March 20, 2019
To the Administration of Columbia Theological Seminary,
I was asked to speak at a lot of events at Columbia: to donors, prospective students, alumni, the board. From the first time I began telling my story at CTS, it began like this, “As someone who came from a large Southern school that is majority white and still very segregated, my first day of Greek school at Columbia was very surprising. In my Greek small group of eight, I was the only one under 30, in good company with many women, and one of only two white students. My Greek TA was Korean American, my daily study buddies were Korean and Vietnamese, and my classmates who sat on either side of me during class were African American and African. In this, Columbia felt and feels different. However, I learned that CTS, like all seminaries, like all churches, has work to do and challenges to overcome. Dr. Van Dyk has said that, ‘diversity is not inclusion.’ Truly, Inclusion is what we are working towards, but have not yet achieved…”
The fact that I and other white students were asked to speak so often, compared to my International and classmates of color was brought up often in student circles. The student experience at Columbia is very intense and hard because there are so many issues with how students are treated who are not American, white, middle-class and above, residential, without disability, and of a look and sound that photographs well for advisement or sounds good in front of donors. We are taught to be imaginative, but it is clear to students that the systems in place at CTS could use a heavy dose of Christian imagination.
The current mistreatment of international faculty is heart-breaking to me, but not surprising. While at Columbia, I spoke with many of our non-white faculty, both domestic and international, and there was a thread between them. The academy and Columbia favor the white, Western way of embodying a professional academic that does not as highly weight a professor’s investment in their denomination, church, community, and students as it does their publishing and teaching. There have been serious pitfalls, from a student’s perspective, in how faculty of color are evaluated. The things I learned from observing Dr. Park and Dr. Azumah in their church contexts, being welcomed by their churches, being taught by their parishioners over a period of time, is of just as much value to me today as a working pastor as the deep and insightful things I learned from them in their or any classroom. I want to recommend CTS to my students at UKirk Lexington considering seminary because of these experiences, for good teaching and theological insight are found in many seminaries, but CTS is a treasure for its diversity of staff, faculty, and students. Yet, faculty are all measured by one Western standard, which is unfair for an institution that claims to value and benefits from both its domestic and international faculty alike.
The current mistreatment of international students, specifically a lack of regard for their needs in dismantling the Office of International Programs and dismissing Dr. Park who was head of the Korean American Ministries, is heart-breaking to me for many reasons, all of which have names. The African friend who sat next to me my first day of Greek school and became a deep friend to me was Dinah Baah. She is still the most prophetic preacher I have ever heard. My dear friend Richard Johnson is still one of the most loyal friends I made at Columbia, we still communicate with each other, and he faced many issues when arriving to Columbia. My dear friends Gerlyn Henry and Garam Han are sisters and peers who I will rely on for the rest of my life. I know these and many other international students depended heavily on the dedicated Office for International Programs when arriving to Columbia, and throughout their time there. As someone attending seminary at a place that does not show international students it values them as highly as other students in the classroom and community, in a country that is hostile to immigrants, the support of the Office for International Programs was essential to their ability to be successful.
How could I, as an alumni that benefited so much from my friendship with international classmates, diversity in the classroom, and learning from international professors, not support my international peers at Columbia in asking for the following from the administration:
The reinstatement of the Office of International Programs;
That the Director of the Office of International Programs be filled by an immigrant faculty member who is globally trained and empathetic to the interests of immigrant and international students; and
Seats at the decision-making table for representatives of the Coalition of International Students and Allies when key decisions are made related to the Office of International Programs, or decisions impacting immigrant and/or international students as a whole.
I urge the administration of Columbia to take the solutions proposed by the international students of Columbia seriously, and take less time in instating them. I am disheartened to see people I value so highly leave the Columbia community because we are so colonial in how we make decisions, so unable to get out of our white, Western ways of thinking higher education should be done. I want to be able to recommend students to Columbia because my experience, though intense and hard, in a diverse community was invaluable to me, the most valuable thing Columbia has to offer. But I am afraid CTS will become less diverse if we do not use our Christian imaginations to move our community past diversity to a more true inclusion, affirmation, and equity of all. I write all of this out of a love for the community of Columbia, a deep gratitude to all international staff, faculty, and students, and a hope that we can together live into the Kin-dom of God a little bit more each day, by the Grace of God.
Rachel VanKirk Mathews
M.Div, Class of ‘18