Distinguished Professor of Engineering,
As I began my career in the university I realized I had the opportunity to be for my students what no one had been for me – a professor known as a follower of Jesus. Midway through the first semester, I prayerfully crafted a short end-of-class speech including several of my personal interests along with my Christian commitment. But time and time again that first year, I failed to follow through with my intention to talk about my faith. Finally, before the final exam, I did it!
I told the students how much I had enjoyed teaching them, that I was a Christian, and that I would like to visit with any of them who might be curious about why.
I had no takers that first time, but it was a faith barrier which, once broken, would never again be so difficult for me. Now for over forty years I have included a simple statement about my faith as part of my classroom introduction – resulting in many opportunities to encourage young believers and clarify the gospel to non-believers.
Now at the other end of my career in the university, I decided to change my research focus:
What could I do to help the poorest of the poor have a better shot at survival?
Today’s students are very conscious of social needs as well as the spiritual needs of our world. I asked God to give me some ideas.
A former doctoral student suggested I help the 11 million extremely poor coconut farmers around the world. We learned that the typical farmer has 6-8 children, owns about 5 acres, and harvests 5,000 coconuts a year. This brings in only $500 a year.
I prayed, “Please God, let there be something useful and interesting about coconuts.”
My students and I found that the coconut’s components of husk, pith, oil, and shell all have numerous possible applications in gardening, packaging, and for building materials. We can even craft car parts – trunk liners and door panels – from coconuts.
Coconut fiber is cheaper, greener, and has better mechanical properties than polyester. We could potentially increase the income of poor coconut farmers by 50%! Developing technology with patents allows us to create and maintain a significant price for the coconut fiber and shell, and this profit will bless the farmer and the community as well as our investors. For example, we can provide school vouchers for their children to attend schools staffed by Christian teachers or we can supply them with fertilizer that could double their annual crop yield.
It’s a kingdom building ministry: helping people in a holistic way by meeting both their spiritual and economic needs concurrently.
(c) 2012 Walter Bradley
Univ. of Pennsylvania
[Dec. 3, 2012]
Sitting across the desk from me, one of my students was crying. In her seventh year of the combined-degree VMD-PhD program that I direct at the University of Pennsylvania, she had just broken up with her boyfriend—the final straw in an extremely stressful year. Such scenes are not unusual. Our eight-year program is incredibly challenging. During the course of eight years it is almost certain that something unpleasant (or worse) will have happened in the lives of these talented students. As followers of Christ, and university faculty, how are we to respond? But the first question is: Will they even come to you in times of need?
We are all busy folks with many responsibilities and giving attention to the details of student’s lives, much less their academic issues, is time consuming. However, the university is a fantastic place for the Gospel to shine, partly because it is so unexpected. When I advise my combined degree students (which happens multiple times per year) I always end our session with the question: How can I be praying for you? Their initial response is usually a request for clarification. What do I mean by that? After clarification, they usually offer some vague request to do well in the program. But after multiple advising sessions, they begin to come with real prayer requests. In addition, they know that faith issues are on the table if they desire to discuss them.
Why does it matter? First, the Gospel is the answer to essentially all problems we face. An academic answer to a difficult life issue may be what the university has to offer, but followers of Christ have the entire package. When a student crashes and burns they feel extraordinarily weak and vulnerable. Affirming that their identify is not based on their performance, but instead on the fact that they are made in the image of God is surprisingly helpful. Second, it indicates we are interested in them as a whole person, not just as a student in a program or a class. This is reinforced each December when I invite all my students and their significant others to my home for a formal Christmas dinner party. Finally, we are commanded by our Lord to serve those we lead. If I am not supposed to serve my students, who else should I be serving?
So back to the first question. How do we respond when our students come to us with problems? First, we desperately pray for wisdom. Second, we look for the root of the problem, not the symptom. Finally, we offer advice that addresses the root problem. Sometimes that is a simple secular answer. Many times it is not. In those cases, with permission from the student to share something deeper, we have opportunity to call on all our experience and knowledge to give answers. As Christians we have wisdom available to us that surpasses secular knowledge. As students come to know us as people of faith, they will often ask questions about our faith. We are free to answer those questions in detail because it is in response to their question. Not only is this much more fun than the usual academic advice we offer, but with the Lord’s work, it is much more powerful.
(c)2012 Michael Atchison