By Audrey Chan

Math, Teaching, and the Faithful Pursuit of a Call

When I started my freshman year of college, my goal was to be a high school math teacher. This semester, I’m teaching math at a community college for the first time. These two things don’t seem that far apart, but between those fifteen years is a civil engineering degree, five years in full time ministry, years of post-bachelor’s and graduate school, an applied math master's degree, and a long journey of bringing together my strengths, passions, and desires. 

Picking Up Puzzle Pieces

It wasn’t always clear that I was going to return back to the classroom. In hindsight, hearing and following God’s call felt more like picking up puzzle pieces, one at a time, without really knowing what the final picture would look like. I changed my major from mathematics to civil engineering my sophomore year after taking my first abstract math class and realizing that I didn’t want to do pure math. Upon graduating, I joined InterVarsity as a campus minister instead of pursuing an industry job.

The idea of teaching math at a community college first crossed my mind during my second year as a campus minister. I was at InterVarsity’s 2014 National Staff Conference, and I distinctly remember thinking: If I am calling my students to steward their gifts for God’s kingdom, then as someone who loved learning and thrived in academics, I needed to at least seriously consider graduate school myself. At that staff conference, I also crossed paths with InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries department for the first time and had my first interactions with Christian faculty who felt deeply called to serve the university. 

Over the next few years, I continued to serve with InterVarsity’s undergraduate ministry. During that time, I developed close relationships with Christian faculty and started a faculty and staff prayer group. Working with these faculty changed how I saw campus ministry: their commitment to the university,  their thoughtfulness as they engaged their disciplines, and the intention with which they taught and served their students was humbling and inspiring to me. This facet of loving college students through the role of a professor was a significant piece of shaping my call back to education.

Throughout these years as a campus minister to undergraduate students, I also talked to so many students through their academic journey: helping them figure out their classes, encouraging them in study habits, and even helping them with math homework. This itch, this desire to help students academically was another piece of the puzzle. Together, all these things — my early prayer of how to steward my academic gifts, the unexpected ministry with faculty, my love for students, my desire for them to flourish academically — slowly pieced together into a clearer call: to get my master’s degree so I can teach at a community college. 

An Unplanted Seed

After five years of full-time ministry, a geographic move opened the door to two significant changes. First, I changed from ministering at a state university to leading Bible studies at community colleges, which meant I got to work closely with underserved and first-generation students. I witnessed their drive and their commitment to their communities, but I also saw the hurdles they faced in their academic journey. Their stories inspired me and solidified my commitment to serving and teaching the community college student population. Secondly, I shifted to part-time ministry and started taking upper division math classes so I could satisfy my prerequisites for graduate school. A lot of people in my life were surprised when I began taking classes, because at that time, I had only told a handful of people about this simmering dream to teach at a community college. Most only knew me as a campus minister with a Civil Engineering background. In the four years between the first idea of graduate school and finally starting the journey, it felt like I was carrying a seed around, not knowing when or where to plant it. It wasn’t an impatient or uncomfortable wait; it was more like a curious possibility, waiting to come to fruition. 

When I finally took my first math classes again, all my mental muscle memory came back as I was thrown into formulas, equations, and theorems. Being back in school activated a part of my brian that had been latent, and the mental stimulation reminded me that we have a God who knows us, knows how he created us, and knows how he wired us. I remember feeling like being back in school was so natural while also having to explain to surprised friends that returning to school was a decision that was years in the making. I hadn’t talked much out loud about my plan for graduate school, but when it was finally time, it was clear it was the right move. 

The Faithful Pursuit of a Call

As a graduate student, I took the opportunity to teach lecture courses as a Teaching Associate. Since I started grad school during the pandemic, my first few semesters were all taught virtually. In January 2022, when classes finally met in person, I walked into the empty classroom where I would be teaching calculus for the semester. It felt like a moment I had been waiting for, so close to the end goal of being a math professor. In my first few lectures, I felt myself engaging my students and facilitating class discussions using skills I’d honed through years of leading Bible studies and workshops for InterVarsity students. But now, I was standing in front of students teaching derivatives and integrals, and I loved it. There were moments in office hours where I rotated between five different students and watching topics click for them that I felt, “I could do this my whole life.” It felt so much that the classroom was the right place to be that I told my husband, “What have I been doing my whole life?!” He gently reminded me that I was called to student ministry for the previous season, and that I also really loved that role as well.

I graduated in December 2022, and this past August, I started teaching for the first time without the priority of juggling my own studies and thesis work. It felt surreal to finally be a Math Teacher, not primarily a graduate student who was also a TA. I taught part-time as a lecturer at my alma mater and also at a private K-8 school. Even though the latter demographic was completely new to me, within my first couple weeks teaching, my prevailing thought was this: It feels like I've been teaching my entire life.

If the call back to teaching math felt like a seed that I carried around for years, then actually teaching now feels like the seed is planted and flourishing. I resonate deeply with Frederick Buechner’s quote: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I know not everyone has the opportunity or privilege to pursue their passion, nor does their desire always translate to a sustainable job or career. So I feel immensely grateful to be working in something I love and feel deeply called to.

It took four years between the first thought of “Maybe graduate school?” to finally enrolling and starting prerequisite classes. It was another five years (including two babies and semesters of maternity leave in between) to finish my degree.  Sometime in the middle of those nine years, the “maybe” turned definite, and my call to teach became sure. And this semester, I’m starting my first position at a community college, which was always the dream. Teaching feels intuitive and natural, my care for students is vast, and I feel like there’s nothing else I want to be doing for work. 

About the Author

Audrey completed her MS in Applied Mathematics and teaches math at a community college in northern California. She previously worked with InterVarsity as a campus minister, where her time investing in students, faculty, and the university paved her way back to academia and the classroom. She enjoys cooking, hosting, and being with her family.

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