Amy Erickson, a senior at the Presbyterian-related Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., knew all about the Samuel Robinson Award before she even enrolled as a student at the “pervasively Presbyterian” university.
“My older sister went to Whitworth, and I knew that it was a good school with a solid theology department, relationally-focused community, Christ-centered values and beautiful campus,” Erickson says. Knowing that as a prospective Whitworth student she would have an opportunity to apply for the Samuel Robinson Award was an added benefit.
The Samuel Robinson Award, which is open to PC(USA) students who are completing their junior or senior year of college at a Presbyterian-related college or university, was created from a gift made in 1956 naming the General Assembly, Princeton Theological Seminary, McCormick Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary to promote the memorization of the Westminster Shorter Catechism contained in The Book of Confessions. Applications are solicited and received annually by the office of Financial Aid for Studies, a ministry of the Office of Vocation. Up to 15 awards are granted annually, with one or two students receiving the maximum award of $5,000, and every recipient no less than $2,000.
Although memorizing and reciting all 107 questions and answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism — the principal requirement for award applicants in addition to writing a 2,000 word essay on an assigned topic — is no easy task, it is one that Whitworth University takes very seriously. In 2010, two Whitworth students, Heather Wallace and Daniel Lewis, received the award, which is open to all of the colleges and universities related to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
“It was hard, and took a lot of intentionality and consistent dedication,” says Erickson, who grew up at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Austin, Tex., and is now a member of First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. “I wrote out the questions on flashcards and would work on them while walking across campus or standing in line and would review them before going to bed.”
Toni Sutherland, program coordinator for Chaplain Services at Whitworth, consistently informs students of the Samuel Robinson Award and helps them prepare.
Sutherland, who has heard many students’ recitations over the years, encourages a method like Erickson’s. “It seems like a lot of work, but if you break it up and spread it out over the time frame that’s available, it makes it so much easier,” Sutherland says.
For Erickson, memorizing the catechism became much more than an intellectual feat in order to win an award. It was transformative and inspired her to be more intentional about memorizing scripture.
“It has reminded me how memorization helps you get inside a text and pick up on aspects that would be missed otherwise,” says Erickson. “It gave me a feel for the big-picture story and themes of scripture, and has challenged me to consider how to best articulate it in today’s terms.”
In addition to memorization and recitation, applicants are also required to write a 2,000-word essay. The 2011 essay topic was, “The Shorter Catechism says that our ‘chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ How would you define the term ‘enjoy’ especially in light of Q.2.? What role does prayer, as defined in Q. 98, play in such enjoyment? You may expand: ‘What effect do our 21st century technologies and worldviews have on prayer?’”
“The process – especially writing the essay – was meaningful in my own relationship with Christ,” Erickson says. “I found myself falling more in love with the story of scripture and the God who tells it.”
Erickson has yet to designate her award money for anything specific but says it will likely go toward further education or an educational travel experience later down the road.
“I’m extremely grateful for how much my family has sacrificed for me to attend college and saw this as an opportunity for me to work hard and contribute more to my own education,” Erickson says. “I also saw this as a worthwhile opportunity to think hard about a significant theological document.”
As Erickson looks forward to graduation she is discerning what God is calling her to do next. “Right now, I’m seriously considering participating in a two-year internship development program at my home church in Colorado Springs that involves living in an intentional community with other interns,” she says. “My hope is that I can develop a clearer sense of calling and gifting in the context of the church.”
The Samuel Robinson Award opened for applications on November 1, with the deadline for completed applications of April 1, 2012. The essay topic for 2012 is, “Which question-answer pair in the Westminster Catechism do you think speaks most directly to the PC(USA) today? Why?”
“Mr. Robinson’s gift has never been more timely,” said Laura Bryan, associate for Financial Aid for Studies for the PC(USA). “Students preparing for graduation are facing a very competitive market burdened in great numbers by student loan debt. We hope that students seize this opportunity and use the award to make their transition from college a success.”
Erickson has these words for students who may be considering applying for the award: “Do it! Decide to commit to it early on and work hard. It is well worth it.”
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Drew Stockstill is a freelance writer in Decatur, Ga., where he is currently a student at Columbia Theological Seminary.