It turns out that a year of challenges also can be a year of opportunity.
COVID-19 prevented students in Furman’s Exploration of Vocation and Ministry (EVM) from taking community internships this school year. But the pandemic wasn’t the only major issue of the year. The groundswell of protests about racial injustice provided the framework for an intense issue-based study for two EVM students.
Kilee Knight ’23, a health sciences major, had hoped to intern with a hospital chaplain this year. She was disappointed at first when the off-campus options were postponed due to the pandemic. But she doesn’t feel that way now.
“This was, honestly, probably the best thing I could have done for myself,” Knight said.
Having a safe place to wrestle with tough questions was a relief, especially against the backdrop of turmoil across the country.
“The work that we’re doing is really emotionally heavy, especially if you’ve never diagnosed your white privilege before,” she said.
The Rev. Kate Taber, associate chaplain, leads the racial justice cohort. It’s one of three groups that replaced the EVM off-campus internships this year. The other two groups are studying pastoral care and religion and politics.
Students’ first year in EVM is an orientation to the concept of fusing faith and work. Each year after that, students usually do community internships in settings such as churches, hospitals and nonprofit organizations.
“Heading into this year, we knew that we needed another option,” Taber said.
Her group started with a broad diversity and inclusion theme, but it quickly became clear that Knight and Katie Crockford ’21, both of whom are white, wanted to focus specifically on racial justice.
“What does it mean to be white and desire to be anti-racist?” Taber said.
EVM began the 2020 fall semester with a three-week focus on racial justice for all its students. They explored Hebrew and New Testament scriptures for teachings on race, discussed their earliest memories of awareness of race and assessed their own thinking on race. That group work ended up being a springboard for Taber’s cohort.
She, Knight and Crockford meet weekly to debrief on their work.
They’ve had conversations about disillusionment – how hard it is to talk about race, how little they actually learned before college.
“We thought we knew,” Crockford said. “It turns out we didn’t.”
The fall semester included developing a racial identity autobiography, listening to the “Seeing White” podcast, working through a handbook on racial healing and completing a series of interviews with Furman diversity officials, professionals in their chosen fields and family members and friends.
Some of that work will continue this semester, but the main focus for the spring will be a special leadership project related to racial justice.
Crockford, a religion major, did summer research on spiritual wellness on college campuses. She continued that work as an independent study last fall. Her project may be to develop that work into a paper on the spiritual harm of racism and to seek publication.
Knight wants to organize a Cultural Life Program on racial disparities in healthcare. She feels equipped now for both the emotions and the conversations.
Before this program, “I didn’t know how to put words to it, I didn’t know how to put actions to it,” she said. “It’s really emotionally heavy work, but it’s good work.”
Every week the students have had a chance to try to identify and interrogate their own implicit biases, process personal, community and national events related to racism, and explore what it could look like to engage in anti-racist conversations and actions.
“It’s just a really appropriate year for this to be the conversation,” Taber said. “They’re learning about the nature of the problem, the vastness of the problem.”
In a more typical year, internships would have given Knight and Crockford insight into a particular field. This year, they got insight into themselves.
“It’s a really unique opportunity that I don’t know that they would have had otherwise.” Taber said. “A first, crucial step in introspection and engagement that should be ongoing.”