What is the Christian journey like for undergraduates at Harvard? How does one keep God with them at such a largely secular institution?
This interview is the first of a series that aims to explore students’ experiences as they try to reconcile their faith, identity, and aspirations during their first year at the college. By sharing the stories of my classmates, I hope to humanize the Christian walk and reveal how faith is formed and transformed among freshmen.
Today’s interviewee is Emily Chen, a freshman living in Hurlbut Hall. Emily is from San Diego, California and is considering concentrating in Applied Math. She is currently comping the Harvard Financial Analysts Club, Smart Women’s Securities, and the Ichthus. She is also a member of the Asian American Christian Fellowship and the Asian American Dance Troupe.
Ike Adeyemi-Idowu: All-right then, let’s get started! Can you tell me about your religious background?
Emily Chen: I grew up in the Church. My brother and I are Chinese American, and we went to a Chinese American church with our parents. I was very involved with the youth group as a leader, and I helped out with the children’s ministry and the worship team. I really like playing the piano and singing, so I do that for worship sets at home. And I’m doing that for the Asian American Christian Fellowship here. As far as my own walk with God, my parents provide a lot of support. And my mom, especially, is a big role model for me.
Because I grew up in church, I knew all the Bible stories and the things we talked about as kids in Sunday School. But it wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I made the conscious decision to get baptized and accept my faith as my own. High school was very busy and stressful—college too—but I’m trying to stay on the right path. That’s something I’m working towards, but sometimes it gets, you know, pushed off to the side when classes and midterms take over.
IA: Did you worry about your faith after deciding to attend Harvard?
EC: I definitely did. Harvard has so many intelligent people, and I knew that Massachusetts was a very liberal state, so I expected to be challenged a lot. But I was comforted because I knew Christian groups would provide a really good support network. When I was making my college decision, finding a good Christian community was really important to me. During Visitas, I met many other pre-frosh who were also checking out the Christian groups, and the older people [current upperclassmen students] told me how strong the Christian network was. So, in the back of my mind, I was worried: what if I’m not able to defend my faith, or people ask me questions that I’m not able to answer? But I also knew that there was a lot of support for Christians here.
IA: How do reconcile your identities as a Christian and a Harvard student?
EC: I’m really close to the people in the Asian American Christian Fellowship, but when I’m going to class I feel a little bit passive when it comes to issues related to Christianity or controversial views. But I also think that people here are very open to discussion, which I appreciate. Over the summer, when the Supreme Court decision came out about gay marriage, someone on the Harvard 2019 Facebook group, although he was clearly in support of it, asked the question, “Does anyone have opposing views?” He wanted to hear what people thought in a respectful way. Back home, people wouldn’t have asked. They wouldn’t have cared what people thought unless it was the popular view.
So there was not a good forum for discussion at home—at least not at my high school. People’s willingness to discuss here helps me learn more as I find out about parts of my faith that I don’t understand. And here, all my fellowship friends are classmates. Back home it was like church friends, then school friends. At Harvard, I see Christian friends in class and know the community is still present.
IA: How has your faith changed since coming to Harvard?
EC: It’s changed in both good and bad ways. I’m a lot more motivated to seek out answers and research more theological aspects because I’m surrounded and challenged by people who are very passionate about that. Theology is something I was really complacent about before coming here, so it’s challenging in a positive and motivating way.
The way school is mentally and physically draining cuts out time I would normally spend, back home, reading the Bible and just being with God. Going to weekly fellowship is great, but I’m still lacking that personal time with Him. It’s been hard to prioritize spending time with God over academics and other club obligations.
IA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
EC: Recently, I’ve felt a lot more integrated into the Christian community here. My fellowship just went on retreat, and it’s been really encouraging. The freshman class got a chance to bond, and now we do devotions in Annenberg every morning. I’ve tried to do that on my own, but I’m more motivated to do it with a group. And it’s very fulfilling and encouraging to hear other people’s views on a certain passage.
I also feel well cared for. For example, the other day, an upperclassman asked how I was doing. I wasn’t planning on telling her my problems, but she could tell something was wrong so I told the group what I’d been struggling with. Then, yesterday, a chocolate chip cookie showed up at my door! Through the love people show me on campus, I definitely feel God’s love.
Ikeoluwa Adeyemi ‘19 lives in Thayer Hall and plans to concentrate in Sociology. She thanks Emily for agreeing to this interview.