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.

Science vs. Faith?

While most people who are religious would argue that science and faith do not conflict, it can sometimes be challenging to be both a scientist and a person of faith. Faith is not always welcome in scientific fields (or specific departments), and the curious, questioning part of ourselves that makes us good scientists is not always welcome in churches. In order to encourage folks with this challenge, Campus Edge held an evening discussion on faith and science (with special guest, Rachel Barnard from MSU’s Lyman Briggs College).

The following is some of the wisdom that was shared by those present. Hopefully this might encourage you to recognize you are not alone in your struggles. At the same time, even though sometimes the challenge might seem overwhelming, what we’ve learned by becoming good scientists/academics can also contribute to our faith in a positive way.

The following are some of the challenges that we face:

  • Many of have us have lost innocence in approaching the Bible and Christianity, as we no longer approach the Bible and Christian teaching the way we used to. This is generally on account of increased doubt and questioning of our Christian beliefs and how we’ve been taught to interpret the Bible.
  • Science has trained us that everything should be test-able and only things that can be tested are worth studying. The challenge is that some faith questions can never be tested.
  • Science and academia consume a lot of time and energy, and even shape our identity, especially since how productive/effective we are affects our perceived worth as a scientist.
  • One’s spiritual self is often pushed to the side, sometimes because of time, but also because one’s spirituality is often encouraged (or even feels forced) to be separate from one’s academic self. Even one’s personal and emotional self is not always allowed in academia, as often only one’s rationality, work, and/or production is valued.
  • It can be difficult in some fields to identify as a Christian, partly because of how Christians are seen to view evolution. At the same time, many of those who are in humanities found it hard(er) to identify as Christian, as Christians are often seen as not deserving of having a valid voice/opinion to add to discussions, on account of coming from a perspective of intolerance (oppression) and having had excessive privilege in the past.
  • There are times competing narratives in how one understands the world and humanity. For example, science sees people as highly evolved animals where as Christianity believes that humans are the image of God. This affects our understanding of how we ought to treat others, as well as how we approach performance reviews (is this about ‘justifying our existence’ or about indicating how we’ve tried to be faithful in the use of our time and talents?).

The following is the other side of the story – How science can contribute in a positive way to faith:

  • It’s a joy to read the Bible with scientists because they notice small details and ask difficult questions. They’re meticulous and are not satisfied with simplistic answers.
  • Scientists don’t like easy answers; scientists have practice sitting with questions. In doing this, we learn then “to trust and wait and hope and try” (as Rachel described it so well).
  • Science searches for truth. This helps counteract some of the extremes of postmodernism in our culture, where it can feel like all perspectives are seen as equally valid. At the same time, science tends toward the other extreme (modernism) and the belief that reason (science) can redeem the world and solve [all] problems.
  • Many people do a lot of praying in the lab; how can that, irrelevant of the reason for the prayers, not bring us closer to God?
  • It is often the wonder we had in God’s creation that drew us into science. While science has often become more ordinary, more busy, and more difficult since we were first drawn to it, this does not erase the wonder.
  • The challenges found in the scientific field push us towards finding our identity in God. Practicing Sabbath is especially helpful in that, as it forces us to stop all our efforts and instead remember that God is sovereign (and all my efforts cannot save the world). Sabbath also provides us with an opportunity to experience God through wonder and curiosity.

Of note is that the question of science vs. faith has become less a conversation about creation and evolution. Christians are finding it easier to agree that God had a fundamental role in the formation of the world and appear to be less concerned with exactly how that happened. That isn’t to say that people are not struggling with this question, it is simply that the focus on creation vs. evolution has shifted from five years ago. The focus now is more on how people of faith ought to respond to developments in science (e.g., AI, gene editing, climate change, etc.).

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.”