LG Silver Medal winner challenges religious stereotypes



When Jessica Pratezina started coming to terms with her alternative religious upbringing in her twenties, she faced a lot of stereotypes and assumptions from the professionals meant to help her.

“Cult” was one word that Pratezina, who graduated with a MA in Child and Youth Care from the University of Victoria, heard often from counsellors.

“You can’t imagine using that word in a nice way,” she says, with a laugh.

Pratezina, who grew up in the United States and whose family followed the now defunct religious group, The Worldwide Church of God, said while the therapists she encountered were well intentioned, they were poorly informed about alternative religious movements.

She found scholarly work on the topic similarly presumptuous and patronizing. And she discovered there was little guidance for those in “helping fields,” including counselling and social work, to assist young people leaving religious movements.

Pratezina decided that she wanted to change the script for “alternative religion kids.”

“You’re continually told in your own life story that you’re a victim,” she says. “Who gets to decide that? Can we tell our stories in another way? Can alternative religion kids decide how our stories get told?”

Pratezina’s resulting master’s thesis, “Disciples by Default”: Women’s Narratives of Leaving Alternative Religious Movements,” examined four memoirs in which the authors pushed back against the idea that they were victims with no agency.

Pratezina discovered that memoirs were incredible sources of data. She developed recommendations for practitioners in her field, including encouraging them to listen to and honour people’s story and to recognize the diversity of experiences in alternative religious movements.

For her original and erudite work, Pratezina has been awarded the Lieutenant Governor’s Silver Medal, her submission singled out and held up as the best master’s thesis at spring 2022 convocation. It’s an accomplishment of which Pratezina is proud, given that she says she struggled to adjust to the academic world during her undergrad in Child and Youth Care at UVic.

She credits the tremendous support of her professors for helping her navigate a “big learning curve.”

“Not only did they help me develop as a scholar and a writer, but they pushed me to think about the world in new and more complex ways,” she says. “For me, the award represents not only a personal achievement, it also makes me mindful of the patience and care that has been offered to me by so many over the years.”

Although she initially resisted the idea of incorporating her own experience into her research, Pratezina says wanted to be clear how her experience growing up in an alternative religious movement influenced her approach.

“It was difficult to do and it is difficult to read,” she says. “My supervisor said, ‘All research is veiled autobiography.’ I didn’t believe her at the beginning. She won about that.”

Also difficult was defending her thesis while nine months pregnant. Now Pratezina, who lives in Toronto, is caring for an infant while embarking on doctoral work at UVic. Her PhD in interdisciplinary studies, in which she will consider how people make big changes to what they believe in, is more removed from her personal life, but still connected.

“Making changes to what we feel deeply and believe deeply, what we think is common sense and stories we’ve inherited, is a painful experience,” she says. “It’s a lot of work.”