Students who study abroad at Fresno Pacific unanimously come back with stories of awe, surprise and shock. The awe emerges at the grandeur of the Acropolis in Greece, the glittering gold-plated Dome of the Rock in Israel, the graceful enormity of the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul, the sheer immensity of the Angkor Wat ruins in Cambodia, the stark peacefulness of the Taj Mahal mausoleum in India. The surprise comes when they experience dissonance from the routine: the mystery of a sea of motorbikes parting around you as you cross a street in Vietnam, the sight of dozens of cows ambling across a crowded street in New Delhi, the smiling, wizened street vendor in Old Jerusalem who lures you in for yet another incredible deal, the call to prayer from the nearby mosque before dawn. The shock comes when learning about another culture’s history through the eyes of a local guide or student their age: the horror of a 36-year civil war that killed 200,000 in Guatemala, the relentless oppression by the Israeli Defense Forces against unarmed Palestinian villagers, the brutal killings of thousands of innocent peasants by the Colombian para-military and guerrilla groups, the sickening dreadfulness of walking through a Khmer Rouge prison in Cambodia where only a handful walked out alive.
These are the kinds of experiences we know transform our students. Those who go on study abroad continually report that a cross-cultural experience was the most significant and transforming event in college, one that often shapes them for life. And it makes sense: they are confronted by a world that is not familiar to them, and one in which living out of your comfort zone is an everyday experience. As a result, they begin to see the world in a new way, and see God’s work throughout the world in a new light. In Israel they literally walk the same path where Jesus walked, and learn how he breached cultural borders by choosing to walk through Samaria. In the West Bank they hear from Christian Peacemaker Teams, a group that brings together Arabs and Jews to dialogue with their perceived enemy. In Costa Rica they minister alongside Costa Rican Christians who provide hope and a new vision for youth and adults working in an under-resourced Nicaraguan neighborhood. In Colombia they visit with pastors who have had death threats issued against them for preaching a gospel of non-violence. In Vietnam they spend time at a center where a U.S. couple works with disabled kids, possible victims of Agent Orange “hot spots” still left over from a forgotten war.
Why do we encourage our students to participate in a significant cross-cultural experience while at FPU? Our goal is transformed students engaged with the world, whether in their neighborhood or across the world. A cross-cultural experience guided by experienced faculty allows students to get a glimpse of that world and the ways in which suffering is overcome with hope, where hate is countered by God’s love, where violence is confronted by peace, where past injustice is mediated by present-day justice. The difficult and painful and beautiful and diverse world in which we all live is one that our students need to experience if they are to become transformative agents of change.