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How Christian Higher Education Prepared Me for the Real World

Christian higher education sometimes gets a bit of a bad rep by society for being "out of touch" with reality, especially when it comes to the often brutal and cutthroat working environment. Today, higher education in general is often challenged for its effectiveness in preparing students for the real world. Renowned companies such as Google and Apple no longer require a Bachelor's degree for employment, last year the QA Commons organization began an investigation into whether or not college truly prepares students for employment, and this year the National Student Clearinghouse reported an eighth consecutive year of declining enrollment.

In the midst of such a climate, Christian higher education needs to stand out as a worthwhile pursuit - and, in many ways, I think it does. I had the opportunity to earn my B.A. and M.A. from Pepperdine, in addition to interning a couple years with the Office of the Chaplain where I focused on student development and leadership training. Since then, I've gone on to work in the daunting "real world" as a HR associate and then senior data analyst at HelloFresh, where I've learned a few things about how my education prepared me for the real world:

Christian higher education at Pepperdine prepared me with the key spiritual practice of patience.

One critique of higher education I have heard is that it teaches students to dream, but it does not prepare students for the grunt work necessary to achieve that dream. In my generation, we often experience business coursework with an overemphasis on casting vision and changing the world. We're taught to look up to juggernauts like Steve Jobs as an example of leadership and success.

The truth is, the average first job for a college graduate pays $22 an hour and includes duties such as filing paperwork, cold calling clients and buyers, or running to the store to restock the office pantry. In between getting my Master's and working at HelloFresh, I spent four months working as a manager's assistant, alphabetizing 20 years' worth of personnel files because the company still operated on paper paychecks up until a few years ago.

I certainly had many moments wondering how my training in leading organizational development and identifying motivating factors in employees was being put to use in such an environment. However, one way Pepperdine shaped my faith was in teaching me patience and humility: Christians believe that Jesus will return to bring justice to the world, but in the meantime, things may not always go the way we want. We're taught to be humble and lowly, and to work hard with what we're given, even if it seems below our pay grade.

At the end of the day, the grunt work almost never ends; there will always be boring, mundane tasks to complete. My experience in Christian higher education prepared me and my fellow students to face our job duties with joy and anticipation for a long-term goal. In fact, I might say that college graduates should relish the opportunity to start off as a lowly assistant and learn how to work their way up the ladder.

Christian higher education at Pepperdine taught me how to think from another person's perspective.

HelloFresh was fortunate enough to be comprised of a diverse workforce with people of all kinds of cultures, backgrounds, and worldview. More often than not, these affected daily routine: one employee's method of scheduling meetings clashed sharply with another's cultural understanding of time.

Perhaps the most valued trait in early career employees is the ability to communicate with a wide variety of people. Christians are called to shine their lights of faith and Pepperdine in particular trained me to do so in a way that respects where the other person comes from. During my time at Pepperdine, I was s taught how to respect and communicate with the worldviews of people from other faith backgrounds without compromising my own faith in Jesus.

Communication is a two-way street, and having worked in HR, I know that too often work drama and mishaps result from poor communication on both sides. It's noticeable how rare it is in the workforce to encounter simple traits of compassion and communication across the divides of culture or worldview.

Christian higher education at Pepperdine challenged me to establish a purpose and mission in life.

In a lifetime, you probably spend 90,000 hours at work – yet, Deloitte's 2016 survey suggested that 87% of Americans have no passion for their jobs. It's no surprise, then, that employee depression continues to rise, despite attempts to increase pay, increase benefits, and offer more time off. The solution, recent authors have suggested, is something that companies can't just throw more money at: employees need to find purpose and meaning in what they do.

I personally loved the HUM sequence at Pepperdine. I still remember the closing lecture for one of our classes, where Dr. Corrado reminded us that this "ancient" history did in fact matter, pointing to how the sacrifices made by our predecessors should inspire us to create a better world for the next generation. This theme of applying what we've learned in the classroom to an overarching purpose in life permeated most of our lessons. Moreover, ever-present in our studies was the belief that God has a plan for the world, and we serve day by day with the goal of spreading his love and kingdom to all.

Some people you'll meet at work are there simply because of the money, benefits, or perks. But my education prepared me to devote myself to hard work because of a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life based on my faith.

Today, two promotions later, I recently left HelloFresh and am starting a PhD program with a goal to eventually teach at a Christian university. I'm sure that my teaching philosophy will continue developing over the years, but I'm grateful for the chance to incorporate these insights from the first few years of work into the way I prepare my future students for their first "real world" job.


Steven Zhou Steven Zhou ('15 and '17) is a PhD student in organizational psychology at George Mason, with an MA in religion and BA in psychology from Pepperdine. He has served in college student ministry and HR data analytics, and his research background is in the intersection of faith and psychology education, specifically in leadership and motivation studies.