The Road to a Masters Degree in a Third World Country: And why you should probably try to avoid it.

It's late here. Far past my bed time. But life has been such a rollercoaster lately, and especially today, that I felt nearly compelled to sit down and chronicle what has happened.

I should open by saying the mere fact that I ever got through my undergraduate studies was an act of God. I remember journaling almost every night and writing out a list of things that had to fall into place — impossible things — in order for me to graduate. And following ridiculous event after ridiculous exception by the dean, I did eventually graduate.

Grad school has been a series of similar experiences.

Not so much seminary in America (where I’m also enrolled in a Masters program). That has been primarily getting out what I put in; although, that said, I did get a D in Gospels which is embarrassing for any minister. But rather I’m referring to my graduate studies here in the field at a local university. I suppose I should attempt to start at the beginning.

I live in a country where my line of work is, well, lets just say legally frowned upon. But the missionary seldom stays out of the country simply because he is unwelcome. So we have to find alternative means of a visa. Mine has been as a student. For the first several years of my stay here I studied at local universities and focused on improving my language. But after several years of that I grew restless.

Three years ago I approached the most reputable university in my area of the country and proposed to them the idea of my entering into a graduate program under their tutelage. They were excited about the proposal until they heard the scores I had received on the government approved language proficiency exam. Since Jr. High school I have been shockingly bad at taking exams. The school heard me speak and they were impressed, but my test scores simply weren’t high enough for me to enter the program. So I decided to take one more semester to really buckle down and study for nothing else but the language exam. Which I did. And then scored even lower than I had previously.

At this point I returned to the university and this time proposed they make an exception to their rule and accept me into the program on the grounds that my language would certainly improve while enrolled at their school and I would without question pass the language proficiency exam before I finished the program. Enough buttering everyone up, and waiting around, and my wish was granted.

Two and a half years ago in January of 2009 I was accepted by the school and started taking classes that summer. It was a blast. The class load was exceedingly light. Often times I would take 4 classes in a semester and 3 of those classes would meet a total of 4 or 5 times. My major was Christianity, and learning about Christianity from the prospective of a country hostile to the religion was every bit as fascinating as you can imagine. My language improved leaps and bounds, I was having fun, and best of all, the time commitment was so low I had more free time to pursue ministry than ever before.

A year and half passed smoothly. Even to the point where several teachers gave me an exception to be out of the country for two months when my second daughter was born. I completed all my necessary course work, and was even switched to an overseeing professor who led me to a dissertation where I was studying missiology.

Last August I began my formal research and my first draft of my graduate dissertation was submitted to my professor in January of this year. And that’s when stuff got messy.

My professor loved my first draft. Her suggestions for changes were small (minor structural changes) and I was certain much too quickly that I was in the home stretch. For soon after the first set of suggested changes came a second, and then a third, and then a fourth. Before I set out to write the paper I specifically called my professor and asked a question about how the paper should formatted. Should my main topics be people and subtopics be missiological thought? Or should each main topic be split up according to missiology and then the subtopics be split according to people? She chose the second option and I wrote for months. In the fifth revision she actually suggested I change the entire structure of the paper to the other way around. It would have required a complete re-write of 80+ pages. I said no.

She was not used to a student saying no.

Then came the sixth and seventh revision suggestions. At this point I actually blew up at her. She was asking me to change things she should have mentioned on the first revision, why did she wait until the seventh to say something? I later came to find out that the school actually requires a certain number of revisions. And she needed proof that we had made as many, so she intentionally held back some feedback until later revisions. There were two sections of the paper she had me re-write 3 times. Each time I turned it in she told me it wasn’t good enough. I asked what to change, and she literally told me “make it better”.

I asked, “Better how? More detailed? More specific dates, locations, and numbers? Longer? More concise? Better how?!”

“I don’t know,” she said (and I’m not making this up, though I wish I were), “just make it better.”

We nearly came to blows more than once. There was one section I was asked to write which was just downright strange. So I asked for an example. She wouldn’t give me one, so I wrote something just guessing what she wanted. She gave it back and said no. So I rewrote it. And again a no. Finally she found the thesis of another student who wrote something similar. I wrote something along the same lines, thrilled to finally have an example. This time she said, “Oh no, don’t follow that model. This student did a terrible job and should have never graduated. I just gave you this to show you how long it should be and how to format it. Don’t write anything like this, it’s terrible.”

I wanted to pull my hair out.

I wanted to pull her hair out.

Finally after re-writing one section for the fourth time and being told it wasn’t right I simply asked her to re-write it for me. She knew what I wanted to say by this point, and it was only about a half page long. Turns out she did an excellent job re-arranging my sentences into a “better” order more along the lines of what she expected. I again blew up at her over this. This section was a background to the paper that has nothing to do with the actual research, but just how the topic was chosen etc… Finally she said, “Look, this background section is the most important, because when you defend your thesis it is highly likely that most of the teachers will not read your whole paper. They will just read this one section and decide whether or not to pass you.”

While thankful for the honesty I again was furious. I poured my heart into this research and this paper, and now she was telling me the story behind why I chose the topic is more important to the institution than what I actually wrote?

Finally through many many more details I dare not write out, the date for a final paper arrived and I turned one in. My teacher called me to tell me that it was printed, but she had changed just a few things. I opened the draft of what she changed and it turns out she completely threw out two pages I had written and re-wrote them. Granted she was an expert on the topic of this two-page section, and she wrote it better than I had. But I was unwilling to turn in a paper with my name on it, and a sworn statement in the back saying these were my words, when they were in fact not my words.

That morning I spent a long time on my knees before calling her to tell her I would need to get the thesis re-printed after changing that section back to my inferior writing (but at least it was mine). And much to my surprise she relented without putting up much of a fight. 24 hours later a new version was printed. After looking at it she called me in a frenzy. I had quoted a source about the number of Christians and churches in this country and I had to remove it. While the whole world may recognize one number, this country’s government recognizes another much smaller number. How dare I print a number that wasn’t government approved. But since I was unwilling to change my document to obviously falsified numbers it just had to be taken out.

This time the printing company was able to just replace that one page.

Again everything was turned in.

Then yesterday I got an email from the school informing me that the course schedule I took was incorrect. While I had achieved the 34 required credits (it might have been 36 or something, I really don’t remember), they were the wrong credits. The professor who oversaw the course plan I made up 2.5 years ago simply advised me incorrectly. I was therefore expected to find a way to get credit for two classes I haven’t taken, and before the end of the week. Also, I didn’t attend any of the 15 required events a student must attend before graduating. Also, I needed to write 5 English abstracts to improve my written English as part of my degree.

I spent more time on my knees yesterday before calling my professor to figure out what the stink I was going to do. Then I called and she explained who to call, what to say, and then she laughed and told me not to worry about it saying this happens to everyone. WHAT?!

More hair pulling from my head.

More imagined hair pulling from the school dean’s head.

Today I prayed more before calling two teachers to ask for their forgiveness. To ask them to please make an exception for me and give me credit for their class in exchange for turning in a homework paper to each of them. I point out the prayer not to point out my spiritual-ness, but to say that God showed up in a big way. God softened both teachers hearts with a yes. At 11:00AM I turned in one paper, and by 6:00PM tonight the same teacher called to tell me to come pick up my grade. He then proceeded to complement my language and request I write a book review for him for one of his books so he can publish it having had the commendation of a foreigner.

My English abstracts were a breeze. The 15 events I needed to attend I’m trying to fill in with the seminary classes I’ve taken since enrolling and other things.

Anyhow, it’s all coming together. Maybe.

I still haven’t passed that blasted language proficiency exam. And I’m more and more convinced I never will. But then, I look back at what an act of God it would have taken for me to even get into this school, and then the number of things that have miraculously fallen into place since then. I look at how yesterday I was convinced there was no way I would graduate (and there still might not be), and how hopeful today seems.

It’s been a laughable ride. There is no way I would have done this again if I knew what I was in for. But the Lord brought me this far. I have little reason to believe he cant seal the deal.

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The above section I wrote a few weeks ago but wanted to wait until everything was complete before I actually published it. What followed was still horrifying. The next day one of the teachers who agreed to give me credit called me and changed her mind. I spent the next many hours trying to figure something out and eventually turned in an old Greek exam for Greek credit. The professor who gave me credit wrote me and asked if this was in line with our beliefs. He said this assuming I was a Christian, I had no idea he was a believer. I told him that when I talked to the head of the department he had not asked me to attend classes and get credit, he had asked me to find a teacher willing to give me credit for something I could turn in.

The system is definitely broken, but we were working within the system.

Finally the school accepted everything submitted and a date was set for thesis defense. I flew in at midnight the night before and then woke up to report at 8AM at the school along with my nine other classmates who would defend that morning. My wife and I had been praying the teachers who read my thesis would be affected by a paper which so clearly explained the gospel and it's transforming effects. We also prayed the Lord would be glorified in the defense.

There were three teachers and I was asked four questions. Really only one question was specifically about something I wrote. The other two teachers merely complimented my research and writing and then wanted to talk about missiology. The first question I was asked was, "Why would these people choose Jesus over what they previously believed? What made Jesus better?" And the second question was, "You used conversion numbers as your sole measure of evangelistic success, but how were these people's lives changed after becoming Christians? Did their lives change?"

What?!

So in front of three teachers from three universities and nine of my classmates, I got to talk about the superiority of Christ, and the effects of a transformative faith. These people lived in fear of evil spirits, but what Jesus offered was freedom from fear. These people worshipped something with a real tangible power, but the Christian God created those spirits and is infinitely more powerful.

It was much more in depth than that, but this should give you some idea.

And now its done. A few meals needed to be bought to say thank you to different professors. And now I'm officially a Master. A Master of Religion with a focus on Christianity and a thesis on Missiology. However, in this country you get two certificates. A certificate of your degree, and then a certificate of graduation. I wont get the latter until I nail the language proficiency exam. That might be in June (when I take it next) or five years from now. But the school is in no hurry. And no teachers can call me anymore and tell me I'm still shy a few credits, or some document, or anything else ridiculous. I'm out from under their thumb. And praise the Lord.

I wrote this out for two reasons, the first is to say that God works in some crazy ways. And the second is to say, before you consider pursuing a Masters degree in a third world country — think twice. And then don't do it.