Loving the grad student in your life

Christian Courier recently published an article by Meghan Kort on how to love the grad student in your life. She begins by explaining a bit about the mental health challenges of grad school and then provides wisdom about “how churches, families, and friends can show more love when we encounter stressed-out grad students in our lives. The following are some helpful (and unhelpful) questions that she provides that can help you reach out to, encourage, and love the grad students that you encounter.

  1. Asking what they’re going to do when they graduate is unhelpful because “life rarely moves as planned.” They know that there’s probably not a huge niche for their expertise “but they are working on figuring out how their God-given curiosities fit into the larger questions that run this world.”
  2. Helpful: “Your research sounds really specific/interesting/unique. What led you to this area of study?” You probably have little connection to their specific topic but you might just have connections with the how and why they came to study that topic.
  3. and 4. Not so helpful: “How is your thesis going?” or “When will you be finished?” A variation of these questions are found in PhD comic’s second most popular comic on what accounts for bad manners in grad school.
  4. Better questions might be “How was your week? Have you been reading anything interesting lately? What parts of your research/writing/teaching do you find most energizing?”

We need to lend extra understanding and patience to grad students as they experience the stops and starts of their academic paths. Some months, they may disappear into the lab or library and check out of church life. At other times they are surprisingly available and eager to apply their skills to church ministries. Ask “what works best for you?” when looking for commitments and try to be flexible with last minute changes.

We need to challenge ourselves to look past what we do not understand about grad students’ research or career decisions and engage with them as valuable members of our churches, families and communities. Long-time campus chaplains and professors, Neil and Virginia Lettinga hope that “more churches would bluntly say to grad students that they are a beloved part of the community – even as they flutter in and out.” As we extend our patience, compassion and love, grad students will find that your presence is a welcome embrace next to the sometimes icy and often isolating ivory tower.

the new American dream?

In talking with young adults about the American dream, it became obvious that the faults in the American dream are more obvious to a generation that isn’t looking to pursue that same dream. The traditional American dream seems to value getting more things (prosperity) and having a better position in life (success and upward social mobility) without taking into account how society does not reward everyone’s hard work equally.

The millennial generation has come to recognize that they will probably not have a better life than their parents: they will probably not be better off, a reality that seems to be reinforced by high student debt and underemployment. The American dream, except for one subsidized by one’s parents, no longer seems possible for many.

Perhaps partly because the dream no longer seems realistic, millennials seem less focused on obtaining more things or trying to obtain upward social mobility. Instead, they seem to reject pursuing stability, recognizing that it is illusive anyways, and choose instead for something else, like experiences. Commitment and stability – key aspects of the American dream – look different now than in previous generations. There is high commitment to ideals and people, but there is limited commitment to institutions (e..g, churches), places, and even a specific jobs.

While most churches do not argue for the prosperity gospel, which one could argue is a Christianized version of the American dream, most churches still thrive on commitment and stability. This new version of the American dream is not something churches have easily adapted to: there is an opportunity for people to have new experiences through high quality worship and service projects, but it’s hard to fulfill the ideals when people’s lives are less stable. Authentic community generally takes time and commitment, and active pursuit of knowledge, while possible to convey through quality sermons, takes conversations in which trust has been built, something which requires a certain level of time and willingness to be vulnerable with each other. In the area of ideals and desires, church and society seems to be clashing, and so it is not surprising that many young adults struggle with finding churches where they belong.

Young Adults in the Church

This past summer I participated in a panel discussion on young adults in the church. I argued that young adults very much want to belong to Christian community. In order to feel like they belong, though, they need to be given space for honesty and difficult questions, along with having potentially different life situations, like being single or needing to commit so much time to their discipline/profession.

The following provides further details of what we talked about, as reported by Chris Meehan.

“A Love-Hate Relationship with the Church: Ministering to Young Adults Today” was hosted by Matt Ackerman and panelists Tyler Helfers, Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink, and Jamie VanderBerg — all of whom are campus chaplains.

They started by giving some U.S. and Canadian statistics about young adults.

In the U.S., Tyler Helfers said, people who identify as “nones” — or having no religious affiliation — are growing. This group was only 7 percent of the population in 1990, but grew to 23 percent of the population by 2014. Of those who identify as “nones,” 33 percent are in the millennial, or young-adult, age group.

In Canada, Jamie VanderBerg pointed out, there are statistical differences in comparison to the situation in the U.S. Church attendance, for example, is even less than in the U.S. across the board, with only 23 percent attending church in Canada on a monthly basis. . .

Despite this decline in formal church attendance, many young people still consider themselves “spiritual,” a term that may be hard to define and yet also seems to imply young people are seeking an experience of God.

“Churches need to create a space to ask questions and have conversations,” said VanderBerg. He also pointed out that many young people are very missional and want to get actively involved in service to others at home or beyond.”

Evangelicals vs. Academics

I don’t think I can ever say enough about the challenges that Christian academics face, both in allowing their Christianity to affect their academic work as well as bringing their academic selves into the church.

Alan Jacobs points out the tendency of evangelicals and academics to see each other as the enemy (i.e., the repugnant cultural other (RCO)):

Many academics would be surprised, I think, to discover how many evangelical Christians are political moderates or simply apolitical and how much they do to help the poor and needy in their communities with no spiritual strings attached. Similarly, many evangelicals would be surprised to learn how hard many academics work, whatever their political views (and many of them are apolitical also), to be fair to all their students, regardless of the students’ beliefs, and how much they worry about not being as fair as they should be. For many academics, evangelical Christians are the RCO; for many evangelical Christians, academics play that role. And having an RCO is one of the best ways to form and maintain group identity. Recent research by the political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood indicate that, in terms of social belonging, “outgroup animosity is more consequential than favoritism for the ingroup.” That is, it’s more important to hate the RCO than to affirm and support the people who agree with you. How do I know you’re One of Us? Because you hate the right people.

Quoted from Paul Vanderklay.