What to expect at MSU this fall

Masks, social distancing, and a lot of encouragement to keep yourself and others safe are all part of what we can expect as we move back to campus in a little over a month.

MSU has put together a compact that they are asking all those who are part of the MSU community to agree to. It begins with the acknowledgement that, “In return for being part of the MSU community, by this Compact, I am taking personal responsibility in order to protect the health and safety of myself and others.” Furthermore, “I acknowledge the risks of COVID-19 and returning to campus, and I acknowledge that I will do my part to protect myself and others.”

Playing our part means wearing masks, both inside and outside, physical distancing, self-monitoring for symptoms, and practicing extra hygiene and healthy safety measures. Further details on what exactly that all means are found online as part of the MSU Initiative of ‘Together We Will’ and ‘Keeping Spartans safe.’

Please pray for all those affected by the university’s plans for the fall:

  • Students who are making decisions of whether they will be coming back to campus or learning remotely (if that’s even possible – and if not how to do so in a way that’s best);
  • Administrators making decisions about what is good for as many people as possible
  • Professors pondering how best to teach – online, in-person, and everything in between;
  • All of us anxious about the well-being of everyone in the MSU community, whether that be physical or mental health, or even managing the challenges of so much uncertainty.
  • All those of us who minister to and encourage those at the university.

Anticipating a challenging fall

There remains a lot of uncertainty about the coming fall semester: the only certainty seems to be a consensus that it will be challenging. To get a sense of what fall might look like, I encourage you to read the communication(s) from MSU as well as to check out several Inside Higher Education articles that envision what an average day in the life of an undergraduate student might look like as well as for a faculty member.

If you’d like a slightly different experience for envisioning what the fall might look like, a graduate student, Cait S Birby, simulated several scenarios for what the fall might look like for people who are often marginalized: people who have disabilities, live with people with significant health challenges, and/or identify as LGBTQ. There is both a scenario for an undergraduate student, faculty, and graduate student. The scenarios give a sense of how overwhelming being on campus might be this fall.

This past Monday we hosted our first hybrid study – some of us were at the house while others joined the study online. While it was very good to chat with folks outside the house after we finished, the study itself was disappointing. It took us an extra 15 minutes to set up, as the original plan of being outside didn’t work. We then set up a computer attached to the television, which meant that those of us at the house no longer had access to communal chat. Because of social distancing, all (4) of us in the house were seated far from the computer microphone and not all of us could be seen by those online. With the added challenges of wearing masks, it was hard for those online to hear us. The need to speak unnaturally loud, the sense that those online were not hearing us well and that those in the house were not as easily able to participate, plus the seating arrangement that felt less conducive to building community, all of these things contributed to making it disappointing.

Even as I was disappointed in the study, I was very glad to have tried it. Next week, we will try again – and hopefully work out some of the difficulties so that we know how and if hybrid studies can work for us before school starts in the fall. Most importantly, seeing the challenges that we as a small group faced in trying a hybrid study, I became more aware of how hard the fall will be for all those trying to meet in person.

Please pray for all those who are now making plans and working through the challenges to allow people to meet in a way that is most conducive to learning while also taking into account each other’s safety and well-being.

Added August 4, 2020: For another perspective on the challenges in teaching online and in-person, see this article from Inside Higher Ed.

Report from the Campus Edge board

As Christmas approaches, we are mindful of the mix of emotions that graduate students face as they look forward to the holiday season while needing to face the heavy demands associated with course examinations, theses and dissertation defenses, day-to-day research, and/or teaching obligations. They often wrestle with whether the long hours will eventually make a real difference for someone somewhere and improve their prospects for an impactful career. We earnestly pray that while these students strive to excel in their scholarship that they also come to experience the lasting assurance that their real identity is in Jesus Christ regardless of all of their accomplishments or failures. We, the Campus Edge Fellowship (CEF) Board, are thankful that CEF is a place where graduate students at various stages along their spiritual journey, some barely just starting, can lean harder onto that assurance while struggling to understand how their studies fit within a grander scheme.  

The CEF Board has experienced various transitions. Firstly, we profusely express our thanks to Kristen Hintz and Marcie Durso who recently stepped down from the CEF Board after years of faithful service. Jeff Biddle, who exemplified true servant leadership as CEF Board President for several years, stepped away from the President role this summer. We are excited to have Steve Skinker take on the CEF Treasurer role, Alison Young to reassume her CEF secretary position after coming back from research work in India, and for Cory Smidt joining our Board. We also praise God for a healthy baby born to our Assistant Pastor, Hannah Lee. While she is on maternity leave, Mitchell Eithun who has been a CEF student leader has graciously agreed to serve as interim Assistant Pastor.

The CEF Board has been busy addressing various challenges including clearly understanding our niche and how CEF can work more closely with other ministries on campus, better grasping the spiritual needs of the students that we hope to serve, increasing the impact of CEF, and maintaining fiscal stability. We are thankful for your financial support of CEF and encourage you to prayerfully consider continuing that support. I wish you a Blessed Christmas and a Joyous 2020!

– Rob Tempelman, President, CEF Board

Challenges of Graduate Students

This fall the Campus Edge board has been working to understand how we might better respond to the challenges that graduate and professional students experience. Campus Edge students identified the following as the most significant challenges:

  • Stress and/or lack of time;
  • Work/life balance (and “grad student guilt”);
  • Lack of clarity with regard to expectations and progress;
  • Mental health issues;
  • Difficult (or unhealthy) relationship with adviser and/or department/program;
  • Financial (and other socioeconomic) challenges;
  • Spiritual questions/challenges;
  • Loneliness and lack of support;
  • Difficulty in finding a job (after graduating).

A recent article in Inside Higher Education notes that, according to a recent survey of graduate students, “mental health, bullyiing, and career uncertainty” are the top challenges facing graduate students today.

Advice for those striving to be Christian scholars

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s article with advice to those who would be Christian scholars speaks of the inherent challenge of critiquing the university while also loving and embracing it. He starts by speaking of three postures people have in relation to the university:

1. “Some assume that what goes on in the contemporary university is pretty much OK as it is, and they look for ways of supplementing that with some distinctly Christian thought and activity.”

2. “Some believe that what goes on in the contemporary university is pretty much OK. . . they find tension between Christianity as they understand it, and what goes on in the university; so they propose revising Christianity until the tension disappears. Often this takes the form of what I call a “band wagon approach.”

3. Some “Christians, usually outside the university, who are content to lob grenades at the contemporary university. The university, they say, is godless, aggressively secular, reductionist, relativist, liberal, post-modern, captive to political correctness – you name it.”

Wolterstorff recognizes that each of these positions has a part of the truth but is ultimately lacking. He advocates instead for a different way of looking at what it means to be a Christian school, arguing that “the project of being a Christian scholar is the project of thinking with a Christian mind and speaking with a Christian voice within your chosen discipline and within the academy more generally.” I encourage you to read his articulation of what this looks like in practice.

Advice for grad school (from people who’ve been there)

The Well has posted two articles with some advice for those in grad school. They are especially helpful if you’re in a place where you’re wondering about how you might flourish more fully in grad school.

Amy Whisenand challenges us to take care of our bodies, make friends, let go, and celebrate the good. She shares that, while her habit of “exchanging sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise for long hours in the library studying, reading, and writing papers” brought much success in her time as an undergraduate, she realized that if she “wanted to sustain this life of the mind, she needed to take care of herself as a whole person, including her body.” Secondly, her experience has been that that “a wide variety of kinds of friends — collegial friends, hanging out friends, mentors, close friends — greatly increases the quality of the graduate school experience.”

Amy Webster provides similar challenges: make good friends, choose your advisor wisely, bring yourself to your work, and keep the big picture in mind. Keeping the big picture is not only in relation to your work (e.g., “it’s easy to chug along with experiments and analysis without thinking about the big picture”) but also in all of life. She points out that one needs to keep time for non-work things and learn how to

“say no to things that are distracting from your main pursuit. . . Saying no may require a difficult conversation, or it may just be a quick email. (And on that note, learn to write quick, to-the-point emails without over-analyzing them. This is a great life skill.) It is important to prioritize your time for what you consider to be the deep, important work.” 

Both Amy W.s highlight celebrating – celebrating milestones and celebrating all of the good that has happened, both to yourself and others. Practice in celebrating the good also helps you have perspective when you face the difficulties of grad school (e.g., “rejections from jobs or journals, difficult interpersonal dynamics.”) In all of this, “Remember that your worth as a human being is not tied to your graduate school success (a truth even when things are going well).”

The gift of Sabbath

For most folks, graduate school is a time of being busy: there is always something to do or else guilt in not doing it. Practicing Sabbath can be a challenge during this time, especially as it often takes some creativity to make happen.

Yet, Sabbath is a gift, especially of perspective. It challenges our understanding of time, seeing “time not as an enemy to subdue, but as a friend to savor.” (Mary Ann McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs). Furthermore, it challenges how we think about ourselves. We are not as important or as invincible as we sometimes think: the world will continue quite fine without our efforts. As much as God can use us to do good, God is certainly able to do good without us. It also challenges whatever guilt we might ahve picked up in terms of how undeserving we might be of rest:

“Even if you don’t observe Sabbath, a shift in perception is helpful. It doesn’t ever all get done. We need to train our vision. We see failure when we should see alternatives. Better to focus on the good and important things we did do instead of berating ourselves for falling short of an ideal.” McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs, 105.

On top of the obvious challenge of carving out time for Sabbath, it doesn’t help that one of the joys of Sabbath – delighting in one’s friends and family – is made more difficult in that most people move to a new place for grad school. The friends made in the new place tend to be busy working.

Yet, even practicing Sabbath in small doses can be an encouragement. Perhaps one of the following suggestions is something that you could work into your schedule:

  • taking one morning, afternoon, or evening to journal or read an encouraging (or challenging) non-school book;
  • going out into nature somewhere – or explore some other new place;
  • taking a break from technology for a few hours;
  • commuting in silence and/or using the commute time to sing in the car, pray and meditate, or listen to a podcast that rejuvenates you;
  • “While waiting at red lights, sitting with both hands open, as a way of practicing Psalm 46’s invitational command to “Be still and know that I am God.” See other tips for short Sabbath moments here.

Last of all, I encourage you to give yourself the grace and courage to keep trying. Taking Sabbath is a habit one needs to form and, like most habits, it takes time (and often some failure) to figure out how to grow into.

Some helpful quotes and books to keep pondering Sabbath:

  • “What happens when we stop working and controlling nature? When we don’t operate machines or pick flowers? . . . When we cease interfering in the world we are acknowledging that it is God’s world.” Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath, 6-7.
  • “Sabbath puts the focus on God and God’s gracious invitation to rest from one’s work.” Mary Ann McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs, 22.
  • A quote from Sabbath in the Suburbs (89): “It’s not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.” Mary O’Connor.
  • A helpful book to read: Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (2001)

Timing

Sometimes people discover Campus Edge near the beginning of their program. They’re looking for a community and so they search for and find us online, or they visit our supporting church, or they meet us at the graduate fair. Sometimes they connect with people in their program who’ve been participating in Campus Edge for awhile.

Other times, though, people have found Campus Edge later in their program. I lament a little that these individuals didn’t connect with us sooner – we could have been blessed by their insights and presence, and we might have been able to encourage them through providing a supportive community and a place to ask difficult questions.

Yet, I also believe that God is at work in the timing, and people will come to Campus Edge at the right time. While one might expect that the beginning of one’s program would be the best time, we’ve seen that sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s because life is too full or overwhelming for there to be space for one more thing. For others it’s because their faith journey is going really well – they’ve connected to a church/Christian community and are receiving answers for their faith questions. Still for others, it is even possible that they wouldn’t have found someone at Campus Edge who they would feel a strong connection.

Yet, later a time might come, whether that be a crisis or a gentle nudge, when connecting with and participating in Campus Edge would then be good. Perhaps a person has experienced a deep sense of loneliness or isolation, or church doesn’t seem to fit quite like it used to, or there is a longing to be with people who understand the unique experience that is grad school. And then, whenever people ready – no matter how early or late they are in their program, I hope that they do find Campus Edge and we can be an encouragement and place of hope and grace.