In August 2001, I began my seminary education as a “special” student. The special classification was because I had no undergraduate degree. I was allowed to take three courses for each of two semesters, after which the admissions committee would decide if an exception to the undergraduate degree requirement would be granted.
Two seminary professors I had met in different circumstances had originally told me of the exception. Each had been aware of my interaction with students who were experiencing difficulties – some while on an immersion trip in Mexico, and another while doing her internship at a church where I worked. In each case the exception was used as a trump card when I played my “I can’t go to seminary – I don’t have a degree” card.
Close to the end of the second semester, my appointed advisor told me not to apply for permanent admission to the M.Div. program because the seminary would refuse to grant it. She stated that the exemption had lain dormant for the forty-plus-year history of its existence. I finished the second semester, and I had accumulated a 3.95 grade point and 6 complimentary reviews from professors. I applied for the exemption.
In early July, I asked the Dean if he had any idea of when admissions would make the decision, at which time he informed me that he had not received my petition to present to the committee. I went to see my advisor who told me that she had not processed it yet, due to a heavy workload. She also insisted that the petition would be rejected, anyway. When I asked why she was so sure, she told me that as of August 1 she would be the chairperson of the admissions committee. She then said, “Goodbye!” with a smile.
While the story has a “happy ending”, this point in time represents a low spot.
Contrary to the affirmative attitudes of each of my professors, and the mild encouragement received from the Dean who knew little about me, my perception of the emotions of my advisor ranged from non-existent at the first meeting to disdain and arrogance at the second. In the first encounter, she was very “matter-of-fact” and showed no appreciable emotion at all. It appeared she was simply stating facts as she saw them. If anything at all, I felt she may have been a little condescending, but I also thought I could be imagining that attitude.
During the second meeting, however, her disregard for me as a potential M.Div. student was tangible. It was not in a personal sense, although the outcome was deeply personal for me, but more in the sense that I represented for her an unsavory category of people. I have recognized similar attitudes when witnessing someone talk disparagingly about “those people” when they have encountered someone different from themselves. My advisor made no effort to clear off a seat, instead requiring that I stand. Her top lip curled slightly as she spoke, almost as if she smelled something pungent, and she peered over the top of her glasses.
After the first meeting with my advisor, I felt a little deflated, but still confident that my work would stand on its own merit. I had experienced good rapport with my professors and, despite being mildly introverted, had developed relationships quite easily with many of the faculty, staff and students. The impact was minor and very short-lived.
The second meeting, however, produced a range of emotions. Initially, I was quite devastated, although I believe I was reasonably stoic while in the advisors office. I was not used to being considered unacceptable unless, of course, I had set up a contentious relationship with an older male. It had been years since I had pursued that pattern, however, and this was a woman about my age. I had done all that was required of me, plus some, and had performed better than anyone, including myself, had expected.
Instead of being angry with the advisor, I was immediately angry with God. God had set me up for this, putting people in my path to reaffirm that this was what I should be doing. These people ran the gamut from church members to Presbytery officials to professors. So why would God set me up to fail? If it was about humility, it was far too cruel.
A friend, another student, talked to me that evening about perseverance in the face of adversity. She pointed out that only one role that I assigned to God actually fit – either God was the instigator of my seminary process, or the antagonist, but certainly not both. I then went through a process examining my relationship with the advisor and determined, mostly due to my limited exposure to her, that this was indeed not personal and not the result of my own sabotage. My initial anger at God appeared to be the result of needing a father figure to blame. I only had good relationships with women in authority, so there had to be a male adversary.
I decided I had to trust – in particular, trust God. I declined the advice of my friend who proposed actively campaigning with professors and students alike, instead leaving room for God to work. I decided that this was the last “test” of the veracity of God’s call on my life – the last affirmation, if you will. At the same time, I made no plans for relinquishing the student housing I had been allocated. I just assumed I would be at the seminary in the coming year.
Now, this was not easy. I fix things. I solve problems. I take charge and do whatever is necessary to bring a desired outcome. While all my instincts said fight, my faith told me to be patient and trust. And I found that I could. Whenever someone asked if I had been given the exception I told him or her that the seminary had not decided yet, but God had. So wait I did, until on August 23, 2002 – two days before the start of the school year – I was granted the exception with no special hoops to jump through.
Subsequently I learned that my advisor, as chair of the committee, gave an impassioned speech about how issuing an exception would diminish the seminary in the eyes of denominations and other seminaries, and detract from the lofty educational goals to which the institution had aspired (or something equally as grand as that). She also located me within a group of people that had no value for, and no right to, higher education since I had no undergraduate degree. I represented the “antithesis” of the students they wished to attract. I then knew that her objections were not personal, just prejudice based on intellectual snobbery. It was only then that I allowed myself to become angry with her. And this, too, passed.