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.

Welcoming young adults into church/community

Rachel Beveridge, in a helpful article articulating some of the reasons she’s seen young adults leave the church, notes that her generation (millennials) “know that we have to be vulnerable in order to have authentic connection.” Because of this, “when conversations at church or any other community are superficial, sometimes millennials choose to leave. But when someone—perhaps someone whom we disagree with, theologically or politically— asks questions that show real interest in us, or they themselves show vulnerability, we might stay.”

So what does this look like? At Campus Edge, it has meant that we don’t avoid the difficult topics. We regularly have conversations topics like sexuality, racism, justice, politics. In those conversations, people share opinions and I (as a CRC pastor) often share the CRC perspective on things. Everyone’s experience and perspectives are welcomed; yet, in order to practice both authenticity and intellectual honesty, everyone’s perspective (including mine, the pastor’s) is open to being challenged and critiqued. This can be hard, but we’re also learning to be vulnerable with each other about our lives and perspectives, recognizing our need for community and how much we can be encouraged and support by each other, especially in the middle of the challenges of grad school.

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).”

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.

Academia and your Identity

Kate Samardzic recently wrote a helpful article that illustrates what she wished her friends and family knew about her PhD experience. It captures the experience of many of the graduate students that I know, reading it can be a way to understand better what it’s like to be in graduate school.

In the article, Samardzic highlights the challenge of your identity becoming too wrapped up in academia. She notes:

“For PhD students, our work becomes closely aligned with our self-worth, and we take failures hard. We need to be resilient, and as we struggle to learn academic resilience, we need our friends and family to understand that what we are feeling isn’t just normal ‘job’ stress, and respond to our requests for support accordingly.”

She challenges friends and family to encourage and challenge her in the following way:

“Our self-worth is closely aligned with our work, and when things go wrong, it can really feel like the end of the world. Remind us that it isn’t actually the end of the world. Remind us that every day is a new day and that today’s struggles are a normal part of the scientific process.”

Mental Health and Graduate School

As we’ve noted before on this blog, “graduate students are at a greater risk for mental health issues than the general population.” A recent study by Harvard quoted in The Atlantic reiterates this, noting that “the study’s results, which also include survey responses from nearly 200 faculty members, indicate that many Ph.D. students’ mental-health troubles are exacerbated, if not caused, by their graduate-education experiences.”

The article notes the high pressure in graduate school, but also highlights how graduate school can feel meaningless:

“Compounding the pressures is the sense, at least according to the economics Ph.D. candidates surveyed by the Harvard researchers, that their work isn’t useful or beneficial to society. Only a quarter of the study’s respondents reported feeling as if their work was useful always or most of the time, compared with 63 percent of the entire working-age population. Only a fifth of the respondents thought that they had opportunities to make a positive impact on their community.”

Please continue to pray for those struggling with the challenges of graduate school: not just the difficult workload, but also the difficulty in seeing how their efforts are meaningful.

Marriages often struggle in Grad School

While most of the people who attend Campus Edge are single, a significant number of people in grad school are married. And grad school is hard on marriages, as a somewhat recent article in Chronicle of Higher Education points out. The article contains a number of difficult-to-read anecdotes: stories from real people for whom getting a doctorate has caused significant pain to themselves and those they love(d). The author,  Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel, begins by acknowledging how frustrated she has “become with the fact that so many of [her] friends have lost their marriages to graduate school.” After explaining how grad school can be hard on marriages, she ends the article with wise and helpful advice for those who would like to have healthier relationships.

For those of you haven’t gone to grad school, grad school can feel a lot like having a (first) baby: lack of sleep, long hours, lot of scary unknowns and feeling of incompetence, not a lot of helpful communication, strange eating habits, emotional chaos, and so on. While the stress level can be compared to that of having a first child, the support network and rewards aren’t as significant as having a child: there are no wonderful baby giggles, positive hormones, babysitters, and/or wonderful people who bring you meals.

Quoting another grad student, Wedemeyer-Strombel notes: “Grad school is a crucible that strengthens relationships and can expose unknown cracks in [the] foundation.” A healthy relationship means that both people in the relationship are doing their best to work towards helping each other get through the challenge of grad school (stress, neglect, insecurity, etc.); that is what the commitment to love each other looks like. The commitment to love translates also into communicating with each other and making choices that are good for both of you, which includes developing one’s gifts and caring for those you love. Failure to communicate and make choices for the good of everyone in the relationship might cause the marriage not to be able to survive the growth, changes, and choices that happen in each partner during grad school, irrelevant of how committed one might be.

Your prayers are thus requested for grad students, especially since we as a culture and as a church don’t always know how to talk about good commitment to one another looks like.

Farming metaphors for grad school

Heather Dubrow at Inside Higher Ed recently wrote a poem describing grad school using farming metaphors. The metaphors of diversifying crops, nutritional value, and efforts bearing fruit are helpful for understanding how complicated academia (and grad school) can be. Below are several excerpts from the poem:

Orange Harvest Moon

A field exuberantly growing
careers that will be harvested?
Or does that promised carrot
just glimmer on some hope-filled pond?

Look — so many universities
dangle that carrot
to feed their hunger for applicants . . .

how about the programs that attempt
to diversify by rotating crops —
Professor? But maybe arts administrator, technical writer, editor…
Are these new carrots wholesome food?
Can this new menu sustain and be sustained?”

I encourage you to go to the website to read the whole poem, including her praise of those in academia who continue to go above and beyond the call of duty.