I’m at least five minutes late for our Women’s Group every Thursday morning. It’s not as though I need to find time to make coffee or have breakfast before I leave the house — these are sitting on the table in a room in our campus church building, surrounded by welcoming faces, waiting for me when I come in. And it’s not like I need to look my best — these are the people who accept me as I am. So, really I have no excuse. But there are other latecomers, too, and I don’t worry about it. Out of all the meetings and classes and events that I cram in to each week of grad school, this is the one where no one will fault me for being a few minutes late, where I don’t need to apologize, because everyone understands how busy our lives are.
That’s just one of the small ways I think of this group (still called “The Brownbag” from a previous incarnation) as a kind of safe space. This is a space where I don’t have to explain what it means to be in grad school, defend how stressed I am, give a full explanation of the difficulties of balancing life complications with school complications. In the circle once a week over coffee and baked goods, there are listening ears and compassionate faces ready to help me take on what I’m struggling with, eager to hear about hurdles I talked about the previous week, and unrelenting in championing my efforts. I, in turn, get to do the same for my friends, and such a gift bolsters my sense of who I am as a woman of God — an identity that so easily gets lost in the jumble of grad school.
And then there are the lovely, thoughtful, generous “older” women who host our meetings. These three women offer us a measure of perspective as they share their own, less-academic struggles. They offer us guidance as we share our struggles with dating, with singlehood, with marriage, or with starting a family. They bring us fresh authors to read, wise reminders of Scripture, or examples of their own spiritual struggles. And they give us hugs when we need them.
The concept of a Christian grad women’s support group is really simple, when it comes down to it, and it’s only when we reflect on it that we realize just how powerful this group is in our lives. To explain, here are some of the members’ descriptions of what this group means for them:
“The Brownbag time has become an important check-in for me, particularly in the busiest parts of the semester. When I am juggling work, research, school, etc., sometimes the day becomes an impossible list, and really meaningful moments become, instead, checkpoints. Having a group of women simply ask, ‘How was your week?’ gives me processing time to reflect on how God is working. And the support provided by the women there is so meaningful and beautiful.” — Elizabeth
“The weekly gatherings of academic women have been a treasured time to reflect, mid-week, on my life as a graduate student. The stresses and complications of grad school life that can seem overwhelming normally are put in new perspective when I realize that others face very similar challenges, and that ultimately my service to God and the way I live as a human being are way more important than exams or papers. During this hour, I can support others in their struggles, pray for them and with them, and feel supported by God’s love that is made so evident in our time together. I find that it’s easy to become really emotional during these gatherings, because suddenly the world seems ‘safer’ and more loving. When I miss these weekly gatherings, I feel that something important and life-giving is missing from my week!” — Michelle
“Our women’s group has been a very powerful support in my life that has helped me bridge my career and personal life with my walk with Christ. Each week I set my expectations, frustrations, and joys on the table. There’s always someone there who can shed a new light on them.” — Stephanie K.
“Each semester, when the email comes soliciting interest in our Breakfast Club, I always check the box indicating I will walk through Wisconsin snow storms to get there — it is that important to my spiritual and emotional health. At its roots, the reason is very simple: I feel less lonely when I can connect with people who understand and care about my struggles. My struggles are all affected by my life as a Christian woman in graduate school; only these women can connect with that unique set of challenges. When I feel that someone cares about me and the things I care about, I have more resilience to be faithful to God through my struggles.” —Bethany
“I attend The Brownbag for the opportunities to:
get to know ‘older’ women in the church. What an honor that they care for us and take time from their lives for us.
receive grace from others. When I am feeling isolated, anxious, frustrated, fearful, I’m reminded that I am not alone.
hear about the joys and struggles other grad students (and non-students) are experiencing and am able to give encouragement as well as receive it.
see that my struggles are shared and are experienced by others — I am not the only one who feels these things!
gain perpective from women who have more life experience, and who are outside of — so can speak objectively into — whatever crisis I am currently experiencing.
These relationships help me feel that I am still ‘human’ and they help me to maintain my humanity in what often feels like a sterile and mechanical environment.” — Jane
“This group is one of the main ways that our God teaches me about day-to-day faithful living in the academic life. ‘Working unto the Lord’ seems terribly ambiguous in the academic life, but the constant reminder that I don’t wrestle with that alone — and that I can be honest about the wrestling — makes all the difference.” — Vansa
As I received these responses from my friends after asking them to tell me what our Brownbag means to them, I felt like I was sitting in our usual morning circle, hearing them speak. And as I listened to what each woman had to share, I was deeply moved. I’m so thankful for these strong, intelligent, loving women who are walking through this part of my life with me. I know that I would be lost without them and their reminders of who we are as God’s people — people who are loving and are loved.
We all have valued this support in graduate school, and reflecting on it reminds us of how powerful and necessary such encouragement is.
What people or communities have been a support for you as a follower of Christ in grad school?
Stephanie White is a member of the English Language and Literature faculty at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. She teaches writing and rhetoric while researching composition pedagogy and service-learning. She and her husband Andrew have a darling baby girl and very helpful neighbours.
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