Dafne Villanueva ‘22 was studying for the LSAT when she received a message from Dr. Kelley Coblentz Bautch, professor and department chair of religious studies at St. Edward’s, about divinity school applications. Because of the encouragement and support from faculty, she applied to both Harvard and Yale and decided to pursue divinity school first. Divinity school educates students in scripture and theology, and prepares them to serve as clergy, in academics or in ministry. 

Growing up Catholic in Laredo, Texas influenced much of Villanueva’s studies. Since high school, she knew she wanted to study religion. She researched different religious and theological studies departments across universities but was ultimately drawn to St. Edward’s, her first choice. Along with religion, Villanueva is passionate about law. At St. Edward’s, she majored in religious studies and minored in criminal justice. 

Villanueva’s religious and theological studies professors—Dr. Coblentz Bautch, Dr. Jennifer Veninga and Dr. Richard Bautch—were key components in strengthening Villanueva’s love for religious studies.

Dafne Villanueva '22 is earning her Masters of Religion at Yale.

After applying to two rival Ivy Leagues, Villanueva was greeted with her decision from Harvard while at the hair salon. Just 24 hours later, she received and accepted her offer from Yale Divinity School. 

It wasn’t until she wrote her personal statement for Yale that she realized what she wanted to do. In her statement, she reflected on an internship with a judge in Laredo, where she was exposed to the federal level of immigration. She realized that people needed help, but not always legal help.

“The environment I grew up in was seeing women stay in marriages because it’s the right thing to do. I want to help women see that they don’t have to stay in a relationship because of their religion,” Villanueva said. “My hope at the end of all this is to have a nonprofit organization that helps immigrant women who have faced religious trauma.”

Villanueva is now in her second and final year at Yale, where she’s earning her Master of Arts in Religion with a concentration in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

"I want to help women see that they don’t have to stay in a relationship because of their religion."

Dafne Villanueva '22

She also earned an internship through Yale as a legal intern for local office Esperanza Attorneys at Law, and serves as a senator for Yale’s Graduate & Professional Student Senate. 

Her reason for intersecting the two fields:

“There is a lot of tension with law and religion—especially with women, and especially with reproductive rights and immigration laws in Texas. I wanted to gain the religious aspect first,”  Villanueva said. “A lot of our clients are Latin American, and a lot of them are very Catholic. I know that when they're waiting to meet with their attorneys, they're praying the rosary. It's the little things that fall into the religious aspect when I'm at work.”

Villanueva works with her own set of clients at Esperanza and has come to know them well. Her fluency in Spanish is key to allowing her clients to feel comfortable and open up without a language barrier. She says that being from a border town and her personal experience with immigration helps build trust with her clients—many of whom are asylum seekers, refugees, or special juveniles. Special juveniles have a special form that requires interviewing the family and asking questions of their faith or beliefs. More than half is usually Catholic, according to Villanueva, and they regularly attend mass. 

Dafne Villanueva '22 is earning her Masters of Religion at Yale.

“It’s important to them and it's important for me to understand that they are believers in whatever they believe in, and I have to be open to that,” Villanueva said. “Obviously there is tension with seeing how they’re treated, what they've gone through, and yet they still have a very strong faith.”

Villanueva will graduate from Yale Divinity School in 2024 and plans to attend law school shortly after.


By Nina Martinez

Photography by Karen Cortez