A Liberal Arts Education for Missionaries
Written by Sarah Chavey
Why bother spending four years in a classroom studying Greek philosophers and ancient history when you could be spending your time helping others as a missionary or in an orphanage?
That’s what Kathryn Lewis, ’17, wanted to know when she began studying great books at Hillsdale. After spending a gap year doing missionary work, Kathryn wasn’t ready to spend four years in a classroom. Three years later, she is “100 percent convinced” that her studies at Hillsdale are worthwhile.
It was April of her senior year of high school that Kathryn decided to come to Hillsdale. She’d been impressed with the depth of conversation she’d had with Hillsdale students.
“Hillsdale students were able to articulate why they were studying what they were studying, why it was important, and why it mattered for them. They knew who they were and who they were in the context of a bigger story,” she said. However, as she approached the college-decision deadline, she was suddenly hit by the possibility of taking a gap-year to work with orphans overseas—something that had been a lifelong desire.
Within three days of bringing up the idea, everything fell into place.
Kathryn spent what would have been her first semester in an orphanage in Haiti and the second semester at a language school in France. In France, she studied alongside a group of missionaries who were preparing to go long-term into the missionary field of French-speaking Africa. Unlike the missionaries in Haiti who were not educated beyond high school, many of the missionaries in France had attended a liberal arts undergraduate school as well as medical school.
“I really respect the missionaries and know they have thought very deeply about that vision and the broader vision,” Kathryn said. “Their mission is not just to come help but to train Burundians to become their own doctors.”
Kathryn didn’t notice this distinction between the two groups of missionaries immediately. During her first year at Hillsdale, she asked several professors why her education was so important. And she wasn’t the first student to bring the question to the attention of her advisor, Dr. Westblade—who has a somewhat prepared answer. He tells a joke about an airplane pilot who makes an announcement: “The bad news is that the plane is hopelessly lost, but the good news is that we’re making great time.”
“Making good time doesn’t matter if we don’t know our destination,” Dr. Westblade said. “It’s valuable to spend four years thinking about where we’re going.”
Gradually Kathryn began to agree with what Dr. Westblade and other professors were saying.
“I see Hillsdale as a strengthening and a sharpening. My classes have given me this huge gift of knowledge and truth and wisdom that I wouldn’t have been able to receive if I just went off to Haiti by myself,” she said. “If I do go serve people overseas, or if I go spend time in an orphanage again, it will give me so much more context and so much more purpose, and also a greater ability to do that thoughtfully and to do that well, that I wouldn’t have had before.”
Kathryn created two study habits that have helped form her Hillsdale experience. First, she makes it a priority to visit each of her professors in office hours at least once a week. Sometimes she asks them to expand upon a lecture and other times simply stops by to say hello. Second, she creates two big posters for each class. These summarize everything she’s learned and enable her to make connections between topics. She makes one as she studies for midterms and the other during finals. The posters also allow her to keep a little portion of each class.
Kathryn’s dedication to education shines—particularly to her professors.
“She has a serious curiosity. A maturity of inquiry. A kind of passion for her faith that undergirds her studies. And a practical sense of mission that makes the studies relevant,” Dr. Westblade said.
“By sophomore year, I realized there are valuable riches to be uncovered—shaping me, shaping my future, making me a more able parent, friend, and spouse (she married her friend Jonathan Lewis this past summer). I thought, I really do want to commit to doing this, because it’s shaping me and forming me into someone I want to become,” Kathryn said.
Despite her devotion to her education and to her Christian studies major, she has still found practical ways to be a missionary in Hillsdale—primarily through the Hillsdale Spring Break Mission Trip she initiated her freshman year.
“She is happy to work in the background and happy to step up when she needs to,” Dr. Westblade said. “She has the heart to make things happen.”
With the help of another student, Kathryn created the mission trip based on a similar trip from her hometown of Ann Arbor.
“Every year it’s been really incredible how God works in people’s hearts to push them in that direction, regardless of what we’re doing or saying,” Kathryn said. “I think it will be self-perpetuating because every single year people have a real experience and encounter God and see His presence in a new way.”
Through the assistance of Dr. Westblade, the trip has continued to grow each year.
“I think she has a certain charisma that attracts people to her. She has a compelling way of showing students the meaningfulness of a week like this. That contagion just spreads,” Dr. Westblade said. “She’s a complete bundle of good stuff…we should multiply her by 100.”
Though she hasn’t set definite plans for after graduation in 2017, Kathryn hopes to use what she’s learned at Hillsdale to work alongside her husband as a missionary.
Sarah Chavey is a music major from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She hopes to pursue journalism when she graduates in 2017.