Prof inspires Max Peterson to attend WU — and becomes his mentor

by University Communications,

As commencement approaches, our graduates reflect on their Willamette experience and share their plans for the future. This is the second of our four-part series.

High school students frequently sit in on classes when they visit universities during their college search, and Max Peterson ’14 was no exception. As a high school senior, he observed Willamette University Professor David Gutterman’s “Themes in Political Theory” course — one of the classes Peterson would likely take the next year if he chose to enroll as a politics major.

“The professor was so engaging and charismatic and clearly cared about the material and the students so much,” says Peterson, who is from San Francisco. “It really just hit me that this was the school for me.”

Peterson didn’t know it yet, but that class visit also provided his first glimpse of the person who would ultimately become his thesis advisor — and his valued mentor.

“Here I am, four years later, working with Professor Gutterman on possibly the most interesting project I’ve ever had the opportunity to do as a student,” he says. “It’s really been a privilege to build this relationship over the course of my time here and have it culminate in this project.”

Gutterman has developed an equal respect for his student.

“Max embraced one of the great features of a liberal arts education: how much we can learn from one another,” Gutterman says. “He actively seeks to bring as many people as possible into a discussion, creating a space where people challenge each other, encourage each other, learn from each other. This ability to foster collaboration will serve him well after he graduates.”

Exploring New Topics

The project Peterson chose for his senior thesis was one he discovered while taking Gutterman’s “Politics and Religion in America” course. Peterson researched the rise of Renewalist Christianity — also known as Pentecostalism — among Latino Americans, and how that influences their views on economic policy.

“Renewalist Christianity has a large area of theoretical agreement with what’s called the prosperity gospel, which embraces wealth as a sign of good Christian virtue,” Peterson says. “I’m curious if this correlates with more conservative economic beliefs — stronger belief in the ability to earn wealth and have that wealth be a self-evident sign of your success.”

The topic has broad-reaching implications, Peterson says, because more and more Latino Americans are converting from Catholicism to Evangelical denominations that practice Renewalist Christianity — and Latinos are slated to become the dominant demographic in the U.S.

“Theology is not something I have any background in whatsoever, so Professor Gutterman has been incredibly helpful because he knows a lot about this particular element of faith,” Peterson says. “He knows me and my writing and my thinking style so well. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide.”

Getting Involved on Campus

Outside the classroom, Peterson took advantage of numerous opportunities. As a sophomore, he served on the student governing body, Associated Students of Willamette University, and became the vice president of finance mid-year when the previous VP stepped down.

“That was a very constructive semester for me in terms of learning who I was, what I was capable of and the sort of work that I was interested in doing,” he says.

He simultaneously interned across the street at the Oregon State Capitol for State Sen. Mark Hass of Beaverton. His leadership experience later led to another position: co-president of the Willamette Events Board, which coordinates campus events and programs for students.

One of Peterson’s longest-standing commitments was competing across the Northwest with the Willamette Debate Union. He took his talents abroad as a senior when he traveled to China with two other students as part of a program to bring debate to Chinese university students.

“Debate is incredibly educational because it requires you to understand other people’s points of view,” Peterson says. “It changes the way you engage every single argument, every article you read and every news story you see.”

Ultimately, Peterson hopes to use his newfound knowledge — in debate, in leadership, in the workings of politics and government — to become a district attorney. But first he is applying to Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and related positions.

“One thing that Willamette has taught me is that hands-on experience is really valuable,” Peterson says. “I do plan on going to law school, but right now my commitment is getting into the real world and identifying the ways in which I can help the most before getting the education that I think is necessary to do that.”