The epiphany happened early in my teaching career, during a spring semester finals week. As a thank you for being my assistant for several years, I took a graduating senior to lunch, and together we talked about her experience at George Fox University. Even though Rose was a wicked-smart student, an academic success, one of the best assistants I’d ever have, and a talented singer and actor in musical theatre, she admitted during our lunch that she felt like she was graduating a failure. Her reasoning? She hadn’t found ”The One” to whom she could commit life-long marital fidelity.
At that moment, I realized how potent the “ring by spring” mythology can be at many Christian universities, where young people – women especially – assume getting engaged is a true mark of collegiate success. I also recognized, for the first time, that I was not alone: that my own experience at a Christian college was not unlike Rose’s, because I also graduated with a strong sense that there was something wrong with me, since God had not blessed me with a partner who would ostensibly make my life complete.
When I worked on my most recent book, Worthy: Finding Yourself in a World Expecting Someone Else, I wrote with Rose and countless other students in mind. Literally. As I drafted each chapter, I envisioned specific students I’ve taught over the past 18 years at George Fox University, and how they might respond to the specifics of what I was writing. I longed for my students – for all my students – to hear the simple truth that they are each unique image-bearers of our Creator, just as they are, and I constructed my book with this idea predominating in my writer’s mind.
Worthy uses my own experiences and that of my students to examine the many messages we receive, from Christian and popular culture, from our church traditions and families, telling us who and what we are expected to be. One of those expectations – that young women will find a life partner at college and fulfill their God-given role as wife and mother – had made Rose, as beautiful, smart and talented as she was, think she was not good enough. But there are other expectations my students face, too. About their vocational callings. About the trajectory their lives are supposed to take. About their spiritual journeys, and whether their own experience of God – even how they talk about God – is acceptable to a Christian community. About the very fundamentals of their being, and about how they think, act, and feel.
My book explores the different messages about worthiness we all hear, many which serve to divide us from each other and from God. I argue in Worthy that these expectations are often problematic because they keep us from becoming the people God created us to be; and that if we truly believe the Psalmist, who proclaims we are fearfully and wonderfully made, we need to recognize that each of us is worthy of love and acceptance, just as we are. Ultimately, Worthy affirms that Jesus’ life and ministry tells us to love each other unconditionally, no matter who we are, because we are all image-bearers of our Creator.
Writing this book was an extraordinary experience for me, because it helped me contend with not only my students’ feelings of unworthiness, but also with my own. And writing this book was only possible because of my work at George Fox, because I have had so many students, like Rose, who informed my worldview, who taught me while I was teaching them, and who helped me become the teacher and the writer God specifically created me to be.
People sometimes wonder why college faculty members have to produce scholarship if they want to receive tenure or promotion. Every now and then, articles bubble up online that bemoan the uselessness of academic research, or the stupidity of some professors’ research agendas, or the ways faculty scholarship steals resources and time from the classroom. The uber-focused, out-of-touch-with-students professor is a trope that appears in countless television shows and movies.
But here’s the thing: At George Fox, faculty are expected to produce scholarship if they want to receive tenure and promotion, but what they produce is almost always linked to the work they do in the classroom, and specifically with students. We are first and foremost teachers, and what we research and write is influenced and shaped by the students with whom we interact. That is as true for me, writing my book with specific students in mind, as it is for my science colleagues, doing side-by-side research with students in their labs; as it is for those in the education department, using their classroom experiences to test and improve pedagogical theories. We might have been able to produce some of this on our own, apart from our students, but I would argue that it is because of George Fox’s students that faculty members are able to become the thinkers, the writers and the researchers that God has created us each to be.
This fall, I will begin my 19th year at George Fox University. I remain exceedingly grateful that my teaching vocation has allowed me the opportunity to meet so many young people who have transformed my worldview as much, if not more, that I have shaped theirs. My students’ influence, threaded through Worthy, bears witness to the unique culture at George Fox University, where there is always the potential to help students – but also faculty – celebrate our own unique callings and the ways we are each fearfully, wonderfully made and loved by God, no matter who we are.