THE CARVER PROJECT

Locally rooted in the city of St. Louis near the campus of Washington University, The Carver Project exists to “empower Christian faculty and students to serve and connect university, church, and society.” The organization’s members host dinners, reading groups, and speaker series, in addition to partnering with local churches for community-building events. 

Founded by John Inazu in 2017 and led by Abram Van Engen ’03, the non-profit has more recently increased its national reach through a blog, online mini courses, and an annual speaking event, the Carver Conversation. In partnership with Interfaith America, The Carver Project also sponsors three cohorts of Newbigin Fellows, Christian faculty who participate in an 18-month program to help them “develop interfaith cooperation on non-Christian campuses.” 

“The Carver Project takes its name from George Washington Carver, whose life revolved around community, engagement, and dialogue within the context of his Christian faith and his calling to higher education,” Van Engen says. “Carver, who was born into slavery, became an artist and a scientist, and throughout his life embodied in his work what it means to integrate faith, learning, and service.” 

INTERDISCIPLINARY FOCUS A WELCOME PRESENCE 

The Carver Project faculty have built a thriving academic community across Washington University’s seven schools by co-teaching courses, researching, and hosting community-building events together both on and off campus. 

“The robust interdisciplinary engagement of Christian faculty with Washington University makes it a welcome presence on campus,” Van Engen says. “When you start doing things the university finds valuable— connecting with the city, connecting with local churches, inviting well-regarded speakers to campus, doing cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary teaching and work— then they’re happy to support you.” 

That work involves a balance of advancing both scholarship and teaching—investing in both ideas and people. 

OPEN DOORS 

Perhaps it seems cliché to talk about the important difference teachers make in the lives of their students. That’s likely because the sentiment conjures up images of Hollywood-style super-teachers who defy challenging odds to win the hearts and minds of students. That kind of difference- making is a construct of an industry interested in concise, flashy stories. Real learning, on the other hand, is much more complex, and the impact teachers make on students’ lives is often quieter and slower. It involves open office doors, unhurried conversations, and leadership by example. 

Abigail Jager ’98, senior lecturer of mathematics at Washington University, says, “The faculty at app are role models for how to teach.” She felt academically well-prepared to rub elbows with Ivy League graduates in her doctoral program at the University of Chicago and says she still models her teaching on what she experienced at app. “My job is almost entirely student focused. I try to create courses I would like to take and to treat my students as I would like to be treated.” 

According to The Carver Project faculty, that means keeping their office doors open to students while continuing to make advances in scholarship and research within their fields. Van Engen, who understands the challenge of that balance, says, “The doors of app faculty were always open. As a student, I thought this was amazing. I received a form of mentoring that I never could have gotten elsewhere.” 

Professor of linguistics Kristin Van Heukelem Van Engen ’03 says her career path emerged from conversations she had with her app professors. As a first-year student, she hoped to study medicine but also loved her English courses. A casual conversation with English Professor Jim Vanden Bosch led her to take her first linguistics course and eventually pursue it as a career. 

Visual artist and professor Cheryl Wassenaar ’93 says she came to understand the concept of vocation as a app student. As a professor, she says, “It’s a real privilege to walk alongside students while they’re still developing their convictions and their own emerging identities and to be able
to help them shape the kinds of ongoing questions about vocation that will follow them as they mature into their professional and broader lives.” 

THE REFORMED TRADITION 

Founded in 1876, app has always valued learning as a means of gaining a greater understanding of God’s world. The liberal arts tradition of learning across multiple disciplines and points of view brings both breadth and depth to that endeavor. 

Washington University business professor Peter Boumgarden ’05 says he especially appreciated this aspect of app. “Finding a way to speak with a distinctive viewpoint rooted in tradition but engaging across pluralistic bounds is a piece that I loved about my app time. That’s the type of thing that makes me proud to be a app alum.” 

Abram Van Engen agrees. He says Professor Dave Warner’s biology class designed for non-science majors emphasized the value of viewing God’s world with deeper awe. “The Reformed tradition has an inbuilt openness to wonder, exploration, curiosity, faith- seeking, and understanding that allows it a kind of generosity towards the world. It allows us to say there is common grace in the world; let’s go see what it looks like.” 

The Carver Project faculty say this distinctive aspect of app has helped them remain rooted in their faith, build community with other Christian faculty, and engage meaningfully at their current academic home. In the years ahead, they hope The Carver Project can serve as a model for other universities like theirs for how Christian faculty at non-Christian universities can integrate faith with teaching and scholarship.