My Experience as a Second-Career Student at Princeton Seminary, part 2
This post is a continuation of post 1 from yesterday. I recommend that you read that post first.
2. I feel like I don’t know as much as others. If your first degree wasn’t in Religion or Theology or something along those lines, then you will enter seminary knowing less than some of your classmates. Some of them will take the option to test out of classes like Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament, New Testament, or Systematic Theology based on their undergraduate work. Others will in essence take those classes over again. In your first year, it will be common for you to hear terms in class that you have never heard, but that others around you understand completely.
DON’T panic. You can catch up. Google is your friend – most of the names and terms that you will hear are easily defined online. I remember the first time in Old Testament class that I was taking notes, and an unfamiliar name came up. I looked puzzled, and a young friend leaned over and wrote the correct spelling of the name on my notes. It was a great help. One staff member who was herself a second-career student at PTS told me the story of how she heard the term “hermeneutics” and wrote in a paper about the theologian “Herman Neutics”.
DO get help from others. The professors and teaching assistants understand and are usually willing to help you catch up. Contrary to popular belief, the Old Testament class is not intended as a “weed out” class – the professors truly want you to get through and do your best. The same goes for the language classes. Your fellow classmates will also be willing to help – both the young and the old.
DO know that the situation will reverse itself later. In your second and third years, the classes shift from those with a flood of information in huge lectures to classes that require more thinking and discussion in smaller settings. Your life experience and work experience will be of benefit to you. You may be taking preaching and have to write a funeral sermon, and some of your classmates may have never attended a single funeral. You may take a speech class where you learn to say the Words of Institution for Communion, and your years of hearing them said over and over will greatly help you memorize. In a pastoral care class you may be called upon to role play a situation that you’ve experienced, while your younger classmates have not. At this point, your willingness to share your life and experience will help them.
Also, you have undoubtedly worked in the world, and the same practical work skills (organization, time management, self-direction) will be of great benefit as you learn how to study again. The seminary degree is one where doing all of the assigned work is impossible – you have to figure out what readings must be read, and how to skim them, and how to write. It’s likely that you’ve done that in your career.
3. I feel like I’m missing out on things. This is particularly true if you live off campus. A lot of the community building that happens takes place in the evenings, in the dorms, and between the apartments. If you come on campus for classes, bring your lunch and eat alone, and then go home you will miss out on community. This can also happen if you live in the dorms or apartments.
There are a few ways to fix this.
DO eat lunch at the dining hall every day that you can, even if you bring your own lunch. A lot of the social structure of the campus gets built in the dining hall. DO join groups of people that you don’t know periodically. DO meet friends of friends – some of my strongest friendships can come from those connections.
DO come back to the main campus at night for events and organizations and special worship services. Some of the neatest things that happen at seminary happen outside of the classroom. I participate in the handbell choir that meets every Wednesday for rehearsal, and that time of the week feeds me. Others attend worship services with groups or participate in other organizations.
DO socialize with classmates of every age outside of class. Outside of lunch, too.
Now, this may sound like you have to be a social butterfly, maximum participation extrovert. That’s not true at all. You know when you need to study, and you know when you need to take time for yourself. I’m a fairly strong introvert, and I manage this. One thing that I learned the hard way (by almost burning out) is that seminary forms all sides of you – the academic, the spiritual, the social, the practical. You won’t make it if you concentrate on homework and reading. Sometimes you have to make the decision that right now, this minute, it’s more important for me to connect with other people than to keep up in a specific class. And you have to listen for the working of the Holy Spirit in those moments. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to sit in the dining hall hoping that someone will sit and distract you from work. Because those conversations turn out more often than you’d think to be important moments in your formation.
4. A few last thoughts.
Attend chapel. It’s worth it. And the preacher is often a senior. Someday you will be that senior, and want others to attend your service.
The schedule isn’t set up for those who work. It’s just not – that’s not their priority. Even if you construct the perfect schedule that balances your classes and work and whatever outside life needs there are, it’s not going to work every week. Shoot, the schedule isn’t even set up for those who have Field Ed (except for Wednesday afternoon), and that’s a requirement. Here’s the thing – ministry isn’t on a perfect schedule either. You have to learn to be flexible, and to build resources into your life to compensate for those unexpected emergencies.
Ask for help when you need it – with schoolwork, with mental health, in spiritual crisis, when your car breaks down. There’s an aura at Princeton that seems to require us to act as though we have our stuff together all of the time. The truth is the total opposite – nobody has their stuff together all of the time, and it’s rare that any person has all of their stuff together at the same time. The school is starting to work on breaking down this need for apparent perfection. What that means for us is that we need to work on it from the other side. Let your dirty laundry show some, let people know that you need help, and offer help to others. I hear from others that this is an issue unique to Princeton. Let’s fix it.
Have fun. It’s not possible to study and work and pray and such all of the time. Be sure to take time out to enjoy yourself and recharge your batteries. A 20-minute power nap helps many people to work for several more hours. It’s the same with fun – a fun afternoon helps you to work all weekend to finish a paper. All work and no play makes you a terrible minister.
Last – if you are planning to attend Princeton or considering it, please feel free to contact me with questions. If you will be there for the 2013-14 year (my senior year), please find me and we’ll chat. I live in the area and expect to do so after graduation, so I’ll be around.