Ask any student: Pursuing higher education is a complex process.
Ask any higher education professional: Offering a program to students with diverse interests, needs, and circumstances is a complex process.
What happens when the process involves distinctly different cultures, traditions, languages, educational systems, expectations—and a distance of 6000 miles?
Two years ago, Bethany began offering courses from its Richmond, Indiana, campus for Nigerian students sitting in a classroom half a world away. This educational partnership began with an agreement between the Seminary and Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) signed in July 2016. A new technology classroom center was constructed in the city of Jos, and in January 2018, a pilot two-week course linked students from both countries in real time through synchronous video.
Since then, task teams at Bethany and in Jos have continued to improve the logistical process and the student experience. A new Nigerian cohort began their studies with two-week courses in August 2019 and January 2020 and an online course during fall 2019. Yet, says Bethany president Jeff Carter, there are limitations to what can be done at a distance. “Having been in Jos previously, I knew that many of the challenges we were running into needed to be addressed face-to-face.” In addition, the program is attracting attention outside the EYN denomination. A trip for early January 2020 was planned, and Carter invited Steve Schweitzer, academic dean, and Lori Current, executive director of admissions and student services, to accompany him.
“The time was right for us to travel there and envision the future of the program together,” said Schweitzer, who chairs the Seminary’s Nigerian Task Team. “As the program has expanded, there was a need to connect with EYN leadership and students in their contexts, and to talk with other denominations that have students in our program. Having these important conversations in person, in their settings, is essential to understanding the needs, concerns, and desires of these groups and individuals.”
“Demonstrating not only our interest but also a willingness to be with them meant a great deal to the Nigerians,” added Carter, affirming the warm welcome extended to the Bethany group. They were able to have extended time with EYN president Joel Billi and other denominational leaders as well as Nigerian students taking the January course. Attending a class session at the technology center, with students in Richmond appearing on the screen, provided insight into how Nigerians are experiencing the classroom setting.
Current, who has helped lead admissions efforts since the program began, found the opportunity exciting and emotional. “Being able to see faces of students we have been working with for years was rewarding in many ways. The students had one-on-one time with us to express concerns and joys about the program. Each one shared stories of school, family, and the crisis of terrorism from Boko Haram.”
A special connection was made with two women who have been liaisons for Bethany on the ground in Jos. American MDiv student Sharon Flaten has assisted with recruitment and students’ needs while continuing her Bethany studies online from Nigeria. Her understanding of the Nigerian church and culture are of great service to Seminary staff, and she was able to host and accompany the Bethany group during their visit. Judy Stout, now serving at Hillcrest School through Brethren Volunteer Service, has provided tutoring for the Nigerian students.
Current also stated that experiencing the daily life of students and friends in Nigeria was very valuable. The personal interaction had practical application for her work as well. “For example, we realized that Nigerian students are used to following a specific admissions process, so we will adopt a familiar procedure to help future students complete applications more easily,” she said.
The students expressed appreciation for the courses and content of the Seminary’s Certificate in Biblical Peacemaking, in which the new cohort are enrolled and which was designed with the interests of EYN students in mind. “Bethany’s application of the material to the cultural and ministry contexts in Nigeria is deeply appreciated,” says Schweitzer. He also heard the students’ preference for a course timeline that will allow them to finish the certificate more quickly and their interest in the MA degree beyond the certificate program. Recent changes to the Seminary’s MA program allow for completion entirely online. “Having Nigerian students in the MA degree would continue to stretch us and almost certainly lead to revision of additional courses that will be part of expanded future offerings.”
Word about the opportunity to take courses at Bethany from Jos has spread beyond EYN circles, prompting the second focus of the trip. Having a denominational endorsement is key for Nigerian students pursuing higher education. A current Bethany graduate student in Nigeria and member of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) denomination helped connect Bethany with Jos ECWA Theological Seminary. The Bethany group also visited the seminary of the Church of Christ in Nigeria and the Theological College of Northern Nigeria. These initial meetings with administrators of three major theological schools in the region, said Carter, confirmed mutual interest in exploring what possibilities may exist.
For Carter, who had attended the dedication of the technology center in 2018, it was gratifying to renew personal connections and to be able to preach during worship with the EYN congregation in Jos. “The decisions now being made could only have happened through this visit to Nigeria. There is a spirit of mutuality in making the program work, and the relationship really feels like a partnership.”
Schweitzer agrees. “Education is valued by the Nigerians, and Bethany has the opportunity, resources, and expertise to do something that they desire. But it is not one-sided. Our domestic students are being challenged and their worldviews expanded through interaction with excellent students in Nigeria. Seeing the richness of conversation and how meaningful this program is to all our students encourages me that Bethany’s investment—past and future—is certainly worth it.”