How Christians Navigate College and Career
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me …” (Gal 2:20)
“I see the world through my faith as a Christian,” says Angelique Henderson, an economics concentrator from Brooklyn. Angelique says her thoughts, decisions, and actions all relate to her faith in Jesus Christ. “I try to live by the two greatest commandments, and everything flows from that,” she says.
But what exactly does that mean? Many Christians assert that their faith guides their lives, but how does a faith in Christ translate to the realities of being a college student and being a working adult in the real world?
I talked with six Christian seniors at Harvard, each with varying concentrations and potential career paths, to understand how Christians at Harvard think about their faith, academics, and future careers.
Introducing the Seniors
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom 12:2, ESV)
An economics concentrator from Louisiana, Dan Cooper grew up in a strong Christian home where his father served as a worship leader in their church. However, while he was surrounded by Christian influences from a young age, it wasn’t until college that Dan began to make his faith his own. “It took a long time to transfer from my childhood religion and develop a faith and identity of my own. I came to Harvard with lots of questions about faith, but at Harvard I realized how essential a relationship with God is to my survival and contentment in life.” In essence, moving to Harvard forced Dan to confront the faith he’d long held and actively decide that it was truly his own.
Like Dan, Haris Domond, a senior government concentrator from Florida, realized a new fervor to grow close to God during his sophomore and junior years. “I started going through a faith transition. I moved from Apostolic Pentecostal [a Christian denomination] to mainline Christianity, and I came to understand a lot of long-held doctrines of Christianity and really sought out truth.” His strengthened faith led him to seeking a leadership position within his fellowship group on campus. “I’ve been a worship leader since junior year,” he says.
For Dan and Haris, college facilitated a spiritual transformation that ultimately led to a more mature faith in Christ – one built upon personal commitment to growing a strong relationship with God.
They credit Christian community at Harvard for playing a huge role in sharpening their faith.
Haris says, “Coming to college, I was nervous about faith. I heard all sorts of stories about Harvard being liberal and maybe not welcoming towards Christians, so I was surprised to find the community of Christians here, and really blessed by it!”
A philosophy concentrator from Colorado, Nate Otey can also describe the blessing of Christian community at Harvard. “There is a community of Christians here that think and argue about important issues. This challenged me. I found people like me – people who are personally ambitious, like to think, like to talk about stuff, and are willing to treat God with their thinking caps on.”
Jane Thomas, a Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator, feels similarly. “Being around smart Christians who think critically about biblical scholarship and exegesis and theology and what is going on has demonstrated to me how much to be a thinking Christian is not to be an oxymoron. At Harvard was the first time I encountered serious Christians who had a more mature view of Christianity. Ultimately, Harvard has helped me to grow in my boldness in admitting I’m a Christian, and realizing how much of Christianity can’t be done alone. I really found God at Harvard, in a lot of ways. That’s not an understatement.”
Through this finding God at Harvard, each of these seniors highlights the spiritual transformation that college fosters. Yet just as a Harvard education requires four years, transformation too is a process that requires time, and often it’s a painful process. Transformation exposes the vulnerability in us and forces us to confront our doubts, our weaknesses, and our sin.
“He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (Jn 15:2)
College is a time that fosters this transformation, and thus it encompasses years of trials and struggles, of homesickness, loneliness, confusion, stress, anxiety, and failure.
This is not foreign to Angelique. “Harvard has been the fiery furnace – the lion’s den. It’s been a rough journey.” Specifically, she references her studies. “Freshman year, choosing a concentration was a rough process of elimination. I chose econ, and literally cried after every econ exam the whole year. It was so bad and I thought maybe I’m not supposed to study this. I almost dropped out of school during finals week.”
Yet despite the pain of failure and the frustration of the unknown, Angelique realized that the one constant in her life was her faith. “I would pray a lot and I would read a lot of scripture, specifically Philippians 4:13.” Through her struggles, she knew she could depend on God and draw strength from His word.
While Angelique’s faith guided her through academic trials, Nate Otey realized his need for God after taking a gap year.
Nate “walked away from God for a couple years.” He says, “I hit bottom with doing my own will. Now I’ve found myself needing to give my entire life back to God, in a very practical way. If I’m not doing God’s will, my will is not working.”
In turning away from his Christian roots, Nate recognized that he was not satisfied with his own way of life, ultimately leading him to discover that God’s will is most important. “My life doesn’t belong to me, my time doesn’t belong to me, and neither do my relationships. Either I give them to God and He uses them in cool ways, or I try to use them to service myself and I’m basically unhappy.”
Like Nate, Dan Cooper came to the same realization. A dangerous boat wreck during the winter break of his junior year forced him to be hospitalized with a concussion. This, combined with a painful breakup, led to what Dan describes as “the lowest point in my life.” Yet through it all, he says, “The only thing that helped me recover was my faith in Jesus Christ. He is the only one who gave me hope.”
Specifically in regard to Harvard, he reveals that “the whole course of my time here has helped me realize that founding my identity in anyone other than Christ is a waste of time and not working towards my purpose here at Harvard.”
How Academics Have Challenged and Shaped Their Faith
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue; and with virtue, knowledge, …” (2 Pet 1:5)
Dan recognized that he needed Christ to work towards his purpose while in school. Yet, as a student, surely Dan’s purpose had to involve learning — engaging with people and ideas in order to grow in one’s own knowledge and understanding. Because of this, a Christian student such as Dan, viewing the world through the lens of faith, must reconcile faith and academics.
Jane has experienced this through studying science at Harvard. “As an evolutionary biologist I feel a great sense of honor to have this avenue of science to get this insight into the way God goes into creating, and the way life is dynamic.” She continues, stressing, “It’s really important to me that I try to reconcile what I’m learning in evolutionary biology with what I learn in scripture and in church.” Ultimately, studying science has given Jane an avenue to test and strengthen her faith.
Like Jane, Nate’s academics have also enhanced his faith. “Learning philosophy at Harvard and being a student has helped me sharpen my critical thinking and reasoning, and thinking about the world and what’s important. Because of that I feel more comfortable talking about my faith, and it seems so much more clear to me. It’s made my faith more firm, and I’m comfortable talking and having questions. I’m comfortable talking to an atheist about tough questions and arguments because I’ve already encountered a lot of them.”
Ultimately, he concludes, “I feel like I’ve shopped a lot of the other worldviews on the market and none of them are really better than Christianity. So I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.”
Just as Jane and Nate strive to continually reconcile their studies and their faith, so too does Brian Zhang, a physics concentrator from California. “I think there’s a bit of a tension studying physics and being a person of faith. On the one hand, you do see a lot of order in what we’re studying, and I think physics points to a moment of creation in the universe and that can all be, for me, really humbling, and leads me to think there must be a God that created this. At the same time, studying physics also leads to questions. Oh, the world seems perfectly mechanistic – it doesn’t seem like God is active. So how do we explain the presence of miracles if everything has physical appearance?”
Despite questions, Brian continues in faith. He says, “The conclusion I’ve come to is that even as we study science as repeatable physical laws, I still believe that God is the creator of everything physical that we observe and is Lord over that and has the power to act in ways that are supernatural.”
In pursuing their academic passions at Harvard, each of these seniors has had to grapple with difficult questions. Yet though the process is arduous and challenging, and clear and easy answers aren’t always available, they have realized that God is sovereign and He provides.
Haris summarizes this, expressing how being at Harvard has forced him to value seeking truth and being honest. “At Harvard, I’ve come to have a stronger faith, and through changes in faith, I’ve learned about honesty and how important that is – being honest with yourself and deliberate in decision making. If you’re doubting or if you’re not sure about something, that’s okay. Be honest with God and if you have a question, that’s okay! I’ve learned that God is okay if you have a question, and he wants to answer it, and he can answer it.”
Choosing a Career
“For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Rom 12:4-5)
Perhaps one of the scariest questions in life is what to do with it, and for these seniors, it is time to answer this question. While some have figured out exactly what they want to do, others still have no idea.
The decision of what to do after graduation was relatively straightforward for Dan. After a successful internship the summer after his junior year, he accepted a job offer with APT, a consulting firm in Washington D.C. In choosing to accept this job, he said, “It seemed like a place where I could grow as a person and grow my business and relationship skills. It also provides a great opportunity for me to impact the community, because there are a lot of people there excited about being in the community and the firm has a flexible framework that allows me to do service work as well.”
When asked if this job allows him to fulfill his purpose, Dan commented on the relationship between purpose and career: “When talking about careers, whatever you end up doing in your career should be a means of achieving your purpose first and foremost. It’s sometimes unclear what God’s purpose is for your life, but I think He places some kind of passion or vision in all of us, and it’s our responsibility to respond to that.”
While Dan has chosen to act upon his passions by working for APT following graduation, he expressed uncertainty when thinking about the long-term future. “It’s still not very clear… but God has given me a vision for my life right now. I’m going to continue seeking God through all of it.”
Like Dan, Nate has also decided upon a job directly after graduation. He has decided to work with a nonprofit startup called Thinker Analytix. “It’s interesting and helpful,” he says. “I like high school kids. I like teaching and tutoring. I’m interested in philosophy. It’s sort of where what I’m good at meets what I like to do. I have the tools and I have the window of opportunity. I definitely feel like it’s well within God’s will for me because it allows me to be serviceable to a lot of people.”
In thinking about God’s will and purpose, Nate feels similarly to Dan. “I don’t see God as having one particular career in mind for most people. With some people He does this, but with most people it doesn’t seem that way. So odds are God is not calling you to a particular job. We have a lot of latitude from God.” Meditating on this latitude has caused Nate to consider going to law school or divinity school in the future, which would allow him to pursue some of his other passions.
Unlike Dan and Nate, however, Angelique Henderson knows exactly what she wants to do after graduation, and for the rest of her life. “Originally, I thought I was going to law school. But I studied abroad in Madrid junior fall, and while I was there I got to be on Spanish TV. I asked myself, why am I not doing this? I decided I don’t want to represent the entertainment. I want to be the entertainment.”
Immediately after graduation, Angelique is moving back to New York to pursue acting professionally. When asked if she feels this is God’s calling on her life, she said it was. “It’s what He created me for. My goal is international acclaim as an actress to spread the gospel through that platform – living out a testimony of what’s possible when God is behind.”
While Angelique is certain about her career as an actress in the entertainment industry, Jane is absolutely convinced that she will become a doctor. “I have always wanted to be a doctor. I’ve never doubted it. I feel lucky about that. One thing I love about medicine: you can be a run-of-the-mill, normal doctor and be good to your patients and practice good medicine and love those patients as much as you can. It’s a guarantee that I can be of service to people who are really in need. Being of service, I think, is one of the ways I know how to love people. That’s something that is really important to Jesus – that love looks like service.”
This idea of service is also attractive to Brian and Haris. However, they are still trying to figure out exactly how and where they plan to be servants. Brian is considering software engineering jobs and potentially graduate school for computer science. “I’m trying to figure out a next step that I think makes sense. But I’m not entirely sure where I’m headed long-term and how this fits into it.”
When asked if he feels this is God’s calling on his life, he expressed he doesn’t audibly hear a calling from God. Rather, he says that the first step to discerning a calling from God “would be to look inward about what things I am passionate about and have enjoyed in the past and then also just looking at what needs and opportunity are out there. Ultimately, as long as you feel like what you’re doing is in line with the way of life God reveals to us through the Bible and through Christian community, I think there’s freedom to pursue a lot of different things.”
In not having an exact plan after graduation, Brian expressed that indeed he is nervous about the future. “I get anxious about this – moving to a new place, facing the unknown, starting over in some ways, creating new friendships – and a lot of people do! But that’s part of life. For me, I’m praying that God will lead me to a good place and environment even though I don’t know what that will be like.”
Yet even though he doesn’t know exactly what he’ll be doing for a career, he does know what he will be doing as a Christian in his community, wherever it may be. “One thing I’ve heard from a pastor is: invest in whatever community you’re in, even if you won’t be there long. Don’t just ask what I can get out of it, but how can I be pouring into it. I plan to take this mentality.”
Like Brian, Haris is still contemplating what he wants to do in the future as well, both short-term and long-term. He came to college with a plan to go to medical school and eventually become a physician. He even completed all of the pre-med requirements and took the MCAT, but he says he decided not to pursue medicine right away.
“I really prayed about it and tried to seek God on whether or not this was his plan and promise for me. For the first time instead of seeing medicine as a for sure thing, I realized I could go to God about it and I should ask God about it, and not just assume that I already knew his plan for me.”
When asked what he is doing after graduation, he exclaimed, “I don’t know!” However, he continued, “But what I do know is that there’s nothing to worry about. What I’ve learned more than anything in college is that God is faithful and will make things happen in amazing ways. What we do on earth and in our vocation is to give people a glimpse of heaven. That’s our goal. So whatever it is, being a doctor, working in policy, or being an academic, we are to give people a glimpse of heaven and altogether as a body, we further esteem him. Because one day all that work is going to mean something even greater than what it does right now.”
Confidently, he concludes, “I’m looking to do that,” and refers to Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Throughout college, these seniors have experienced ups and downs – in their academics, in their relationships, in their spiritual lives, and in their understandings of what their future may hold. Yet through it all, they have learned to place their trust in God and recognize that He is Lord over their lives. From choosing what to study to contemplating what to do with their lives after college, Christ has become the focal point in it all. Because of their faith, these seniors emphasize the value of service. Regardless of the answer they have about what they plan to do with their lives, they know that, ultimately, no matter what they do, they will do it to serve their Lord and Savior.
But it’s not all about the future. They have work to do now, too.
Jane describes this. “We are called to be salt and light in the world. Salt makes everything else taste better. It brings out the best of everything else, and I can do that in the workplace but also I can do that now.”
She concludes, “As a Christian, my vocation is now. I’m called to be of service now. In the position that I’m in right now. The kingdom of God is now.”
1 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (NKJV)
Brooke Dickens ’16 is a pre-med neurobiology concentrator in Cabot House and staff writer for the Ichthus.Tags: academia, college, faith, Harvard University, hope, love, philosophy, science, university, vocation, work