Encountering God in the Liminality of Graduate School, Part 2

In the first part of a two-part reflection, Scott Santibanez shared some theological reflections on the liminal space of graduate school. In Part 2, he shares some of his own story. 

It was 1991, during the summer between my first and second years of medical school. I was in the basement of a Christian clinic in Times Square. The clinic provided free medical care for homeless people in New York City. I was filling up a tub with warm soapy water so one of our homeless clients could soak his feet. And I loved doing it.

In those days, we had very little clinical exposure prior to our third year. Consequently, when I began volunteering at the clinic, there was scant medical expertise that I could offer. I knew a few basic things like how to check blood pressures, and some first aid. But a lot of what I did involved doing the laundry, making copies, and sitting and listening to people. Several of our clients were HIV positive. It was early in the AIDS epidemic, before we had effective treatments. At the time, being HIV positive was seen as a death sentence that often caused people to become stigmatized and estranged from their families, friends and society. Coming to know and care about these individuals had a profound effect on my faith, my life and my career. Here are a few spiritual lessons that I learned:

1. Pray.

Have honest conversations with God. I prayed frequently before I began and while I worked at the clinic. If you are struggling through your own period of training and preparation, ask God for direction about what you should do with your life. You may be someone to whom prayer comes easily, or you could find it a challenge. You might even be uncertain if God really exists. Pray anyway. Your prayers do not have to be eloquent or theologically sophisticated. They do need to be honest, heartfelt, and open.

2. Take risks.

Find something that God has given you a passion for and do it. Get involved. You won’t necessarily get paid or receive class credit. Ask yourself whether you are there because you want to be there. For me, this meant a homeless clinic providing care for homeless people with AIDS. For you it could be something else entirely.

There are times when God calls us to go out of our way to choose unexpected paths. He sometimes challenges us to do uncomfortable things or to care for people whom others want to avoid. We must be willing to be disturbed by situations that may at first seem alien and even threatening.

Your choices will not always make sense to others. It could mean turning down a high-profile internship or an opportunity to work in a prestigious lab to volunteer at a place that no one has ever heard of.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes along the way. You may decide to volunteer somewhere, only to discover that it is not a good fit for you. This is okay. Don’t lose hope. Carrying anger over something you tried which did not work out only hurts you. Forgiveness allows you to move on and take that life experience with you where it can inform, but not control your future.

3. Listen to People.

Get as close to the ground level as possible. Get to know the people who are affected by your field. If you are studying neuroscience, this might mean volunteering to help out seniors who suffer from dementia. If your field is nutrition, you could try delivering meals to shut ins. For those studying music, art or literature, it could involve helping everyday people to visit concerts, museums or libraries. You don’t need to be an expert to serve others. Some days, the most I could do was to fill up a tub with warm soapy water so people could soak their feet. It can be a powerful expression of faith and a catalyst for growth when a person does not have much of something but is willing to trust God with what little he or she has.

While I did not yet have much to offer in terms of professional expertise, one thing I did have was the opportunity to listen. In addition to just getting to know people as human beings, listening can give you fresh insights into your field, an appreciation of how your long-term efforts will benefit others, and motivation to keep studying. Having now been a physician for over two decades, I sometimes feel pressure to move patients in and out quickly to keep my clinic on schedule. I find myself wishing I could just sit and talk with people like I did in those early days.

God will sometimes give us teachers in unexpected places–people who don’t meet our idea of a mentor, who are not experts by academic standards, but who can still teach us. In 1991, I met a friend who challenged me to expand my thinking about many things. Raised in the streets of New York, exposed to drug use, crime, prison, homelessness, and finally HIV infection, he had come to know the life-changing nature of God and was working as an AIDS counselor in our clinic. He taught me a lot about treating people with dignity, and a lot about life.


Liminal space can be a sacred, powerful place, where God transforms us. However, following Christ will not always be safe. We may approach God with practical questions about our majors, our careers, and how we’re going to get through the next 5 years. God may respond with deeper questions–ones that challenge not only our careers, but our very core, the essence of who we are, and who we will be for eternity. It is like what the dean of my seminary once said: “Follow Christ . . . if you dare.”

For me, liminality meant God leading me to a lifelong interest in the AIDS epidemic that eventually took the lives of friends I met in the summer of 1991. I discovered that for me, persevering through the many years of education and training was worth it. Graduate school can be a time when you reflect upon and begin to answer your own unique questions. Your parents, professors, pastors, and friends cannot answer these questions for you. With God’s help, each person must find the answers to these questions for him or herself. The choices may not come easily. God may lead you to select a different life path than you had originally planned, or bring you full circle so that you decide to continue with your chosen field, but with a renewed perspective. There is a risk that others may not understand your motives and your decisions. In the end, however, the struggle will be worth it. God is faithful to help you find your way and make it through.

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Scott Santibanez

Tito Scott Santibañez is an adjunct professor at Emory University and Trinity School for Ministry. As a volunteer physician, he has provided medical care for underserved populations for nearly 25 years. He also has a doctorate from seminary.

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