Dec 07, 2015


4 Things About Grad Students

Kevin Stacy writes about the four things you must understand about grad students.

It’s Christmas time, which means that every night there’s another classic movie on TV. Claymations. Songs. Snow. Santa. Iconic images all. But with these traditional Christmas scenes, there is another that has become just as famous: The Island of Misfit Toys. This island is home to a collection of oddballs, who are all asking the question, “Why don’t I fit in?”

At each of our universities there is a group of students asking this very same question. The campus version of a “Charlie-in-the-Box” – not quite students, not quite professionals. We’re talking about graduate students. Here are four helpful tips that will help you better understand and minister to this segment of your campus.

1. They’re not “college kids”

Most grad students will be very quick to inform you of their exact program and progress in study. Why? Because they are not simply undergrad students, and don’t like to be mistaken as such. They are graduate students. But what does that mean? Even the term itself contributes to this identity crisis. One degree has been obtained, but another is in progress. There are still hours of studying and homework, but also a professional schedule involving conducting research, teaching classes, and answering to a boss.
As a college minister, it is important to understand this distinction, and not lump grad students in categorically with undergrads. Not only are most in their mid-to-late 20’s, many are also married or have other obligations outside of school. They live different lives with distinct challenges, and most want to identify more closely with the “adult world” than the campus.

2. They’re extremely diverse

While the undergraduate population on many campuses can be largely homogenous, the grad student population is anything but. Students vary in age and life-stage, country of origin, and school where they obtained their undergraduate degree. In addition to this, they bring a variety of backgrounds and experiences that far surpass those found in the typical freshman lecture hall.

How should this affect your ministry strategy? Grad students are extremely comfortable being around people who are very different from them. In labs, break rooms, and shared office spaces, ideas and cultures are shared in constant flow. Be encouraged, campus minister, to invite these students into your fellowship. They will be used to exploring new experiences and have a natural curiosity.  Not only can this lead to gospel-sharing opportunities, it just may help your current students gain a better understanding of other cultures as well.

3. They crave meaningful relationships

Since the majority of grad students pursue their advanced degree at a different institution than the one where they received their bachelors, they are often starting over when it comes to relationships and community. Think of it as being a 23-year-old freshman. The difference is that as a grad student there are no orientations or retreats to help with acclimation. No student organizations handing out fliers hoping they’ll join. No Greeks asking them to rush. And often, no socials, outreaches, or fellowships targeting them either.

Grad students are often left feeling as if they truly are on an island relationally. Retreating into their studies and research, many may go several years into graduate school and never get to know anyone beyond their lab mates, faculty advisor, or the person they share a cubicle with.

Creating an environment in your ministry that welcomes and pursues relationships with graduate students is key to reaching and retaining them. Be strategic in the way you do follow up with those who visit. Consider that they are likely to connect better with your staff and leadership team than they will with younger students. Also, while the temptation may be to think that you should always meet them on campus because of their busy schedule, most will relish the opportunity to leave the lab for a while to meet elsewhere. As you get to know them better, welcoming a grad student into your home is a phenomenal way to build a deeper relationship and show that you value them.

4. They don’t have it all figured out either

Just because someone is pursuing a graduate degree in a specified field of research doesn’t mean they know exactly what they want to spend the rest of their life doing. In fact, many students are attending grad school precisely because they don’t know what they want to spend the rest of their life doing.
For college ministers, there are two important takeaways from this fact.

  • Among grad students who do not know Jesus, there can be a high level of depression, anxiety about the future, and feeling that their hours upon hours of research and work are all meaningless. This creates an incredibly ripe opportunity to intersect them with the hope of the Gospel, and explain God’s purpose for their life.
  • For grad students who are Christians, it is important to realize the necessity of helping them discern their calling from the Lord, and how they can leverage their life for Him. These students often will have multiple options ahead of them after they graduate – continuing in academia, entering industry, or consulting. But typically they lack the guidance of a mature believer who can help them evaluate these possibilities. Your wisdom as a collegiate leader can be of untold value in this area of their life.

So this Christmas season as you sit down with your family and friends to watch Rudolph save the day again, take some time to pray for those graduate students on your campus who may also feel like “misfit toys,” and consider ways in which you can reach them.

about the author

Kevin Stacy

Kevin serves as Collegiate Projects Specialist with the North American Mission Board. He supports the NAMB Collegiate team by executing initiatives aimed at reaching and making disciples of the 22 million college students in North America.