What Does It Mean to Be a Student?

This is the first post of a three-part essay on the vocation of a student.

What does it mean to be a student? Several responses can be given to this simple, yet complex, question. The place to begin with is the observation that to be a student—like to be a daughter or a son, brother or sister, friend or citizen—is to have a vocation. This is apparent in the fact that a university has accepted a person’s application for enrollment. In doing so the university calls the applicant, placing upon her the honorable and holy vocation of student.

It might sound strange to say that being a student is honorable and holy, but it is. It is much more than, as many people think, a path to a profession or financial well-being. While vocations come to us through human agents and physical means, they originally and ultimately are placed upon us by God in creation and redemption. The book of Genesis records in chapters 1 and 2 that when God created mankind—male and female—in His image, He gave them certain functions to perform: namely, to have dominion over the earth as God’s royal stewards and to procreate as husband and wife to bring forth more children of God bearing His image on the earth to care for it and each other.

Implicit in this vocation is that all people do, think, or say should be very good, just as God created the cosmos “very good” and Himself must then be “very good.” In other words, humans were made in God’s image to do good, both for the natural world and each other. They were created and called to love as God first loved them. All people have this creation-based calling from God, even though, as Genesis 3 recounts, humanity fell into open rebellion against God and broke their God-given image bringing the vices of selfishness, harm, injustice, and wickedness into God’s world.

Still, God continued to call people to bless and serve His beloved creatures. For instance, God called Abram in Genesis 12 to be the father of many nations and promised Abram that through him God would bless all nations. Later, in Leviticus 25, God calls Israel to care for the Promised Land He has graciously gifted to them, just as that land cares for them; God calls Israel to give the land rest every seventh year as God has given them rest in Him. Centuries later in Isaiah 45 we see God pre-ordaining King Cyrus of Persia, a polytheist who did not worship God, to be God’s “messiah” to deliver His people Judah out of foreign captivity so that they could return to the Promised Land.

God’s call continues in the New Testament with deliverance from sin and death won by God’s Son, Jesus Christ. As literature professor and lay theologian Gene Veith rightly observes in his book God at Work, “Scripture is full of passages that describe how we have been called to faith through the Gospel (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 2:14)” and “how God calls us to a particular office or way of life (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:1–2, 7:15–20).” God calls each person to salvation through faith in Christ (1 Timothy 2:3–7). Those who do not reject this calling, but receive this gracious gift of faith and redemption, are then called to love and do good to their neighbors as Christ first loved them (Ephesian 2:8–10; 1 John 4:9–11). This loving-kindness toward neighbors near and far is not the pre-condition for salvation, but the fruits of it.

So what does this have to do with being a student?

To be a student is to have a vocation, and all true vocations are holy and honorable callings placed upon people by God in creation and redemption.

Each vocation is not only a God-given role, but a way for people to respond in kind to God’s good and gracious gifts by being merciful and beneficial to their neighbors—both people and nature. As Veith succinctly summarizes it, “The purpose of vocation is to love and serve one’s neighbor.”

If being a student is a vocation, then all that a person thinks, says, and does as a student should be seen through this lens. This is precisely what theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University lays out in an open letter to college students: “[T]o be a student is to be called to serve the Church and the world. . . . You are called to the life of the mind to be of service.” The purpose of being a student is to love and serve one’s neighbor for their temporal and eternal well-being.

How can a student love his neighbor with “the life of the mind”? That’s the subject of the next installment.

Scott A. Ashmon is Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Education and  Scott L. Keith is the former Associate Dean of Residential Education and Housing Services at Concordia University Irvine