Few people have devoted themselves so fully to helping the students of Ursinus live intellectually and morally rich lives as Christian Rice. He does this in countless ways: through his role as a professor and the assistant dean for civic engagement, in his position as founder and leader of multiple service-centered programs on campus, and simply in his daily interactions with students, in which he is unfailingly thoughtful, enthusiastic and supportive.
Christian has always been intellectually curious and socially-minded, a perfect combination for a professor of philosophy and the humanities. In 1998, he graduated from Ursinus College with distinguished honors in political science and German, the first college graduate in his family. Eager for more, Christian went on to Harvard Divinity School, where he earned a master of divinity in religious ethics and then a doctor of theology. Christian then returned to his first alma mater, where he has been selflessly serving his students and the community ever since. The titles of his classes alone provide a window into the topics that most occupy Christian’s thoughts— “Comparative Religious Ethics and Social Issues,” “Religion and Human Rights,” “The Ethical Vision of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” “What Really Matters in Life.” Christian is the kind of person who uses his gifted intellect and insatiable curiosity to explore humanity’s persistent problems and then find ways to actually do something about them.
One of the biggest ways Christian has addressed the real-life needs of those around him is through the Ursinus Center for Advocacy, Responsibility and Engagement, also known as “UCARE,” which Christian helped found in 2010, and the Bonner Program. Over multiple years of their undergraduate experience, Bonner students perform 10 hours of community service per week (which amounts to 300 each school year), attend Saturday Service Days once a month and give up their spring break by participating in an international service trip. More than a decade ago, Christian took this fledgling program of just two students in hand and through tireless recruitment and orientation efforts grew it to include nearly 40 students each year. Of course, this is not merely an administrative position for Christian. He too sacrifices his evenings, weekends and vacation time to performing hands-on service and to helping the Bonner Program and its students thrive. Every spring break for the past eleven years, Christian has traveled with Bonner students to Beeston Spring, Jamaica, where they build, repair and beautify homes, schools and churches amidst a level of rural poverty that most of Christian’s students have never encountered before. As such, these trips help spark a larger conversation about the underlying problems of cyclical poverty and about the students’ own privilege. These are the types of conversations Christian loves to facilitate with his students, because they lead to growth, broadened horizons and an increased desire to seek and bring about social justice.
Understanding, as St. Augustine said, that “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld,” Christian is always looking for ways to not just help but also empower the marginalized. Through partnerships he has created and strengthened between the Bonner Program and more than 30 community organizations, he and his students have helped inmates of the Montgomery County Correctional Facility earn their GED certification and taught English as a second language to Ursinus’s janitorial workers. He also helped create the Diversity Monologues, a yearly opportunity for students to share how it feels to be themselves—on campus and in society in general. The monologues are just one of countless ways Christian fosters a community of equality, compassion and understanding at Ursinus.
Although it seems his involvement with the Bonner Program should take up all of his available time outside his numerous professional responsibilities, Christian still spearheads a host of other service and civic-engagement organizations on campus. He is co-founder and co-director of the Joseph P. Melrose Center for Global Civic Engagement, co-coordinator of the Ursinus College Peace Corps Prep Program and director of the Harold C. Smith Program in Christian Studies.
Christian’s faculty colleague and fellow Ursinus graduate Professor Robin Clouser, Class of 1963, nominated him for this award and said this of Christian: “Christian Rice is enormously popular with Ursinus students both because of his dynamic classroom teaching and because of his involvement in improving their lives through civic engagement and intellectual growth.”
Christian, for all this you have done, and we know will continue to do, we are pleased to recognize you with the 2020 Alumni Award for Service to Humanity.
Q&A with Christian C. Rice ’98
How is winning an Ursinus Alumni Award significant for you personally and professionally?
Winning this award is a tremendous honor. It has caused me to pause and reflect on the creation of a culture of civic engagement at Ursinus. It has been very gratifying to think about the many students I have worked with over the past 12 years and to see what they are achieving now. I suspect that many of them will win this award in years to come!
How did Ursinus help instill a desire to serve your community?
It is not an overstatement to say that Ursinus truly transformed me. Entering college, I was quite naïve to many of the social injustices that plague our society. Great teaching and great mentoring forced me to examine difficult questions, even if they were uncomfortable. I left Ursinus with a passion to serve our society and this has influenced the entire shape of my professional and personal life.
What was your proudest UC moment?
It’s hard to name just one! I was chosen to be the student commencement speaker and I shared the stage with Dr. Cornel West. He would go on to be my advisor and mentor at Harvard Divinity School. I also met my wife Janel at Ursinus, and we were married in Bomberger by the late Reverend Charles Rice, our dearest friend.
Why has giving back to Ursinus been important to you?
Giving back to Ursinus provides so many opportunities for current and future students. I believe there is nothing more valuable than a liberal arts education; it is a gateway for transformation. It’s an act of love to give back to an institution that has given you so much.
What advice do you have for current students and alumni who want to address needs in their community?
Working to improve our communities can be draining and one should always remember to take time for self-care. As paradoxical as it may sound, one needs to care for one’s self first. That being said, I truly believe that there is no greater joy than the joy that is found in a commitment to doing meaningful work. Such work engages us completely, calling upon our intellect and heart.