The Episcopal chaplain of the Georgia Tech campus ministry Grace House, Kathryn Pierce Folk, is a familiar face to many students – particularly to the hundreds who show up on Thursday afternoons at “Grace Coffee House” for free coffee.
Folk’s love for Georgia Tech began at age eight, when her father took to see her first Ramblin’ Wreck Parade. Fourteen years later, she graduated from the Institute with a bachelor’s degree from the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE).
Post-Commencement, Folk initially took a job with UPS in the industrial engineering department but quickly discovered that she most enjoyed working with people and solving workplace issues to ensure employees were happy and productive. This interest in people led her to a master’s degree in counseling and – eventually – to the Grace House chaplaincy.
The primary goal for Folk and Grace House – which is a joint ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) – is to provide what she calls “a safe, welcoming, and hopeful space for students at the Institute.” Given that Tech’s campus is closed down due to the coronavirus, Folk’s focus has shifted to leading the ECLA and Episcopal denominations’ national effort to provide housing and supportive resources for students displaced by the pandemic. And yes, she’s using her ISyE skills more than ever.
After you graduated from Tech, you went into consulting, a typical role for a young ISyE alum. And yet now you’re a campus ministry chaplain, a very atypical role. How did that happen?
I was involved with Christian Campus Fellowship as an undergraduate, and by my third year, I decided I wanted to be a campus minister. I earned my counseling degree to explore my calling further, but always thought you had to be ordained to do ministry. One night my husband said, “I dare you to quit your job.” He wanted me to focus on becoming a chaplain, because he knew how much I wanted to do it. That was at 11:45 p.m. At midnight, I submitted my resignation to the consulting company at which I was employed.
I started volunteering at Kennesaw State University with Canterbury Club, the Episcopal ministry there. Eventually, a job opened up at Grace House. My priest and some fellow parishioners encouraged me to apply for it even though I wasn’t ordained, so I did, and here I am.
Why was campus ministry so compelling to you even when you were an undergraduate?
I saw how campus ministries can change lives. The opportunities are so powerful with people that age – away from family for the first time, trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up, and trying to master necessary life skills along the way. They have so many needs to be met, and that called to me.
Campus ministry also changed my life. It fed me spiritually and encouraged me in ways that my church and youth group no longer could. I think this encouragement kept me going on the rough days, ultimately helping me cross the finish line of graduation. I fondly remember those Monday afternoons at 4 p.m. when Mary Lou would have homemade cinnamon rolls waiting for us at the CCF house. That cinnamon roll and her smile melted away the stress created by whatever test I just took.
How many students do you work with?
It varies widely. We might have eight students for our Thursday worship, whereas we’ve had well over 400 students show up for Grace Coffee House. (Yes, we use time study clickers to help determine inventory needs!)
What does a typical week look like for you?
I’m all over the place. I’m also a chaplain at Oglethorpe University, so on Mondays and Wednesdays, I’m with the students and other campus ministers over there. Tuesdays, I’m at Tech and we have our staff meeting that evening. Thursdays we have Grace Coffee House, of course, and then Fridays are for meetings – both with individual students as well as campus organizations. Saturday and Sunday are kind of a free-for-all. I could be guest preaching at a church, attending a fundraiser, working a Diocesan event, leading a retreat, doing my own homework, or binge-watching my favorite show, The Dead Files.
You’re currently working on your doctorate in education. What is your focus, and how will you use what you’re learning as a campus chaplain?
Creighton University recently contacted me to report I passed my comprehensive exams this semester, so I will begin dissertation proposal construction in the fall! My dissertation will focus on helping higher educational institutions put policies into place to help transgender students stay in school and graduate. While this alone may not sound very profound, what is profound are the rates of suicidality in college-aged transgender students. These rates drop significantly after they obtain their undergraduate degree. I ideally would like to remove as many barriers as possible to graduation. At this point, I believe a phenomenological study will be involved, but I’m also a fan of mixed-methods research. Fortunately, I have a little while to decide on which direction to go.
Relatively recently, I realized that there are no suicide prevention experts in the Church. These deaths are happening more and more, especially with LGBTQIA+ members of the community. So, my thought has been that we should open up this topic and start discussing it – bring it up – instead of sweeping it under the rug like it isn’t happening.
To quantify this a bit, there are millions of Americans who are members of faith-based organizations. If we can offer these organizations a suicide prevention curriculum and encourage them to spend a few days a year talking about suicide, then we will have educated a huge portion of society about this issue in the U.S. alone. Imagine what we could do globally.
How do you use your ISyE skills in this role?
We are starting to add more campuses to this ministry, and everything is still run just by Andrew Rickel, the Lutheran pastor, and me. In consulting, you look at doing more with less and creating tools to help folks work better, and that applies to Grace House too. Campus ministry is an interesting blend of theory of constraints and a modified economy of scale. What can I do at Georgia Tech, and at Oglethorpe, that I can also eventually do at Georgia State and Emory with little to no effort, no additional funding, and no additional headcount?
To solve this puzzle, I keep going to back to the human factors class I took at Tech. How can I make our jobs more user-friendly, more efficient, more intuitive, and more cost-effective? No, it’s not designing airplane cockpits, but all of the same thought processes and concepts apply. Needless to say, the skills I learned in my ISyE classes are invaluable, timeless, and interdisciplinary.
What do you want students to know about Grace House?
I would say it goes to back to the question, “What is a chaplain?” If you need to talk to someone but you don’t need to talk to your advisor and you don’t want to talk to your parents, then come talk to us. Maybe you’re hungry and need to grab some food for the weekend and don’t want to make a big deal about it, well then come talk to us – we have a food pantry. If you need a pep talk before an exam, come talk to us. If you have a flat tire, come talk to us. These are little things that add up. Our desire is to fill that space between Institute administration, advisors, counselors, and parents.
How has your role changed in light of the coronavirus pandemic?
The pandemic has necessitated campus closings all over the U.S., beginning with Stanford University. Andrew and I began thinking about what might happen at Georgia Tech and how we could help. We talked to the Diocese and the Synod about students who couldn’t go home and whether or not there was anything we could do to help them. They gave us the go-ahead, so we could be prepared.
I started putting a plan together on Thursday, March 12th, and shared it with the national heads of the Episcopalian and Lutheran campus ministries, and they asked me to open up this assistance to students nationwide. We sent out a request for people who could offer students housing via Facebook, Instagram, and parish administrators.
I began building a database of people who could open their homes, and with that in place, we then allowed students to begin requesting housing.
There are people who also want to help by bringing food and groceries to the students or offering U-Hauls to help them move out of campus housing or praying for the students – we are happy to accept whatever you’re able to offer. It’s a divide and conquer approach – the Lutheran church is spearheading the effort to find housing and the Episcopal church is managing donors of other goods and services.
In this pandemic, I am using my ISyE degree to solve problems I could never have imagined. This is once again, a classic example of optimizing under constraints. In this situation, I have to find students housing opportunities so that both student and host preferences match, and everyone feels comfortable with the arrangement. And it can even come down to things like, “Are you allergic to cats?” “Do you need a space to pray?” “Are you vegetarian?” “Do you keep kosher?”
At this point, I believe students have been placed and those that need food are receiving food. My concern for future housing continues to grow, especially after being on a recent call with one of the sororities at Georgia Tech. Students have found temporary housing until the end of spring semester. But what happens for the summer? Internships are being pushed out until June 1. Classes begin in May. Where will students live? How will they get their belongings? Where will they eat? I suppose it is time to dust off some network modeling notes and do a little failure modes and effects analysis. While I don’t currently have answers to these questions, what I do know is our Student Life staff is awesome and both “Ma Tech” and the ISyE program prepared me well for this. To quote one of our famous Grace House alums, “We’re Georgia Tech. We can do that.”
If you are a student in need of housing or if you would like to help support displaced students with housing, prayer, food, or funding, please go to the Grace House website and fill out the appropriate form or contact Kathryn at email@example.com.
H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering