course on World Religions, and a course on Death. Death isn’t something everyone wants to think about, but to the Professor in the black fedora, it’s a subject worth discussing.

“Everyone is familiar with it, but no one wants to talk about it. It’s taboo.” Roman said.

During his childhood in Cape Town, South Africa in a time when apartheid (racial segregation) divided the country, Roman had dreams of becoming a librarian like his father.

“My parents instilled in me a healthy appetite for books,” Roman said. “I read voraciously, so I thought what better way to be always surrounded by books and people who love to read. Dad was never without a book. He taught me that you could travel the world without moving an inch. Blame reading for who I am, and dad and apartheid South Africa.”

From 1948 to 1994, Apartheid laws rigidly segregated South African communities, transportation, housing, education and even sexual activity. Career and educational opportunities for “non-whites,” like Roman, were severely limited.

Despite many challenges, both financial and social, Roman attended a community college. From there, he transferred to a four year university for undergrad and graduate studies. In 1995, he left South Africa on transfer to Harvard for further graduate studies.

“From a community college, your life can change.” said Roman, who is currently finishing his PHD at the University of California Riverside. “I started out at a community college and I transferred.”

After doing some traveling and living in Mexico for a year, Roman moved to Riverside, where he teaches at RCC and UCR.

 “I like teaching world religion because religious literacy is a good thing,” Roman said. “It’s about understanding the ‘other’ and making sense of our world where religion seems to touch everything and everyone in various ways.”

Roman decided that he also liked the idea of teaching about the history of death after co-teaching a class on the subject at UCR.

“It’s something more students should take an interest in, how death is understood in various cultures,” Roman said. “It’s inevitable for everyone.”

Roman likes to share a story with his students about a friend of his who asked if he thought that Harvard students are smarter than those who go elsewhere.

“I thought about the question, and my experience being at Harvard and students outside of Harvard and students in Mexico, Spain and South America.” Roman said. “I don’t think that students who go to Harvard are necessarily smarter than students who go elsewhere. Harvard students have opportunity, access, support and encouragement. If students have that, they can perform equally well. It’s very important to have a dream and chase it down.”

Aside from education in the classroom, Roman is also currently involved in a photography exhibition about the South African war. The exhibition is titled “Flaws in the Diamond” and includes photos that Professor Roman and Thomas Cogswell, a UCR professor of History, pulled from stereographs. The exhibition is running until July 19 at the California Museum of Photography, and tells the story of the people involved in the conflict, as well as the way it shaped South Africa’s politics in following years.