When The Well asked me to write a series about how Christians in higher education sustain their faith in the workplace, it resonated as an especially fitting topic for me — an academic who has an ongoing fascination with practices that cultivate and deepen our relationship with God.
For this third piece, I had the opportunity to talk with Sandy Jap. Sandy is the Sarah Beth Brown endowed Professor of Marketing at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University as well as an author, speaker, and mother. After I heard of her excellent address at the Women’s Luncheon during InterVarsity’s Believers in Business conference, she agreed to take time to talk with me about her work, life, and faith.
Created to Question
When I asked Sandy about how she landed in the world of higher education, she expressed that it hadn’t been a choice she ever planned to take: “My intention was always to go into business and make a lot of money,” she said, “and I never envisioned myself as an academic.”
Yet she remembers being drawn to learning and critical thinking even during her formative years. And this created a few challenges. “Although I was raised in a mainstream Christian denomination,” she said, “I didn’t accept without question many of the assumptions about how we should live. What I did have was an affinity for intellectual inquiry, and I had many questions about the veracity of our faith and beliefs.”
She was fortunate to encounter an early mentor in a youth group leader who welcomed Sandy’s inquisitive bent. “I was glad she didn’t get mad when I articulated my questions,” she said. “Instead, she made it okay to ask. Then she would point me in the direction of answers. And she also modeled to me that we could have fun while serving others.”
Sandy now recognizes how this was one of many people God has placed in her life to offer friendship and guidance. “I am so fortunate to know role models who have taken the time to show me what true Christianity can be and how that life can be lived from where I am at."
After completing her undergraduate and PhD work, Sandy began teaching at MIT in the Sloan School of Management. She was mentored by Roz Picard in MIT’s Media Lab, who “took me under her wing and mentored me, both professionally as well as spiritually, as I continued to integrate my faith with my love for intellectual inquiry. Through that friendship, I became aware that there are so many critical discussions going on about theology in relation to the sciences, and that there is a larger community of critically thinking academics who also have a strong faith.”
Jap cites those two relationships — along with her involvement in MIT’s InterVarsity faculty ministry as well as the Veritas forums — as experiences that welcomed the sort of discussions about faith for which she longed.
Those relationships have led her not only to welcome the experience of being mentored, but also to step into that role herself whenever the opportunity arises.
“My faculty position often has me working with a lot of students. This creates an opportunity to influence lives, although not always as many or as deeply as I would like.” She recalls one Sunday when her pastor, Andy Stanley, acknowledged that we often can’t do all we would like to do for great numbers of people. “His response to that reality was the encouragement to ‘do for one what you would like to do for many. Pour your life into those individuals and do it both deeply and sacrificially.’ That guidance continues to resonate with me. And in my daily and professional life, I have found many instances where I can do just that.”
When I asked her to describe such opportunities, she mentioned how she and Picard hosted luncheons for female doctoral students in her home, or how she embraced chances to work with students — not just on research, but on life as well. Besides the many talks on career and work-life management she is asked to give, “I also make time to build relationships with junior faculty members and pour into them.” Now as a single mother, her focus has been the same for her two kids, ages 10 and 14.
She recalls another instance of getting to know a colleague through shared committee work. “Through that experience, we became friends. Eventually, this colleague revealed how, early on, she’d been told by others that I am a born-again Christian. ‘I always thought that would mean you would judge me and my lifestyle choices,’ she confided. ‘But I have never felt judged by you. Instead, I have always sensed that you accepted me.’”
Sandy’s willingness to come alongside people and accept them where they are — and as they are — continues to be a guiding principle in her work. “People watch our lives more closely than we realize. As a result, we have a responsibility to live as Jesus would have lived — with some measure of humility and empathy. As a Christian, I need to be the same way. That is what people notice. My pastor always says following Jesus not only makes your life better; it also makes you better at life. And I have found that to be a really accurate description of what it means to have a relationship with Christ.”
Sandy and I also talked about how our work as female faculty sometimes leaves us feeling a bit like “orphans” — within our academic workplace, it can be difficult to find others with whom we can have deeper discussions about theology and faith, but in our churches, it can be difficult to find others with whom we can talk about our concerns as working women. In fact, there are some who question the wisdom of investing our lives in higher education: “I had a friend who asked me why I would choose to be a faculty member when the university is so liberal. But what if my calling is to be the person who will go in there and share a different message; if not me, then who will? Maybe God placed me in higher ed so I can be a credible, Christian voice in an environment where such a voice may be rare.”
“After all,” she mused, “Jesus was right there with the educated scholars and religious leaders of the day. He made compelling arguments and he held his ground. His instruction to the disciples seems relevant for me, as well: ‘When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.’”
As we closed our conversation, Sandy mentioned Proverbs 24:3-4 as one of her life verses: “By wisdom a house is built and through understanding it is established. Through knowledge, its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures.”
Sandy has always valued wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Indeed, it is her love for and skill with critical inquiry which qualifies her to work in the realm of higher education. And in that role, she hasn’t shied away from living out her love for Christ, which is what continues to sustain her, and to shine through her.