Michelle Chin: Dialogue with an Adventist specialist in political science
Born in Chicago and brought up in Keene, Texas, where her father teaches mathematics at Southwestern Adventist University, Michelle Chin has had an interest in current affairs and politics all through her life. As a child of immigrants, Michelle’s earliest memory of the United States government was the long wait at the immigration office in Fort Worth while her parents took their citizenship oath. She graduated with a B.S. in political economy from Andrews University in 1990. From 1990-1994, Michelle worked as a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C., for U.S. Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas. She left Washington to begin graduate studies in political science at Texas A&M University, and completed her M.A. in 1997 and Ph.D. in 2001. Currently Michelle serves as assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. She has published articles on various aspects of the United States political system in professional journals, and is working on a book on Congressional access decisions. Michelle is a member of the Camelback Seventh-day Adventist Church in Phoenix, Arizona.
Michelle, your academic career is in political science, something unusual for an Adventist. What attracted you to this field of study?
As a teenager, I was interested in current affairs and government. I had initially planned to be a journalist, but a controversial governor’s race in my home state of Texas sparked my interest in campaign politics. When the time came to go to college, I found out that there were only two Adventist colleges that had any type of political science program: Pacific Union College offered a history/political science degree, and Andrews University offered a degree in political economy. I chose Andrews, but only after finishing my freshman year at home, in Southwestern Adventist University.
One summer I worked as an intern in Washington, D.C., for my congressman, U.S. Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas). After graduation, I worked for him full-time. While I enjoyed my experiences as a congressional staffer, I was often frustrated by a sense that I couldn’t fully comprehend the legislative/ policy process. So I decided to go for graduate studies in political science. I was accepted at Texas A&M University, where I completed both my master’s and doctoral degrees. Once I wanted to do law, but now I’m delighted I didn’t go to law school, because being a political scientist gives me the tools to study how government institutions affect and influence the policy process and individual-level political behavior and decisions.
You now serve as faculty member at Arizona State University. What challenges do you as a young, Adventist, single, female encounter when teaching in a public institution?
The biggest challenge in teaching at a large secular university is trying to remember all the names of my students! Given my undergraduate experience at Andrews University, I am used to small classes where my professors knew us all by first name. At that time, I didn’t realize what a positive effect that type of studentteacher interaction can have on one’s academic and personal development. I also remember that in many classes, my professors would pray before we took our exams. Those moments made an impression on me. Although I am not able to do that for my students, I try to connect with my students in other ways–from giving opportunities to work in small groups, to learning all of their names, to encouraging them to take some time to “rest” from their cares and worries.
In general, the professional challenges that a single, Adventist female academic faces at a public university are no different from what any other woman would face; they range from concerns about promotion and tenure, to healthcare coverage. However, I do find that I often face decisions about Sabbath; for example, should I participate in graduation ceremonies, and should I attend or present academic papers at conference panels that are scheduled during Sabbath hours?
Besides teaching, what other career opportunities might young people have if specializing in political science?
Most political science majors I meet plan to go to law school. I was one of them too! But in reality, the critical analytical skills that a political science degree provides are easily transferable to many other careers. The most obvious relate to government, public administration, and politics. The U.S. Foreign Service is another field that attracts many political science majors. There are other options as well; for example, one of my former students is in film school at the University of Southern California, another is a lobbyist for a county supervisors’ association, another is a minister, several students are working for various state/ local (mayors, city council, governors) and national policymakers (members of Congress).
There are only about a dozen Adventists with doctoral degrees in political science in North America. Why do you think this field has not attracted more Adventists in the past? And is the pattern changing?
Traditionally, the church has minimized the value of public government/ political service by arguing that it is a distraction from our spiritual commission and a violation of the separation of church and state. I remember that shortly after I graduated from college and took my first job with the congressman, a family friend and sincere Adventist suggested that the U.S. Congress was too sinful a place for a nice Adventist girl to work.
Recently, I read an article about Adventist pioneer John N. Andrews which said that he gave up a future in politics to become a missionary. Not surprisingly, there have been only a few members of our church who have actually entered politics. Yet, the church also has a great interest in defending itself against government action that threatens the wall of separation. So, we have invested a lot of resources to protect religious liberty; for example, by hiring lawyers to represent the church’s interests. But I think that young Adventists are beginning to realize that it’s not enough to be present at the lawsuit, when we have opportunities to shape the law in the first place.
As to your question about Adventists seeking graduate degrees in political science, I’m just going to speculate. As more Adventists have been seeking graduate training and are willing to accept non-denominational employment, it would not be surprising to see the number of political scientists increase. I think this represents a positive change because the secular universities offer a unique mission ground for any Christian.
In addition to teaching, you have been active in research and publication. What is your primary area of specialization and focus?
My primary research interests focus on the study of political institutions, congressional decision making, interest groups, and the role of money in politics. Some of my research has been published in The Journal of Politics, Electoral Studies, and American Politics Research.
In what ways can you actually make a difference in U.S. governance?
The best way is to help train students who are thoughtful and honorable public servants, who know how to participate and influence the policy process to represent the people's best interests, and who respect the contributions of a richly, diverse citizenry.
And how do you keep your faith burning in your soul when working in a public setting?
One of my favorite Scriptures is Proverbs 3:5, 6: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” I know I trust God, but it’s very easy to become self-reliant and in so doing, get a big head. For example, if I get good reviews of my research or my teaching, it’s easy to believe that’s the result of my own hard work and talent; likewise, when the bad reviews and publishers’ rejection letters arrive, it’s also easy to believe that’s because my research is stupid. So I’ve learned to be trusting and humble!
What God has planned is much bigger than what I could have imagined for myself. Sometimes, a failure or setback is necessary, not because it’s good for my character, but because it’s a course-correction. It’s only recently that I’ve come to this realization, but it’s made me feel much more calm about my future and my career. Keeping faith alive is a personal responsibility, but it also helps to have friends and family who are supportive and encouraging.
Jane Sabes (Ph.D., Auburn University) teaches courses in political science at Andrews University. Her mailing address: Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104; U. S. A.
Michelle Chin’s email address: Michelle.Chin@asu.edu.