When I entered college at Oklahoma State University in 2001 I decided to study Mechanical Engineering because I liked math and physics. My junior year — which was also around when I became a believer — I decided to change to Aerospace Engineering. I was a pretty good student and graduated with a 3.8 GPA. OSU had a respectable Aerospace Engineering program. I was a part of the first place team in the national AIAA Design, Build, and Fly Competition in 2005.
But while most of my classmates ended up working for companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, or NASA (some of them literally becoming rocket scientists), when I graduated I left behind the engineering scene and moved to China. Many folks thought I was crazy to leave behind such a good job market for engineering in the U.S. to go teach English in China.
But that was what the Lord had in store for me. In 2005, I had no idea how long I’d stay in China. Now I’ve nearly finished ten years of teaching English. I have completely forgotten all math and physics that I learned in college. I’m always excited at the end of each semester when I can use my math skills by making clever math equations for putting students’ grades into Excel. That’s about the extent of my mathmatics now, though.
But I have never regretted forsaking a high-paying engineering job in the U.S. to be a low-paid missionary in China. I wouldn’t say that I wasted my skills or education by not ever getting into the engineering world. I’d agree with Paul’s words: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. . . . [And I] count [past worldly status and successes] as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7–8).
Engineering Taught Me Chinese
There are some significant practical ways that my engineering background helps me as a missionary. The first is with language learning. Studying a foreign language is very similar to studying math or physics. I had to pay close attention to details when I started learning intricate Chinese character writing. But I loved it, because that same attention to detail is needed when working out differential equations or gas power problems. And there are rules in learning a language, just like there are laws and equations that explain our universe.
Also, the hours I spent each day studying alone and working out engineering homework problems in college gave me a needed patience and work ethic for language learning. When I began studying Chinese, I found that I could sit at a desk from about 6:30 in the morning until noon and write Chinese characters over and over without moving a muscle or being distracted or bored. I thought that was normal until I saw other Americans trying to do the same thing, and they’d often already feel bored after forty minutes. It would actually energize me to study Chinese for hours on end.
An Education in Problem-Solving
And on top of the benefits of helping me learn Chinese better, my engineering background has helped me by equipping me with the skill to solve problems. Most of my classes required that I constantly utilize problem-solving skills. In other words, I have a problem in front of me. I can make a logical guess about how to solve that problem. If that doesn’t work, then I have to think hard until I come up with another logical solution. And then I’d try that out. And I’d repeat that over and over until the correct solution or result was obtained. This process is the basic foundation of all engineering.
And this is a big part of our lives as missionaries. Living in a foreign country — regardless of how long we’ve been here — there are constantly problems and obstacles that come up in our lives. Maybe the electricity or the water is suddenly turned off in the apartment. Maybe all grocery stores in the city no longer carry crunchy peanut butter. Maybe we’re teaching the Bible to locals, and the police start knocking on the door.
We need to be able to solve such problems in a similar way as solving physics problems. We must think of logical solutions and give them a try. And if it doesn’t work, then we’ll try something else. And we’ll keep moving forward until we get to the right end, the solution or goal. Of course, problem-solving is a part of life, whether living at home or abroad, but it’s just more complicated in a foreign country using a foreign language.
Paul talks about “the grace that was given to [him]” (Galatians 2:9). One way that God’s grace has been on me is how much of the learning I had in high school and college, mostly as a nonbeliever pursuing the American Dream, really prepared me for the mission field.