When you start seminary at Candler, our Office of Student Programming (OSP) is your one-stop shop for support—not only in a communal and spiritual sense, but an academic one too. The OSP offers opportunities year-round for students to grow in fellowship, faith and community. It also houses the Candler Writing Center, a unique resource that bridges the academic, communal, and spiritual components required to create a truly holistic approach to student life in seminary.
The Writing Center offers a two-pronged approach to reaching the student body. Students can schedule a one-on-one consultation anytime with a trained academic skills tutor, also a Candler student, to go over a paper or essay that they’d like feedback on before turning it in. The Center also strategically designs larger writing workshops to address broader student needs at certain points in the year. Workshops range from topics like exegesis, when first-year Old Testament students have an upcoming assignment due, to personal narrative, when students are filling out Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) applications or writing their ordination papers, both deeply personal undertakings.
Eunil David Cho, a graduate of Candler’s MDiv program and current PhD candidate in Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion, is in his second year as Writing Center director. He stresses the importance of seeing the Writing Center as a branch of student services.
“We’ve always been fortunate in hiring gifted PhD students to direct the Writing Center,” says Ellen Echols Purdum, Assistant Dean of Student Life and Spiritual Formation. “And in hiring David, we also got a former OSP student staffer and tutor who values our holistic vision of seminarian support at Candler and helps all of us to further that vision—the understanding that academic enrichment is rooted in all aspects of student life, and that the complexities of student life affect academic engagement.”
That tone of collaboration extends to the workshop offerings—Cho and his staff often connect with Pitts Theology Library and other departments to craft presentations that will appeal to different student audiences. “We do a lot of work to try to understand students, and that comes from my own experience of being an MDiv student and academic skills tutor at Candler,” he says.
In a typical semester, Cho says, the Writing Center will see between 400 and 500 one-on-one sessions. And in his time first as a tutor and now as director, he has seen the percentage of student demographics in those sessions shift. At the start, the majority of consultations were usually booked by international students. Cho, who was born in Korea and grew up in Florida, says the resources Candler provides for international students stands out. “I think Candler has some of the best ways to help our international students, and I don’t think many other seminaries do that, so I really take pride in it. We have one of the best academic support programs for them, especially.”
But he also notes, for instance, the “unhealthy myths” that sprang up around the Writing Center—that it was for international student use only, or for students who required remedial help with assignments. “Like, if someone says, ‘Come to the Writing Center,’ they think, ‘Oh, I’m a bad writer.’ That’s something we’ve really worked to demystify and debunk.”
First-year MDiv student Seul-bin “Sunny” Lee came to Candler from South Korea. While an international student herself, she agrees that the resource is worthwhile for students of all backgrounds. “Anyone coming back to school after their first career, or anyone who feels nervous about academic writing will find great support and enjoyment in the Writing Center,” she says.
For Lee, it’s been difficult to leave behind the ease of writing in Korean now that she’s in seminary in the U.S. “Letting go of that required a mourning process,” she explains. “And my tutors in the Writing Center have accompanied me through it.” Now in her second semester, she says that regular tutoring sessions have been more meaningful than simply practicing English grammar; they’ve helped her expand her thinking both academically and culturally.
“I’ve enjoyed learning linguistic differences with the underlying cultural connotations of words. My favorite part is having someone who wants to understand my ideas. We discuss what my ideas are, how to make them more persuasive, and how to articulate them with different expressions.” And because Lee’s tutors are fellow theology students, “I not only develop my essays but also sharpen my thoughts.”
The benefit of sharpening one’s thoughts on paper is one that 2018 Candler MTS graduate and current Emory doctoral student Tala AlRaheb also found through the Writing Center. Although she’d known about the resource from her work in the Office of Student Programming, she didn’t come to a session herself until she was applying to PhD programs. “As I began to write my statement of purpose, I realized that I needed the help of someone who had recently gone through the process.” Someone like the Writing Center’s David Cho.
“During my appointment, David read my statement, edited parts of it, and most importantly, advised me on how to structure my statement specifically for doctoral programs. His help throughout the application process, and that of the entire Writing Center staff, was necessary. Through their guidance, I revised sentences, expounded on my research ideas, and wrote a better and clearer statement overall.”
After she completed her applications, AlRaheb began using the Center on a more regular basis. “The Writing Center allows for a learning experience that one may not get by simply asking a friend to edit a paper,” she says. “The dedicated staff take the time to edit your paper as well as give feedback and discuss how to write well, so that the student really benefits.”
The demographics of students using the Writing Center have evened out in the last several years; Cho says that it’s now a 50/50 split between international and domestic students who take advantage of the resource. And he hopes even more will realize the benefits it can reap.
“We are dedicated to inspiring and challenging students to realize that seminary is the best time to work on your writing,” he says. “The Writing Center at Candler is the perfect place to do that. My hope is that students would develop the habit of inviting someone to look at their writing—that’s a very vulnerable act, very hard work, and I want to acknowledge that. You don’t do it alone. And I think that speaks to what we do at Candler as a whole.”
Second-year MDiv student Emily Rivers, a frequent visitor to the Writing Center, echoes Cho wholeheartedly. She says at first, she was skeptical of how much a 30-minute appointment could help with assignments that were usually long, dense, and personal—but the payoff soon became clear.
“Although sharing writing that you have poured so much time, energy, and passion into can be scary, I have found the process to be immensely rewarding,” Rivers says. “Through vulnerability in sharing my work with the writing tutors at Candler, I have been gifted with constructive feedback that has not only pushed me to become a stronger writer, but has made me a braver person. With the support of the Writing Center, I have begun to enjoy writing and now see it as a powerful tool for expression, academic contribution, and personal transformation.”
That’s where the holistic element runs deepest, David Cho says, and how what is, on the surface, academic support, becomes more intertwined with the student programming branches of community and spiritual formation. “You start talking about the assignment, but in the end, it eventually goes into their own student life, their own family life and experiences. It’s not on our job description, but there’s a lot of listening involved. It’s a very vulnerable place for someone to come in and show part of their writing, part of who they are.”
“We want everyone to feel comfortable coming to the Writing Center—different nationalities, different racial or ethnic backgrounds, gender, denominations, theological backgrounds. We work very hard to make sure that we have people with the knowledge, skills and awareness to really work with diversity and help people develop their own voice.”
And Cho says that even from a staff perspective, the learning never ends. “Recently, we’ve been working more with students with disabilities. I’ve been researching how to assist graduate students with various learning challenges. And I hope that we can also help and inform Candler faculty members to critically think about how to teach and mentor students with different perspectives and needs. I think that’s the changing landscape of theological education.”