By Andrea E.

Strangers and Pilgrims in Academia

I remember starting my first year of grad school at Purdue, arriving at orientation as a highly-sheltered, home-schooled country girl with a Bible-college undergraduate degree. I felt intimidated meeting students who had gone to "the good schools" (or so it seemed to me). The international grad students I met seemed more relatable; they were excited, but nervous, navigating language assessments and visa-related paperwork, unsure exactly how American systems worked. I wasn’t faced with language differences, or entirely new American cultural norms (though the pop-culture references of my US classmates mystified me), but the R1 university felt unfamiliar. As fellow-strangers navigating new worlds, I quickly bonded with them. Together, we navigated that first year of grad school, with all its bumps and hurdles.

I’ve been thinking about that first year of graduate school again lately, in my fourth year on the tenure-track. I’m no longer a stranger to the land of academia. Yet, oddly, the feeling of being in a foreign land remains. This isn’t all imposter syndrome, as a Christian, it points to a deeper truth. I carry different values and allegiances than many of my colleagues. My ultimate goals are different. As a Christian, I am even, as Hebrews 11:13 declares me, a stranger and pilgrim on this earth, with my true home in heaven. I am a stranger, philosophically and spiritually, in an academic world built on allegiance to the human intellect. As much as I love my job as an academic, academia — and even science — is not my lasting home, my true destination. As much as I identify as a scientist and an academic, it is not my only identity. Instead, my primary identity is a woman loved and redeemed by Christ, and called by him to follow him in this field. 

As one whose true home lies elsewhere, I have to play the academic game by slightly different rules. One of the main differences is how I relate to students. To be clear, most of my colleagues love and value students  — advisees, students in their classes, and students in their labs. As a Christian, though, when I work with my students, I am not only guided by professional standards and ethics, I am guided by the sometimes uncomfortable knowledge that I am working with precious immortal souls. I have to question whether my treatment of them — a frustrated snap or ignoring a problem to be “nice” to the student (while allowing me to avoid conflict) is truly loving them and through them, loving Christ. I feel I cannot simply train my students and grad students to be good scientists. I must also carry the longing and prayer that I can point them to Christ, and the hope that my interactions with them will point to Christ’s goodness.

As strangers and pilgrims in academia, we also have to navigate the tricky dilemma common to all expats — do we spend our time with the few people like us, to get a break, or do we intentionally participate in the lives of the people of our host country? As Christians, it can be easy to retreat to the safe harbor of christendom as much as possible and try not to get too friendly with our non-Christian colleagues. This could be because we are afraid that they would judge us if they knew we were Christians, or because we might think we’d have nothing in common. It is a gift to have a friend who speaks our language — whether our mother tongue or the language of faith. Yet how can we be faithful ambassadors if we spend all our time with our compatriots or never acknowledge our allegiances? 

The Filipino, Mexican, and Indian, and Indonesian students who befriended me during our first year in grad school illustrate a way forward for Christians in the academy. While friendship with me had few academic or career benefits — I didn’t have good connections, and I had barely more information on navigating an American R1 university than they did — these students invited me into their lives. They invited me over for meals; we commiserated about and offered advice on each other’s rough lab situations, and showed each other compassion and grace in a culture that offered little of either. In other words, my friends practiced hospitality, though it was I, as the local, who should have been extending hospitality to them. 

As strangers and pilgrims in academia, we should offer hospitality to others on the margins of academic culture, regardless of shared faith. These could be first-generation students who are struggling to figure out university culture and norms, or international students trying to adjust to a new country and language, or minority students, or students struggling with mental or physical health problems — or even struggling fellow faculty. Paul described the Philippians as giving financially, despite their poverty, and although we might feel we are impoverished in terms of social capital on university campuses, we can still give hospitality and welcome to others in similar scenarios. One way to do this for professors is to give undergraduate students opportunities to do research with us (admittedly, this is easier in the sciences). A laboratory or research group can offer belonging and mentoring to students on the edges, and be the difference between a successful transition to a career or graduate school or drifting afterwards. Another practice is to invite students to our homes — whether inviting students who are part of your research group, or volunteering your home for campus grad/undergrad ministry events. Whether or not our role officially involves advising students, we can offer a listening ear and advice to students in our classes/departments. Finally, for those in departments with visiting scholars, post-doctoral researchers, or grad students, we can try to offer welcome and encouragement to them when we see them around the department.

Our calling to hospitality ties into the truth that as well as strangers and pilgrims in academia, we are also ambassadors for Christ as described in 2 Corinthians 5:20. Like spiritual Peace Corp volunteers, and my international student grad school colleagues, we live in a country and among a people that is not our own. Our actions reflect well or poorly on our home country; our lives and words are the first interpersonal introduction many of our colleagues and students (especially in the northeast and northwest of the US) may have to Christianity. So we may be the first call to Christ that many of them have. 

Our sojourn in academia ought to express the call “be reconciled to Christ!” This call is tricky; as a supervisor with influence over students’ future careers, I must be careful to not accidentally pressure a student with my embassage. Yet to be a faithful ambassador, I must at least acknowledge that I am a citizen of heaven. This year, as we studied the Heidelberg Catechism in my small group, I was struck by its first question and its answer:

Q: What is your only hope in life and in death?

A: That I am not my own, but belong, 
body and soul, 
In life and in death, 
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

It so perfectly encapsulated the allegiances and citizenship I carry as a Christian that I wrote it out in calligraphy and hung it in my office. I hope and pray that its bold words pique my students’ curiosity and lead to questions and conversations in the future.

Remembering where our true citizenship lies does have its benefits. When we are afraid that we will not be able to do enough — write enough papers, get enough grants, graduate enough students, get good enough student evaluations — to keep our academic jobs, we can have peace remembering that academia is not our “continuing city” (Heb 11). As a Christian, our true home, our true citizenship — our tenure, if you will — lies in heaven. As a result, we do not need to be as afraid of losing this temporary home (though I would very much like to keep it a little longer!). Instead, we can strive to be faithful in this temporary embassage God has called us to for as long as he calls us to it. 


Image by Mikil Narayani from Pixabay

About the Author

Andrea E. is an assistant professor at a land-grant university in New England. Her research focuses on food safety and food microbiology. In her down time she enjoys hiking, reading, and writing about science, food safety, and faith.

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