University Administration: A Calling Towards Redemption and Reconciliation

faithcoop  •  April 22, 2024

By Kevin Ung

Helping Students Flourish

As a higher education administrator, I have the privilege of explaining the work I do with college students. When I share with someone that I work at Lee University, their first question typically is “Do you teach there?” In my role as the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship director, my responsibilities include developing learning opportunities outside the classroom. I partner with professors to curate undergraduate research projects for first-generation college students from low-income families to successfully matriculate into graduate school. My professional training and expertise centers on student engagement, leadership development, academic self-efficacy, and program innovation. More broadly, I am interested in leadership development, change management, and learning styles such as pedagogy and andragogy.

I thrive when faced with situations that demand strategic planning, operational effectiveness, and outside-the-box ideation. In my world, when students are flourishing and leaning into their professional calling, we consider that a win. Receiving a front-row seat to witness the growth and development of students taking calculated academic risks, unfettered exploration of the mind, and experiential learning is a deeply satisfying experience. As image bearers (Gen. 1:26-27) and co-laborers in Christ (1 Cor. 3:5-9), I feel a deep sense of fulfillment and gratitude to play a small part to advance the Kingdom. While I may not witness the fruit of my investment with students, I can equip and train others to realize their contribution to the world. We walk alongside young adults as they discern their spiritual identity, academic training, interpersonal formation, and professional calling to serve their neighbors (1 Pet. 4:10-11).

Challenges Within Higher Education

If this anecdotal assertion has you contemplating a career in higher education, it does not come without its challenges. From an industry perspective, working at a small, private liberal arts Christian university that is increasingly reliant on enrollment to remain financially operational, we are witnessing turbulent times as demographic research shows a declining human population dubbed “the enrollment cliff” from the low birth rates during the 2008 fiscal meltdown. As expected, this pressure will be realized fully in 2025, which is approximately 18 years after the recession event. This pressure has already caused several universities such as Cabrini University, The King’s College, and Fontbonne University to discontinue classes and shutter their doors. An additional challenge is the public’s perception on the dwindling value of a college education and increased scrutiny on college debt restricting social and economic mobility for future generations. Despite these notions, one fact has remained true: those with a college degree are shown to have greater lifetime earnings than those without a degree.

From a ground-level perspective, one of the challenges of working with students is guiding them along the way but facing resistance from general hesitation or fear about the path forward. For example, our office provides tailored coaching and professional development training to help students secure competitive graduate school (and job) offers. However, I noticed a general resistance towards entering the uncomfortable space of professional networking, requesting informational interviews, or disseminating their research work because they fear the perception of brownnosing, imposter syndrome, or being a nuisance to others. It can be frustrating when we work tirelessly to help students achieve their stated goals, but they resist the path ahead. However, the investment is a fundamentally critical aspect of working alongside young people. Whether I am helping a student wrestle with or redeem their sexual identity framed in God’s design for marriage or navigating interpersonal conflict with their peers, my work as a university administrator allows me to experience the pleasure of God. I can press into the hard conversations and spiritual formation by being present and intentional by meeting students where they are. Admittedly, students do not always walk away with immediate fixes and applicable solutions, but we have the privilege of moving them closer to God’s calling and purpose in their lives. 

My Work as Part of God’s Redemptive Narrative

As a Christian, my faith frames my work and my calling. The grand narrative of God’s story is one of redemption and reconciliation: God created man and woman, and we rebel and sin against God and one another because we believe our ways are better than God’s. The bible illustrates our own efforts to reconcile with God without success, yet God redeems us back to Himself and makes us perfect through Jesus Christ. We live in the coming reality of a new heaven and new earth once Jesus returns. This gospel narrative appropriately guides the work of equipping students to redeem their gifts, talents, and calling and reconciling us to one another and to the Lord. We are invited into a small part of that redemptive narrative and my work as a university administrator (hopefully) clarifies the students’ calling and service to others now and in the future. How exciting is the prospect of intentional discipleship, vocational formation, and academic enrichment during the exploratory years for young adults. College can either be a greenhouse or graveyard for the Christian faith – I find solace that my work might move the needle for students to fully realize their Christian identity and calling. 

College can either be a greenhouse or graveyard for the Christian faith – I find solace that my work might move the needle for students to fully realize their Christian identity and calling.

At the intersection of my faith identity and workplace service, I confess that it is tempting to allow my job title and contribution to dictate my identity and worth. Even worse, I perpetuate this ideology because one of the first questions I typically ask someone is “what do you do for work?” as to measure their value and significance. As if the notion of busyness somehow determines our importance, I strive to resist this mindset. As for best practices and workplace rhythms that help orient my mind, a popular approach I have adopted is to seek daily diversions, weekly withdrawals, and annual abandonment. This methodology helps to center my mindset about the intersection of work, faith, and significance. 

Daily Diversions, Weekly Withdrawals, and Annual Abandonment

Daily diversions are intentional 5- or 10-minute practices to help reset my mind and thoughts about work. I like to spend the first five minutes in my office reading God’s word and orient my thoughts on the greater purpose of my service. In addition, we have a beautiful campus at Lee, so I will often take a brisk stroll around campus to get my blood flowing. These times consist of prayer, seeing students or colleagues by chance on the sidewalk, or resetting my mind after tough decisions or hard conversations with students. However, this might be implemented in practice for you, be diligent in maintaining the appropriate parameters. In other words, it is easy to get derailed and for it to become longer distractions during the day – speaking from personal experience! 

Weekly withdrawals are planned hours-long opportunities to engage in life-giving practices such as attending corporate worship and receiving God’s word in community, engaging in a discipleship or prayer group, or playing competitive games of pickleball. The principle is getting away from work, leaning into community, and replenishing ourselves from the week’s work. When we establish a rigorous work schedule and rhythm of service, we often forget that we need rest from the toil and fatigue. God created the universe and rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:1-3) and Jesus proclaims He is Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-8).

Lastly, annual abandonments are retreats to regather, regroup, and reenergize the mind and soul of our greater calling as followers of Jesus Christ. These occasions may call for a week-long retreat to center our hearts and reexamine our service and calling. My trip often includes my family accompanying me for these planned occasions, whether it is to a gulf coast beach destination or a cozy Smoky Mountain cabin. My greatest motivation towards my work is my investment in my family; thus, I use this occasion to reflect on my care for my wife, my sensitivity to my daughters, and my contribution in the workplace. As complex people with our specific giftings and peculiarities, I recognize the value of introspection and regularly assessing my attention and energy. During this week, I carve out time to ask questions such as:

  • How can I better serve my wife on a regular basis?
  • How have I invested my time in my children?
  • What can I do to better serve our church?
  • Who can I encourage at work?
  • What aspects of my life and work can I be challenged?
  • What is God teaching me in this season?
  • Where is God leading me in the next 1-2 years?

There’s a much longer list of questions to ponder, but my desire is to provide space for self-reflection during this time. I challenge you to discern what these rhythms could look like in your personal life to recalibrate your work and life. As you live out your faith in the workplace, do not disregard the opportunities to recuperate from the demand and rigor in life-giving practices.

In summary, I frame my work as a university administrator within the redemptive and reconciling biblical narrative with students, colleagues, and community members. I value the many responsibilities I carry as an employee, brother in Christ, husband, father, and friend. While the work is good and purposeful, the reminder to rest from my toil and labor is essential for effective service and mindfulness. Whether you adopt the rhythm of daily diversions, weekly withdrawals, or annual abandonment, I encourage you to see that your work matters! We long to hear our God and Father say to us at the end of our earthly contribution, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23a).

Read the previous story in the series of faithfulness here.