Recently a friend asked me, “What women have had the most influence on you?” It seemed like a simple question, but I took what felt like a long time to answer. I think I was searching for the “correct” answer. The answer that kept coming to me was the women I met while attending Anderson University School of Theology.
When I began seminary, I was working full-time as a lead project engineer for an automotive company. I felt “the tug” that I was supposed to be doing something else. I was not a Christian when I chose engineering as a career. I liked math and back then, my choices were quite limited. It was much less common to see a female engineer back in the 80’s. When I was in a conference room with 12 engineers, I was often the only female. That never bothered me. Between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., we were a team trying to get a product into production. That is how I looked at it anyway.
I thought seminary seemed like a very far stretch. I had not grown up going to church, and I knew very little about the Bible. The woman in the registration office at the seminary encouraged me to take one class and see what I felt called to do after that. This woman, Connie, was kind and disarming. I was nervous and half-expected to be berated for wasting her time. She was the first of many women I met while I was there who I identified as smart, strong, and at peace.
When I have been asked what courageous thing I have done in my life, I often answer sitting in a classroom full of people who were studying to be pastors, worship leaders, or missionaries. I was terrified that someone would find out that I did not belong there. It did not take long for them to recognize that I was “different.” I was there out of a calling that made no sense to me, and they were very okay with that. Not just okay, but supportive.
As I struggled through my studies (but always managed to get A’s and B’s), I was embraced by women who had lived through various hardships but lived life to the fullest and loved people along the way. They seemed to accept me for who I was at that point in my life. I was living a secular lifestyle and doing a secular job. Looking back now I wonder how many times I said inappropriate things or was unintentionally offensive. They never let on if I was. I felt loved and accepted maybe for the first time in my life. Up to that point in time, my biological family was dysfunctional and emotionally unhealthy. I was the only person in my family who went to college, and I always seemed like the odd person out. In the corporate world, I was a woman in a male dominated field, so I was not accepted with open arms there either. I had to prove myself over and over, and I still had to earn a fraction of the pay my male counterparts earned while receiving, from some, a fraction of the respect.
The few other female engineers I knew worked their way into sales positions or management positions. Many of these women seemed competitive and stressed. The other women in my life were judgmental, critical, and angry. At the seminary, I liked what I experienced and felt. It felt like they knew something I didn’t. They seemed to love life, not be controlled by it. They seemed loving and accepting, not judgmental and angry. At the risk of repeating myself, they had a sense of peace about them that permeated from every kind word and gesture. Even as I write, I can see many of their faces, and I smile. And now 10 years later, I have a clinical practice in Marriage and Family Therapy and a faith to support that work. I endeavor to pass on that sense of peace I began to learn in that place from those women.