I started my job at Benedictine College, a Catholic college in rural Kansas, a week after finishing my RCIA classes. Not only was I growing as a higher education professional, but also I was getting an education about faith every day. It’s been such an interesting experience coming from secular, state institutions to a private religiously-affiliated school– in other words, I had to go to Kansas to realize I was “no longer in Kansas, Toto.”
However, having worked at both types of colleges has given me an interesting perspective to how higher education professionals relate to each other. I’ve gotten genuinely curious questions, derogatory questions, to absolutely hilarious questions:
In honor of the recent #sachat buzz on faith and my one year work anniversary, I’d like to unpack a few things I’ve heard over the past year:
“Do you even care about social justice?”
I think that having this conversation is such an important reminder that we need to talk about social justice in its many forms in every facet of our work. Every higher education professional, regardless if they are at a secular or religious institution, is helping students find the tools they need to change the world around them.
At the same time, I could retire early if I could get $5 for every time I’ve answered this question. Okay, maybe not retire, but I could treat my entire department to Taco Wednesday with queso for everyone. Anyway, yes, our institutions really care about social justice. There are two important facets to this. First, we’re also bound by state and federal regulations regarding discrimination and campus reporting. Inexplicably, this has come up several times in conversations I’ve had.
Second, religious colleges are bound by the values of the faith they are affiliated with. Thus, social justice looks and feels a little different than it would at its secular peers. Our students and staff are involved with eliminating food insecurity in the community, hundreds of our students participate in the March for Life in Washington DC every year, and our campus community really values sustainable living; all tenets of the Catholic Church’s teachings.
“Oh, you work at a religiously affiliated university. I could never do it…”
My experience with statements like this taught me to be more intentional about how I ask about the jobs of others. In some conversations, we both know that we wouldn’t be a fit in the other person’s role, so I ask about their experience—Do they enjoy working with the students? What projects, events or initiatives are they working on? How’s the food on campus?
When I first started hearing people say this to me, I thought “Oh, it’s not a good fit for them. Okay!” without a second thought. But every once in a while, I realized that it was a loaded statement to the effect of “I wouldn’t work there because you people are absolutely crazy and I don’t agree with you.” I completely understand that sometimes values and opinions don’t mesh, but there’s a line between stating that and throwing shade at someone.
It’s made me more empathetic to other professionals that end up dealing with hot-button issues on campus—it’s hard enough to hear the media or others talk badly about your workplace, let alone someone that is your professional peer. In those situations, I turn the conversation back to their individual work and the contributions they are making to their community. If anything, I’ve become very careful to not inject my opinion of their institution’s values and culture, because in the end, it isn’t about what I think.
“I don’t even know what I’d do if I worked for a school like yours.”
To be honest, you do exactly the same things you’d do at any new job: you would learn about campus traditions, values, and procedures. If you have a question about values, ask someone or find a resource. One of my coworkers genuinely suggested that I pick up Catholicism for Dummies on my Kindle, and it’s been one of the most accessible resources I have. Go to events, ask questions, and find professional resources.
Whenever I get asked this question, it makes me thankful that I’ve worked for secular and religious colleges. I’m able to empathize with the curiosity that many professionals have for the other institution type. Whenever I get asked this, I talk about the aspects of every college that remain the same—the students, learning and campus traditions.
Yes, there are professional resources for higher education professionals of faith, regardless of institution type or religious identity! I really recommend connecting with the NASPA Spirituality and Religion Higher Education knowledge community or ACPA’s Commission for Spirituality, Faith, Religion and Meaning. I’ve also learned a lot and considered new issues across many faith identities by reading peer-reviewed research as well. For every question, there is an answer or a great conversation to be had.
All in all, we’re all here for the same reason: to facilitate the growth of our students. Every institution does this with a different set of values, skill set, and knowledge. It’s up to each higher education professional to ask questions of one another to create a better understanding of our common goals.