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 as university faculty, how are we to respond?  Perhaps our first concern ought to be: 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.

Michael Atchison
University of Pennsylvania