Another term about to begin, another season of being a Special Student. (Stop snickering. Don’t think I didn’t hear you!)
You see, Austin Presbyterian Seminary categorizes those of us who are neither fish (degree-seeking) nor fowl (auditors hanging out) as Special Students.
Grad school being what it is, most campus conversations I have with new-to-me people run roughly like this:
What’s your degree (plan)? —I’m not; I’m a special student.
Oh! How long have you been attending? —This is my (n+1)th semester.
<Nodding> So when are you going to declare a degree?
I’ve heard the many (many!) stories of those who began as a special student and changed over to the degree they came away with. Masters’ of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS), Masters’ of Divinity (MDiv), occasionally the joint Master’s of Social Work person, though those folk mostly seem to already know they’re headed that way when they arrive. The story goes thus: they came, they took classes, they heard God’s call more clearly/specifically, they got the degree they were prompted to.
It’s a solid story. I have no beef with the story. In fact, the story fits nicely with how I’ve seen God operate in the lives of loved ones, friends, and acquaintances.
But it’s not my story.
Whether not-yet or not-ever, my current chapter is not degree-seeker. This chapter remains “Special Student.”
Believe me, I ask. Routinely and regularly, I ask God: is this classroom where you’d like me to be? Am I studying the things you’d have me know? God, would you like me to lean in a little more formally?
I’m on my third iteration of Yes. Yes. No.
When I’m on my own conversing with God, I’m okay with this. A bit perplexed, at this point, but I figure I have such an intensely goal-driven nature that it’s a reasonable discipline for God to continue to ask me to just-be as I study.
And then I return to my classmates. And our caring staff. Where as recently as last Reading Week I parried this conversation three times in quick succession while eating quinoa salad. The free meal started feeling a little expensive at that point!
Here’s the thing. If we agree—and we do at minimum pay lip service to this—that knowledge for its own sake is good, and knowledge of the things of God even better,
then what difference does it make whether any student remains “special” until they’ve taken every last course offered?
What’s this urge toward certification?
Why am I perpetually justifying my discernment?
Perhaps it’s in testing my discernment that the virtue of the conversation lies. Perhaps that kind of testing happens to everyone who walks through the gates of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and I’m reacting rawly even though I’m not, in this way, special.
But if I am this kind of special, if the question actually stems from a sorting tendency, or a discomfort with those things that are in-between,
may I suggest another line of questioning?
Perhaps: “What tools have you added to your toolbox so far?”
Or, if one wants to look deeper: “What has God shown you here?”
Let’s let specialness be its own good thing.