How My Students Inspire and Challenge Me

I’ve taught for a number of institutions, quite a few classes, and in a variety of settings. I’m writing this brief note off the cuff just to express how humbled and appreciative I am of being a faculty member of University of the People in particular (and I’m pausing my grading assignments just to do it—because I want to, just “for the hell of it.” And, who knows, it might raise important issues for thought. I would say “food for thought,” but I hate that metaphor and its overused.)

U of People was started by an Israeli billionaire who, after a long career in educational tech, saw how people are trapped in poverty, misery, and the trauma of middle eastern wars, and he realized that the one ticket that could help them escape and do better in life long-term perhaps more than any other is…education.

But education to the poor is not available, or it’s not in English, or it’s too expensive, or ______ and ______. Poverty is systemic.

So? He created a system, the University of People: tuition-free, accredited in the U.S., available to anyone online. And it’s working, with over 300,000 students. It also recently launched a branch entirely in Arabic. It truly is, a University of the People.

My students over the last two years are some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever come across. And from the most diverse backgrounds and story. Most are from outside the U.S., and English is a second language. My role in grading their learning journals for economics and business is more than just a glorified teaching assistant. As any professor or teacher knows, there’s a therapeutic element to it: students disclose personal information and talk about things in private with their profs that they share with no one else, perhaps because they couldn’t, or are too afraid, or have no one around, but they know we have to read what they write. There is security and trust built into a formal relationship between student and teacher that I sometimes forget about. It’s also a dynamic that I wish all people would experience, but that not everyone gets to.

Some of my students have been surgery assistants on the front lines of civil wars, they’re typing on their laptop moments after taking off their bloody gloves. Some of my students have had their entire neighborhood destroyed by bombs, and now they’re typing on a laptop inside a refugee tent with nothing else but a backpack and the clothes they’re wearing. Some of my students have dropped out of law school because of misogyny, corruption, and for keeping their integrity. Others have worked dehumanizing jobs to take care of their family—literally preventing them from starving to death. Two of my students have begged for help because of what the recent military coup is doing in Myanmar.

I have more than once been brought to tears reading stories about desperate situations of vulnerable, hopeful college-age students getting wrecked from one economic situation or another, and taken advantage of in a system of neocolonialism that continues from  centuries ago and perpetuates itself through the American empire, statism, and global capitalism.

In sum, it seems to me that most people in this world are just trying to survive, and ontop of all that, there are these students typing on their computer and reading books in hopes of a degree, and a better future.

These are people. These are the “other 99%.” Being a faculty member at another international university in a very different part of the world has confirmed that my general experiences are not just local. These are real people and they know the meaning of “opportunity cost” and “economic sacrifice.”

And I’m not sure we do, we privileged Americans.

And something deep within the recesses of my soul repulses in disgust at, so much. First of all, this bizarre state of affairs, this pluriform world of such dramatic difference, indifference, and inequality that one person can experience all at once—in my comfortable home in a safe place, entering into the world of others across the waters who are neither comfortable nor safe. And where I once felt envy, I feel sick to my stomach thinking about what it would be like to be a professor at Harvard or Yale, teaching students whos idea of “achievement” and “challenge” is so profoundly different, and for all practical purposes, are probably there because of inherited family wealth.

As a young academic (compounded with the insecurities bestowed by default cultures of toxic masculinity and white supremacy), I’m always in search of legitimacy and validation. On the look out for achieving power and influence. Another (more) prestigious article, another (more) conference presentation, a better faculty position, a bigger book contract. In some ways, it’s because of trying to increase my own probabilities of “survival” (though I’ve quickly learned that “publish or perish” is now “publish and perish”). But it’s also because of my social environment and cultural expectations, which are rarely healthy for body, soul, or mind.

On the other hand, nevertheless, I’m pulled into a totally different direction: serving people who need it most. It’s taken some strange twists and turns in my journey to really nurture that flame into a good fire, but it’s not going out now.

And it’s just occurring to me in recent days that there are educational institutions that differ precisely along this bifurcation. Some pursue prestige. Others pursue the common good. The vision of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and CalTech is radically different than that of ASU, U of People, or so many community colleges and even some private liberal arts institutions. The former pursue prestige and entitlements, the others are designed to benefit the many. One vision is exclusive. The other is inclusive. I know I’m probably late to this realization.

But I also want to ask: Which kind of university you think Jesus would create?

I remember hearing someone refer to Fuller Seminary as a “prestigious seminary.” I was baffled. How is “prestigious seminary” not an oxymoron, given the attitudes and calling seminary professor and pastors are supposed to instill in other people?

Economically, I should place my bets and long-term hope in those institutions with the largest endowments. But I don’t anymore. My bets are not on those that pursue “prestige,” especially in Christian higher ed, whether a Calvin or Wheaton or Fuller or whatever. All three of these aforementioned institutions are, by the way, shrinking or suffering in some substantial way (declining enrollment, selling campus out of necessity, taking huge risks in building new programs, etc.)—partly because younger generations have access to a global world in a global society and so experience the dramatic disparities of inequality in a way that no one else has before, and they realize the “ladder to the top” and “American dream” is some bygone generation’s construct and dream, and not their own. Gen Z doesn’t seem to care so much about prestige, unless its a video game with digital coins. The value and demand of exclusivity and prestige is not always growing; in some ways, it is dying—perhaps as it should.

Because one cannot serve two masters. One will either hate one and love the other, or hate the one, and love the other.

I didn’t know what to expect when I became a volunteer prof for U of People. If it’s free, surely the quality of students would be low, right? I couldn’t have been more wrong. I hope one day to have the courage, the integrity, the determination, the heart and soul of these kids and adults and entrepreneurs who aren’t letting an evil world have the last word.