Faculty & Graduates

Nigerian Professor Offers Students More than Knowledge

Beth J. Lueders

Kim Sokoya can still hear the rapid knock on his office door. A senior student hesitantly asked if she could speak with him. The professor of management at Middle Tennessee State University instinctively reached for his class syllabus, but the student interrupted.

"No, this has nothing to do with class," she firmly said. "I just want to get your opinion about something."

Kim turned his full attention to the young coed, who blurted, "You don't think it's right to get an abortion, do you?"

She was pregnant, and her boyfriend and those closest to her advised her to abort the baby. But some comments her professor made in the classroom affirmed this troubled woman's decision to give birth to her child. Together, teacher and pupil discussed her options, including adoption and local resources.

"I can't remember what I said in class, but this situation will always stay with me because it shows why it's important for Christian faculty to be true to what they believe," says the 49-year-old Kim.

"Faculty have an influence on students even when we don't know it. When the time comes, we just need to be faithful to speak the truth."

This professor in Murfreesboro, Tenn., centers his life on speaking the truth both in the classroom and in personal conversations.

His 21,000-student campus is just a half-hour southeast of Nashville. Affable Kim leads the campus' Faculty Commons group. Faculty Commons, a division of Cru, encourages professors as they make Christ known to colleagues and students.

Kim facilitates weekly meetings at which a dozen or so Christian professors gather for a lunchtime Bible study or spiritual discussion. Nearly 50 faculty at Middle Tennessee are supportive of Faculty Commons and often attend its ministry events.

Leading a group of American academics in intellectual dialogues about God was certainly not on Kim's mind when he left his native Nigeria in 1977 to study business at Eastern Illinois University. Kim showed marginal interest in his parents' Christian faith, but he did pray to meet Christian people in America.

God answered that prayer by introducing the college freshman to a university administrator at Eastern Illinois who led him through the gospel and helped ground him in his newfound faith. Soon Kim attended the Urbana Student Mission Convention and discovered the writings of Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer.

"Urbana was significant in changing my perspective and seeing God's work beyond my small sphere of influence," Kim says. "And I was fascinated with Schaeffer's approach to how Christ has something to say to all of life and not just on Sunday morning. That was a turning point for me."

Disciplined and with a keen mind, Kim pored over the Bible and Christian books, and pressed through his business degree in 2 ½ years. He quickly followed with a master's degree in economic development, a master's in business administration and a doctorate in management.

"The intellectual part of Christianity has been downplayed in our society," Kim says. "Going through college, a lot of professors dismissed the idea of Christianity because it wasn't intellectually stimulating or satisfying."

Contending with how to integrate his own faith into his role as a rookie professor in 1986 at Alabama's Troy State University, Kim fortified his spiritual convictions through church services and a Bible study with church folks.

Although academic challenges left little time for a social life, Kim met an attorney friend of his sister's in Nigeria that December over Christmas break.

"AT&T just loved us!" says Kim of his long-distance romance with Banji. The couple married 6 months later.

Although Kim had once hoped to work for a United Nations agency or teach at a Middle Eastern graduate school as an inroad to sharing his faith, he sensed God calling him to America's mission field of higher learning.

Kim transferred to the management and marketing department at Middle Tennessee in the fall of 1989. The Sokoyas put down roots in this college town that Kim describes as "the buckle of the Bible belt." Within 2 years they had 2 sons, Femi and Tokunbo, and Banji returned to her legal career, eventually becoming assistant district attorney for Rutherford County.

Since there was no Cru or Faculty Commons group at Middle Tennessee at the time, Kim helped endorse a couple of Christian student groups on campus. Banji befriended several Jordanian, Thai and French students, who were new to the United States like she once had been. Kim and Banji held a Bible study in their home with some of them.

In 1992, a new professor on campus who had worked with Christian Leadership Ministries at Penn State contacted Kim about starting a Faculty Commons group. The 2 professors worked through local churches to meet faculty who worked at their campus. About 20 of these professors began to meet weekly for a Faculty Commons breakfast and devotional in the student center.

Rosemary Kew, assistant professor of French and Latin, was one of the first faculty members to join the Christian fellowship. She heads up the university's faculty exchange program in Normandy, France, in which Kim has participated several times.

"Kim is a competent professor and he is very well respected on campus, and the students and faculty of secular France absolutely adore him. He's friendly, he's outgoing and he's always smiling," Rosemary explains.

"Kim is clear in his Christian faith, but he is not judgmental. That is the reason why he gets a hearing among people who are either puzzled or frustrated with his Christian witness."

Helping Christian professors gain a hearing among their peers is a practical lesson plan for the Middle Tennessee Faculty Commons group.

Every Christmas and Easter the ministry sponsors an ad about Jesus in the student newspaper. Nearly 50 Christian professors and staff from various departments add their signatures to the ad as a public statement of their faith.

"Because Kim came to Christ as a student through the influence of a university administrator, he knows the potential of how people can be reached through members of the university community," explains Patrick Rist, Faculty Commons staff member.

"Faculty Commons depends on faculty to step up and lead; that's why people like Kim are so crucial. People look to Kim for leadership, and he is good at making things happen."

Kim also advises professors in how to talk about their faith in the classroom. Every time he starts a new class, Kim talks about his personal interests, including his important relationship with his wife, kids and God.

"Students sometimes think professors are kind of weird," Kim says with a chuckle. "So it's interesting for them to know that you have a life."

Twice a semester, professors involved with Faculty Commons also invite their colleagues to a luncheon seminar on a topic of academic interest. In addition, Faculty Commons sponsors practical seminars such as "How to Achieve Tenure." At their weekly meetings, Kim and the Faculty Commons group pray for continued opportunities to communicate their faith at the university.

"It's amazing how professors influence young people," Kim adds. "Just imagine what kind of influence these professors can have if they were Christians."

Kim knows that influence can echo into eternity, whether he's speaking before a group of colleagues or answering a knock at his office door.

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