Recently I stepped out of my usual routine as vice president for academic affairs to visit our Middle East Studies Program in Amman, Jordan. For four days, I joined 14 students in their studies and travels exploring Middle Eastern culture. We visited a Bedouin sheik and his wife, 12 children and assorted grandchildren. He welcomed us to his home by announcing that we were now part of his family. We ate mansef on the floor of the sheik’s living room with our bare hands, working heaping piles of rice, yoghurt, and mutton into balls and cramming them into our mouths.
We had an evening conversation with four young Muslim professionals who had recently traveled to Washington, D.C., for the National Prayer Breakfast. They shared their perspective on the U.S. and the reasons why they believe that Islam is the logical culmination of Judaism and Christianity.
We visited a cave where Jesus slept (maybe) and the summit of Mount Nebo where Moses is buried (probably). We dipped our feet in the place on the Jordan River where archaeologists believe Jesus was baptized, while across the muddy stream, machine gun-toting Israeli soldiers kept a watchful eye on the scene. I accompanied students on their weekly service-learning project, where they teach English to Christian refugees who have fled ISIS-controlled Iraq.
It was gratifying to see firsthand the profound cross-cultural experiences that these Christian college students are having. Unfortunately, it’s an experience that most college students don’t have. In a New York Times column entitled “The Lie About College Diversity," Frank Bruni decried the lack of truly diverse experiences on our college campuses. Even among campuses that do relatively well in recruiting a diverse student body, he notes, many of them fail to foster meaningful interactions between people from different backgrounds.
Bruni notes that according to the Institute for International Education, only about 10 percent of U.S. college students engage in a study abroad program, and most of those programs are just a few weeks in duration. Moreover, the most popular destinations for students are not exotic places that push students out of their cultural comfort zones but countries in western Europe. Students in mainstream U.S. universities are broadening their worlds, Bruni remarks, “but with a minimum of real disruption and a maximum of Guinness and bucatini.”
Because we believe in the transformative impact of off-campus learning experiences, the CCCU is committed to exposing students to the diversity of human cultures through Christ-centered semester abroad programs. Such programs have been part of our mission from the beginning. In 1976, the same year that the CCCU was formed, Council leaders established the American Studies Program in Washington, D.C. That program was followed by several others, and today our nine off-campus programs span the U.S. and the world. These programs extend the educational mission of our campuses by providing experiential learning that contributes to students’ intellectual and spiritual growth and equips them to faithfully follow Christ in all areas of life.
The work of the CCCU is predicated on the belief that there are certain things our schools can do better through collaboration than on our own, and our off-campus programs are a perfect example of that conviction. Take the Middle East Studies Program, for example. Most campus leaders would agree that the Middle East is an important religious and cultural arena that our students should have the opportunity to experience. But what single campus can generate the 15-20 students each semester needed to maintain such a program? Or employ an experienced professional in the Middle East such as program director Doug Magnuson, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Brown University and has spent the past three decades in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan?
Then there are the issues of safety and risk management in the Middle East, which can be daunting for one institution to manage. Amid the turmoil of the past decade, rather than abandon the Middle East, the CCCU moved from Cairo to Jerusalem to Amman to ensure that we operate not only a quality program but a safe one.
Thus, collaborative study abroad programs have always been central to the CCCU’s mission. Over the past decade, however, the context for study abroad programs has changed. Financial pressures at private colleges have meant that many CCCU schools are more reluctant to see tuition dollars go off campus. Many campuses have started their own programs or emphasized faculty-led short term study trips.
At the CCCU, therefore, rather than seeking to compete with our members’ programs, we’re focused on providing innovative, distinctive offerings that enable our campuses to accomplish their educational goals more effectively and strengthen their student recruitment efforts. For example, our Los Angeles Film Studies Center (LAFSC), boasting state-of-the-art equipment and access to Hollywood internships, enables CCCU schools to offer majors in film and media while outsourcing costly aspects of those programs to LAFSC. Our American Studies Program provides internships on Capitol Hill in strategic communication and public policy arenas, and next fall the Uganda Studies Program will launch a new global health track. These and other examples provide opportunities for mutually beneficial partnerships between member campuses and the CCCU off-campus programs.
Furthermore, in the future we want to hear from our schools about more ways that we can enhance their own academic portfolios. For example, we are currently getting input from member campuses to help us re-design our program in China, and our Latin American Studies Program’s new director, Dr. Deborah Berhó, will be connecting with member campuses over the next year and soliciting their feedback.
Christian colleges and universities are in the education business because we believe that transformative Christ-centered education empowers students to impact our world. Through effective collaboration, we can ensure that our students’ classrooms extend from a U.S. campus to a Bedouin sheik’s living room.
Rick Ostrander is vice president for academic affairs and professional programs at the CCCU.