Callings & Conversations: Meet Greg Jao

Callings & Conversations: Meet Greg Jao

Erin Payseur

Associate Director, Civic Learning Initiatives, Office of Community Engagement & Service, Baylor University

Greg Jao serves as Vice President & Director for Campus Engagement at Intervarsity Christian Fellowship USA. Greg has held many leadership positions within InterVarsity’s campus ministry over the past 20 years: National Field Director, Regional Director, Divisional Director, Area Director, and Campus Staff Member. He has also served as Associate General Counsel and Manager of Campus Development for InterVarsity Press and may be best known as the emcee of five Urbana Student Missions Conferences. Greg holds a B.A. in English from the University of Chicago and a J.D. from Northwestern University Law School. He has authored two books, contributed to four more, and written or been cited in numerous articles. Before joining staff, he was a lawyer for the Chicago firm of Gardner Carton & Douglas.

His career has been one devoted to higher education to foster campus environments that allow students & faculty to flourish as individuals of faith. While Greg is a Christian working for a Christian organization, his work ensures that students of all faiths have the right to practice religion on their campus and that faith is not seen as a barrier to diversity but rather a vitally important strand of it. I know him through student development work in higher education and seldom come away from a conversation with him without being more inspired and challenged in the work that I do.

What do you do every day?

Part of the joy of my job is that I often don’t know what each day will look like. I have three primary responsibilities, one more internally focused, overseeing Intervarsity’s communications, and the other two more externally focused. I’m charged with asking the question how do we leverage Intervarsity’s resources, particularly our student chapters that we advise and sponsor, to engage the whole of the campus. We want our chapters to shape their programming and focus to reflect current campus tensions, issues, opportunities so that we are serving all students. The other part of my role involves responding to crises or legal issues regarding campus access. As a Christian organization, we want to ensure that non-discrimination policies are in place to protect all religious students in their expression of faith and that those policies are not then used to penalize those students when they form a student group and would like for that group to reflect that faith as well.

On other days, I spend a good deal of time brainstorming and networking with our on-campus staff on how we better serve the university, for example, how can we support our campuses as they deal with the issue of sexual assault. What are the unique tools, capacities, and resources a Christian organization can bring to help campuses engage the issue of sexual assault on campus?

What inspires you to do this work?

I have multiple inspiration points: one is the immense potential represented by college students.

I believe deeply the leaders of tomorrow, in government, in culture-shaping institutions, in business, higher education, in churches, in every institution, the leaders 20 years from now are the college students of today.

There is immense potential, both in what college students can learn in college and the impact they can have over a lifetime within their field, whether it is within their home or whether they become a leader of a multinational NGO. I love that in four or six years, college students experience immense growth intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and to have an opportunity to be a part of that, to contribute to that, to fan those flames never gets old to me. When I am teaching or training college students, I love watching that eureka moment when something connects for them for the first time, and they change as a result of that. That alone would be enough.

What also motivates me is the incredible impact that higher education can have on our campuses and beyond. The ideas that shape our world are shaped by faculty, by their research and innovation. If I do my job well, I am equipping and training faculty and helping them engage their world more deeply. What also motivates me are my colleagues. I work with incredibly creative dedicated people. I am regularly humbled and challenged by their creativity and character. Ultimately, I am motivated by a vision, by my understanding of who Jesus is, unapologetically speaking words of truth which call people to transform and to change and simultaneously speaking words of love, acceptance, and care, and holding those two in such perfect tension that people felt absolutely understood, absolutely loved, and absolutely accepted and simultaneously called to transform every aspect of their life. Seeing the way He loved inspires me. I wake up every day thinking I am a lucky person to do what I love but also what I think serves students and universities well.

What keeps you going during times of frustration and challenge?

The reality is that in my current job, I don’t get to do all the fun things anymore. I spend much less time on campus since most of my current job is crisis management and problem-solving. What keeps me going? I am so compelled by the potential of college students, by faculty, by my colleagues, and by Jesus that I can’t imagine just walking away and saying that’s too hard. I believe in Intervarsity’s mission. I believe it actually serves college students, faculty, and the university well. I have such a deep passion for what we do. And I work with an incredible team of colleagues. There is something deeply encouraging and reassuring about knowing when things are frustrating, that I am surrounded by a strong team that will support me, challenge me, walk with me.

How does your work contribute to the flourishing of students and the university?

Our belief is that we need to help our students integrate the different aspects of who they are—intellectually, emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually. While there are resources on campuses to guide students in other areas, there are much fewer resources available to help students develop spiritually. When Intervarsity is working well, it is engaging all of these aspects of their personhood in ways that other organizations or places on campus cannot.

Part of what religion does, and part of what we do at Intervarsity is consider how do we take these truths that we are wrestling with and actually implement them. One of the great challenges for the university is you can take Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and read it as simply an intellectual exercise. And part of what separates being a part of a religion from just being spiritual or just meaning-making, is that religion doesn’t give us that option. It requires something of us. In Christianity, when Jesus commands us to serve, you actually have to go and do that. And so we send hundreds of students each year into immersion programs in the inner city that are learning the issues there and how to serve. We have an overseas program which does the same. 53% of our students are non-white Americans, so our students are actively engaging in Black Lives Matter and immigration reform. We have Latino students and Filipinos.

When Intervarsity is doing its job well, students are flourishing in every aspect of who they are as people being engaged, developed, and grown.

Imagine at the university, if you had a substantial number of your students trying to engage the university’s issues, its culture, its problems, its heartache as fully integrated people who were driven and shaped by principles that made work like asking for forgiveness and offering forgiveness, justice-seeking and restoration-offering core beliefs and core values? How would it change campus conversation?

Favorite moment

I remember working with a student who was pre-med or economics. He was doing poorly and didn’t seem interested in it. I remember asking him “Could you explain to me why you are studying this? You’re really struggling, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense.” And he said, this is what I want, and he began to describe a lifestyle he wanted out of college and the salary that he needed to fund that lifestyle—$86,000/yr. Campus ministers are usually supposed to be compassionate and accepting. I guess I must have lost my poker face for a moment. And he asked, what’s wrong with wanting to be comfortable? I paused for a moment to consider the question and then commented, “What strikes me is not that you are asking for so much but that you are willing to settle for so little. You’re willing to trade a deeper sense of calling and purpose for $86,000 a year.” The conversation went on. And so did he. He has spent the last 10–15 years here in New York City advocating for the rights of working families to help them make it economically and socially. I love that! I love those moments when I can help a student’s world open up a little bit or help an administrator grapple with the bigger world. I love investing in not just knowledge but also the value and worth of people, educating people, and helping them make connection.

Tidbits & Takeaways

As I [Erin] reflect on my conversation with Greg, I am reminded of the importance of seeing our students as whole persons. Student development work is about creating environments where students can flourish, where they can develop emotionally, socially, and spiritually, as well as intellectually. It is about creating space where they can engage the different aspects of their identity, including their religious identity. Faith communities on campus can be places that bring richness to our institutions and can contribute meaningfully to the common good and civic nature of the university.

“With Student Life, we really want to partner together to serve students, and I would like to see us more fully engaged in the conversations on higher education, because so many of the issues, all of the areas that Student Affairs is wrestling with are the same things we are wrestling with. Part of my role at Intervarsity is to be more fully engaged and to be a partner and active contributor to that community. We have a lot to offer, but also a lot to learn. The great thing about working in higher education is that there is always more to learn, and we are at the place where learning happens. It is an incredibly rich environment.

This post is a part of Callings & Conversations, a collection of conversations with administrators and champions of higher education about the work that we do and why it matters. If you would like to share your story, I welcome the opportunity to hear from you. Feel free to connect with me @LearnForwardHE.

Links of Interest

Intervarsity Christian Fellowship

About the Author: Erin Payseur is the Associate Director of Civic Learning Initiatives at Baylor University. She has ten years of experience in civic engagement and higher education. As part of the Office of Community Engagement & Service, she develops sustainable frameworks for co-curricular service & social justice initiatives to guide students in considering their roles as leaders and citizens. She currently serves as the institutional contact for the NASPA Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Lead Initiative. She has authored several articles and presented nationally on civic engagement, service, and leadership. In addition to her civic engagement work, she also serves as adjunct faculty for the leadership minor. She has a B.A. degree in Religion/ Philosophy from Presbyterian College and a M.Ed. in Higher Education & Student Affairs from the University of South Carolina.

Erin Payseur

Associate Director, Civic Learning Initiatives, Office of Community Engagement & Service, Baylor University