Today’s jobtalk is with Matthew Wong, who has his master’s in divinity and will be attending Princeton Theological Seminary this fall to study theology. I met Wong several years ago when he started working at Princeton’s indie cafe, Small World Coffee, where he has worked on and off for 5 years.
While Wong’s decision to pursue degrees in divinity and theology is a marked departure from his undergraduate career at Cornell, he admits that he really had no idea what he wanted to do as an undergrad and went for a practical degree.
Title: Graduate Student Princeton Theological Seminary
B. A. Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, 2007
M. Div. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, 2011
What made you study economics?
I started off at Cornell as a fine arts major. I was planning on going into graphic design, something that was practical, but when I got to Cornell, I really didn’t like the program there, and since it was a university as opposed to an art school I had some leeway as to what I could do. I was thinking about going into advertising, which was kind of related, it’s a creative field. So, the most conducive degree for that was a business degree, but that turned out not to be the case. That’s the reason why I ended up in economics; it was kind of an accident.
As you were continuing you studies, what were your thoughts about what you were doing?
I hated it. I always wanted to study literature, but my mom thought it was an impractical degree and for the money that she was paying [for my education] she wanted me to be secure at the end of my college degree. So I figured I’d just get it over with.
Did you apply for jobs when you graduated from college?
During the fall semester, I took part in Cornell’s career fair. I had gotten a couple of interviews, but at the same time I was contemplating applying to seminary school. I ended up not going to the interviews because I felt like I was spreading myself too thin. I wanted to focus on one thing, so I decided to put all of my eggs in one basket. I didn’t want to apply for jobs and seminary at the same time while I was juggling schoolwork, especially because my last few classes were pretty taxing.
When did you start thinking about going to seminary?
I started thinking about it in my junior year of college.
What made you want to go to seminary?
I was talking to a pastor that I knew. He was also an Asian American and an Ivy League student – he went to Columbia and studied sociology. I was telling him that I was a little confused about what I wanted to do with my life. He was very similar to me in how he thought about things, so I asked him what his thought process was when he decided to apply to seminary. And he said, “I wasn’t really passionate about what I was doing or really about anything at that time in my life except my faith.” That resonated with me because I definitely hated business. I had worked a bunch of marketing internships at large corporations and the one thing that I kept going back to was my identity as a person of faith, and that was the thing that I thought about the most in my spare time. So I wanted to explore that with all of my energy as opposed to having it be only a peripheral part of my life.
Tell me about your time at seminary. Were you happy with your experience there?
To a certain degree yes. I really liked the subjects that I was studying. It was the first time I was able to study theology and Old and New Testament studies and church history, and that got me really excited. There were some professors that I just loved. For the first time I really loved going class; I enjoyed writing papers. The one thing that I didn’t like was the student body.
Generally, the case in graduate programs, (although seminary is a little bit different, it is still a specialized degree as all graduate degrees are), is that when you get to that level of master’s and doctoral-level education people are a little one dimensional, probably a little arrogant, very self-involved, and that made me really depressed. So I liked the schoolwork and a handful of friends that I had made who were a little more down to earth and didn’t have any aspirations of going into academia – they were all going into the ministry.
Can you talk about your decision to continue your studies at Princeton Theological Seminary?
Throughout seminary I was juggling whether or not I wanted to go into the ministry or go into academia. I’m still not 100 percent sure. I do want to do ministry, but I also want to study more. If you’re getting a divinity degree it’s very general. You take counseling courses, ministry courses, theology, and philosophy. So you’re stretched very thin and it’s basically 3 years of general education. The theology degree allows students to pursue something very specific. I had interests that I wanted to pursue that I didn’t get to pursue at Gordon-Cromwell.
If you had to do it again, would you have still pursued the M.Div.?
I would have gone to a different school. There are definitely other divinity programs that give you more freedom in terms of what you want to study. I would have still done the divinity degree as opposed to a religion degree. I wanted to do academic work from a Christian perspective specifically because that’s my interest.
Why would you have chosen a different school?
Each school generally has a different specialization. Gordon-Conwell’s big thing is biblical language – Hebrew, Syriac, Greek. They are very strong in those areas but are very weak in others such as theology and church history. And their program is structured in such a way that they emphasize biblical languages so that even if you want to study counseling you have to take the bulk of your coursework in biblical languages and that can be a drag, especially if that’s not what your into. Whereas a school like Princeton Theological Seminary gives you a lot more freedom.
But didn’t you know that about the emphasis on biblical languages when you decided to go to Gordon-Conwell?
I didn’t know that. I found out later. A big reason why I applied there is because it’s an evangelical school. It’s a little bit more conservative on the theological spectrum and the Chinese Church is a very conservative place, and if I wanted to get a job in a Chinese-American Church I would have to have a conservative degree; Chinese people are a little phobic of progressive education. I knew a lot of pastors that had gone there and heard a couple of recommendations from people too.
I know that you’re also studying for the GREs and entertaining doing doctorate work. Why are you thinking about taking this course of action?
I do plan on applying for Ph.D. programs at some point in time. The main reason is not because I want to teach, although I do have a peripheral interest in that. But I want to write, and in order to write you have to have requisite degrees. The doctorate is so I’ll have the opportunity to do more broad research so I can get a firmer base since I didn’t have the liberal arts education in college.
My family was not a liberal arts family. We were very practical. My mom is an artist but she is also very practical, my dad is a chemist, and my sister is sort of an engineer. I’m very far behind the curve in regards to things like philosophy, cultural theory, literary theory.
Does that frustrate you?
It’s maddening. I grew up Asian in Mercer County. There are certain expectations of Asian teenagers in a county like this in New Jersey where schools are very competitive and the Asian population is very small and very tight and parents brag about their children: “My kid’s going to Harvard. My kid’s going to Yale. My kid’s doing pre-med,” etc. etc.
In high school, my proclivity was more toward liberal arts, I was always more of a natural English student than a calculus student, but my mom, all she ever knew, and most all of the Asian-American population knows are the hard sciences, so the expectation is that you’re going to be good at that. I focused on that too, and I did fine, but I wasn’t going to excel in it, and I reached a cap in my junior year in high school. I thought, “I’m not going to get any better than this, and I hate it.”
In college I was still wrestling through that, which is unfortunate because I think most people kind of discover what they like and what they want to study or at least a general direction they know they want to go in, whether it’s liberal arts or sciences. I had no idea what I wanted to do even after I graduated from college. I think I would have really benefitted from being a comparative literature major.
How do you see yourself using your degree, aside from writing, in a way that you could earn money?
I guess if I did get a Ph.D., the idea would be that teaching would fund my writing. It’s not a very lucrative field. I could also do pastoral ministry, which is more amenable to me than teaching in an academic setting and competing for tenure. Money is a secondary concern to me at my age. I’m 27 and unmarried. I can also live pretty cheaply.
How did you fund your graduate education?
I’m funding my theology degree. I saved up money from working at Small World over a period of time and investing a little bit of it, so I have the first year paid for. The master’s in divinity was pretty cheap. I had some scholarships and my parents paid the rest of it.
Wow. So your parents supported your studies even though it wasn’t exactly the path they were comfortable with for you?
My mom was the only one reluctant for me to do a liberal arts degree. But by the time I finished college, she had seen some of my writing and had heard people respond to my writing, and she had more confidence in my abilities as a writer and a thinker than she did when I was in high school, when I was more of a slacker. Though I had the tools, I was in high school trying to get by, and I wasn’t terribly ambitious apart from wanting to go to an Ivy League school.
What do you love about being able to study?
For a long time my education was predicated on me gaining information to leverage it for economic advancement, and I hated that because it felt very purposeless. Theology is a field of study that is an academic field but it’s also very personal. You don’t study theology unless you have a personal investment in it. It’s an interdisciplinary field, it’s partially philosophy, it’s cultural studies… it’s a bunch of different things. Ultimately, I get to explore my identity as an Asian American and as a Christian and make sense of myself. It helps me gain self-awareness and it is somewhat practical. I could leverage it for a future occupation.
How do you feel about the amount of time that you’ll have to spend alone working on your coursework?
There are some people that are content to be sequestered in their carrels. I’m definitely not like that. I have very little interest in writing academic materials for esoteric fields. I don’t want to write materials that have no currency in the daily lives of people or that doesn’t speak ethically or prophetically to a group of underprivileged people such as Asian Americans or immigrants, which is where my interest lies.
The idea of being relegated to a carrel or an office and writing and studying all of the time scares me the most about doing doctoral work because it’s about 5 years of doing that. But the hope is that at the end of that period of time I can use the degree more creatively whether it’s writing for periodicals or more accessible books that aren’t simply for academics.
Divinity programs, for the most part, are as rigorous as you want to make them because the main intent of divinity programs is to prepare people for ministry. But you can make it as academic as you want it to be, and I tended to do that. So I spent day and night in the library, and it drove me mad after a while. Trying to find a more holistic life is important, and I definitely am still trying to figure it out.
Who is an author who has influenced your thoughts on the Asian experience in the U.S. that you would recommend to others to read?
My favorite historian is Ronald Takaki. He ran the ethnic studies program at Berkeley and is a pioneer in Asian-American studies. His books are all fairly academic; his seminal book is Strangers from a Different Shore, which is basically a history of Asian Americans; it’s kind of a revisionist history in the same vein as Howard Zinn’s work. I never cried reading a book before, not even reading the Bible, but I cried when I read it.
The last chapter in that book made so much sense of my personal history as a second-generation Asian American that it altered that way that I view my personal history. It gave weight and meaning to my existence as a 27-year old in upper-middle class America because up until that point my existence felt generic and unspoken to. Going to an American public school system, you don’t learn about Asian Americans although they are a fundamental part of U.S. history.
Any Asian American or immigrant can read his work and digest it; he’s very accessible. Thinkers like him, those who speak to my experience, more of a marginal experience – folks who are in between cultures, American and Chinese for me – those are people who really excite me. I don’t feel passionate about much, but I’m passionate about this.
What’s your favorite part of working at Small World?
Making cappuccinos. Coffee is, for me, the equivalent of watching a sport. If everything else falls through, I wouldn’t mind working in coffee for the rest of my life.