By Jessica Fox

Urbana 15: A Graduate Student Review

Unable to attend Urbana 15, I asked Jessica Fox, an applied linguistics PhD student who has written for The Well and who was in St. Louis, if she would be willing to write up her reflections from the point of view of a graduate student. She was willing to do so and suggested including feedback from the other grad students who attended from MSU. Thank you, Jessica, for these reflections! — Marcia

For the many undergraduate attendees, Urbana conferences are rich with mountain-top experiences, diverse prayer opportunities, mission trip destinations, well-priced InterVarsity Press books, special-interest groups, and thousands of like-minded individuals. But what is it like to attend Urbana as a grad student?

Seven of us from Michigan State University attended Urbana 15 — six being women pursuing degrees in engineering and applied linguistics. As encouraged in academia, this reflection will attend to both the opportunities and critiques of the Urbana conference from our graduate student perspectives and hopefully give graduate students who are considering attending future Urbanas encouragement to attend, but realistic expectations for their engagement there.

Finding the Workplace as Mission

Jennifer, an MA TESOL graduate student reflected on her first-time experience and lessons from the conference:

One of my takeaways from Urbana as a female academic was in viewing and consecrating my workspace as a place where God can work. As there's a lot of uncertainty for me after the semester ends, I think one of the primary ways I can live out the gospel in my context is by living in trust for God to provide a job/place to go after I graduate, which is in contrast to my natural reaction of anxiety and stress. 

The manuscript Bible study times were a particular highlight for me. There's something really special about studying the Word for yourself! I also enjoyed the multicultural worship and the prayer rooms. It was a special time to meet with God and hear from him concerning my walk with Jesus. 

Something I'm thinking about in response to some of the poverty workshops I went to involves stepping away from the status I have gained through my education and how it has defined me. I noticed that I almost always introduced myself as "I'm an ESL teacher" throughout the conference. Which is fine, but I think God is asking me to recognize that being a teacher is only a part of my identity. And I think he's also asking me to consider myself in greater humility despite almost having achieved a Master's degree; that I should step away from the social power this gives me and be willing to do whatever he directs me towards. In short, I think I'm starting to view this degree in a less linear way; it's not just a step towards the next thing, but actually a broadening of who I am as a person. Adding more colors to the portrait, in a way.

Yeshoda, from Nepal, came to the United States one year ago to be with her husband from Sri Lanka. They met at an IFES convention for South Asia. She completed her masters in English literature in Nepal and has been working as a volunteer at the Refugee Development Center in Lansing, Michigan. Here are her words about her Urbana experience:

The main theme of Urbana 15 for me was mission, how you reach people. So I was questioning myself, what's my mission? Do I have to go to other countries? And then for me, I got the answer that I already have traveled from my country to somewhere else. And I have found some refugee students here who don't know about God. So I'm feeling like I am already in the field. God has put me there already. So I'm praying that God will give me some job that I could do in the Refugee Development Center itself, so that I can share with immigrant people, refugee people. What I have understood is, mission is not only going out of your country and serving people., but mission is living Jesus in you, and then bringing him from yourself, and reaching the people who are close to you, wherever you work, reaching the people nearby. That's your mission.

Challenges and advice for graduate student attendees

Other women from the MSU graduate student group offered honest critiques, and it is our hope that these will serve as helpful insights for graduate students considering attending and for those responsible for designing graduate student specific space and conversations at future Urbana conferences.

Carolyn, an engineering graduate student, shared her appreciation for the manuscript Bible studies, appreciating the space to think about things intellectually and logically. She contrasted this with the large evening sessions, which she experienced as more suited to engaging younger students, appealing at a more emotional level. She selectively attended afternoon seminars because only a few appeared to engage specific academic interests, and she expected to hear the same things she has heard before. Because a graduate student’s work usually continues over break in some capacity, Carolyn was conflicted about attending seminars that may not be a good use of time. For her, she said, it was too easy to not go because of the risk of wasting time, and she regrets that she possibly missed out on learning nuggets to influence the “kingdom” due to her desire to use her time well.

Erin is another first-time Urbana participant and in her first year of the MA TESOL program. She tailored her reflections as advice for people who may attend in the future:

  1. Be sure to show up on the first evening to be able to begin with the rest of the students. If you’re going to trim off time, trim off part of the end of the conference.
  2. One of the drawbacks is the lack of time to process through things. Like any conference, it is a packed schedule. Actively plan on skipping things to give yourself time to process alone or make a point to have dedicated time to process with others.
  3. Be aware that logistics can be hard to navigate — the prayer room is valuable if you can find it! There are a lot of opportunities and places to take advantage of and it is worthwhile to prioritize a handful.
  4. Networking opportunities are not built into the schedule overall. Breakout sessions don’t have or take time for you to know others in the room and leaving the main sessions is like participating in a swarming anthill. If networking is part of what you hope for, have a plan on how you will accomplish it, perhaps contacting people ahead of time and taking advantage of opportunities like the Emerging Scholars Network/Graduate Student Ministries lounge.

My own first experience at Urbana was the 2009 conference during the time of my masters degree program. At that stage of life, Urbana was exciting, encouraging, and particularly fruitful for me in revealing InterVarsity’s international links. I had little sense of what exactly my mission was after graduate school; nevertheless, Urbana expanded my perspective and gave me opportunities. One example was meeting with the Dutch-speaking IFES country leaders at Urbana 09, leading to my participation in their 2010 summer retreat event in Belgium.

The six years between Urbana 09 and Urbana 15 is a significant amount of time. My particular story contains a three-year chapter of teaching English in Southeast Asia and nearly three more years of higher education. Needless to say, I approached Urbana 15 with different eyes and tempered expectations. From the outset, I was focused on my goals: to have critical one-on-one conversations, to experience the prayer ministry, and to attend the more academically-focused talks. I participated in a pilot program for graduate students through the Emerging Scholars Network that gathered graduate students in small groups (i.e., social and natural sciences) for virtual meet-ups before and after Urbana as well as an on-site Urbana dinnertime for in-depth discussion on the intersection of lessons from Urbana and our academic pursuits. I also appreciated the panel discussions on the Secular Academy and Women in the Academy & Professions. From the framework of my expectations, I was satisfied with my time at Urbana.

For most of us, attending Urbana as a graduate student was very different from attending as an undergrad. We may not come away with the spectacular highs, but we hopefully have the additional maturity to help us glean from the conference a whole additional set of resources and experiences. Attending with clear goals and expectations in mind, Urbana offers unique opportunities for connection and growth as we as graduate students seek to follow Jesus. 

About the Author

Jessica received her MA in Linguistics from Indiana University and her BA in Speech Pathology and Audiology from the Calvin College. She taught English as a foreign language in Indonesia with the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant and US Department of State English Language Fellow programs. She is pursuing a doctorate in second language studies at Michigan State University. In her spare time, she enjoys trail running with her new dog, creating new crockpot delicacies, and dabbling with guitar and songwriting.

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