For Joseph Milligan ’23, a missionary kid from Kenya, being an educator is about much more than teaching new material. At Wheaton College, he has encountered the value of learning from professors who care deeply about their students even beyond the classroom, and hopes to do the same for his future students.
Words: Eliana Chow ’21
“Public schools are full of opportunities for the light of Christ to shine, and there is so much room to minister in ways that may not be explicit evangelism.”
During college application season, Joseph Milligan ’23 and his father flew into the States from Kenya, where the family served as missionaries for over 20 years, and set off on a grand tour of seven colleges in a couple weeks. They traveled along the East Coast and made a brief stop in Texas before arriving in Chicagoland—their final destination before heading back home. From the moment he set foot on Wheaton’s campus, he was flooded by warm welcome even in the depths of a Midwestern winter. Between kind admissions counselors, eager student tour guides, and faculty who stayed after class to get to know him, Milligan got the sense from God (and Wheaton) that this was a place where, with time and effort to adjust, he could truly belong.
“At other schools I visited, I felt that they would be happy if I went there, especially with their generous scholarship offers,” Milligan said. “But nobody showed that they wanted me or cared about me in the same way that Wheaton’s people did. Every interaction I had during my visit reinforced that there is a good community here. I could find my place and be loved, both of which have been true ever since.”
In particular, Milligan recalls sitting in Anderson Commons, the campus dining hall, surrounded by the cacophony of conversation as students, in groups or contented solitude, drifted in and out on their way to and from class. Everyone was either engaging others in food line chats or immersed in a book.
“I was very unsure of myself, but people would let me go in front of them in line,” he said. “As I looked around, I knew that dining hall atmosphere was something I could see myself being a part of.”
As a double major in physics and secondary education, Milligan has taken on one of the highest credit loads possible in Wheaton’s curriculum. Yet the jam-packed schedule, including long hours in the lab or student teaching in front of a classroom, seems to fade in light of the contagious joy he brings to his studies. From his very first education class with Dr. Mark Jonas, which he initially took as an elective his freshman year, Milligan has been amazed at the amount of care Wheaton’s education professors show toward students.
“Because of their training in pedagogy, I can learn from them simply by analyzing how they teach their classes and interact with us, their students,” he said. “Studying education has also given me mad respect for professors who are not at all trained in education but I can identify that they’ve done research to be a better educator.”
Thanks to the College’s partnerships with local urban and suburban schools, there is no lack of experiential learning opportunities for Wheaton education majors, many of which are built into the department’s curriculum. This fall, Milligan kicks off his semester of student teaching in a public high school classroom. With experienced educators observing his lessons and providing feedback, Milligan will hone communication and relationship-building skills, in addition to acquiring a deeper understanding of his own physics course material. As a Christian, he continues to seek ways to work from foundational, biblical values.
“Figuring out how to build relationships in a way that opens the door to Christ in a secular school is something that I still have a lot to learn about,” he reflected. “Public schools are full of opportunities for the light of Christ to shine, and there is so much room to minister in ways that may not be explicit evangelism.”
Wheaton’s Christian liberal arts emphasis has also provided space for Milligan to reflect on the ways his academic, personal, and spiritual experiences intertwine. As a missionary kid, he is attentive and welcoming to the cultural, theological, and character differences that make up any community. As a physics major, he’s learning how to identify patterns and test theories or philosophies in science and society. As a rising educator, he’s come to a deeper appreciation for the different ways he can explain complicated concepts in accessible ways and constantly challenge his own assumptions about the world by viewing it through the eyes of his students in addition to his own.
Ultimately, the three lenses find commonality in how they help him connect with those around him. “In large and diverse public school communities, it can be easy to brush past anyone who is different or unfamiliar and find people like myself,” Milligan acknowledged. “I have felt this as a student and a teacher in training, and the challenge has been breaking that uncomfortable barrier between groups and understanding the way others live in the world. As an educator, I would love to try helping diverse communities enter into each other’s worlds.”