Seminary’s global diversity fosters intercultural growth

Published: February 21, 2019

By Annette Brill Bergstresser

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Students from 12 countries and six continents — all but Antarctica — are calling the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) campus home this academic year.

Together with those studying at a distance, they make up a student body that is the most geographically and culturally diverse the Elkhart, Indiana, seminary has seen in recent memory, and perhaps in all of its history, said Assistant Dean and Registrar Scott Janzen, M.Div.

“One of AMBS’s strengths is that our students have the opportunity to study with people from across the world,” said Daniel Grimes, M.P.A., director of enrollment and financial aid.

As of September 2018, AMBS’s 98-member graduate student body includes 21 students from outside of the U.S. and Canada, representing Argentina, Australia, Chile, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, South Africa, South Korea, Tanzania and Zambia. Students who are citizens or legal residents of the U.S. and Canada also bring their experiences of having lived, served and learned in various cross-cultural domestic and global settings.

Campus housing is near capacity this semester, with 26 students, 12 family members and six employees or volunteers living at AMBS.

Febri Kristiani, a Master of Divinity student from Salatiga, Central Java, Indonesia, and one of 15 international students living on campus, said she sees AMBS as a place where diversity is welcomed and appreciated.

“Learning about God and the Bible and worshiping with others from different cultures and traditions is life-giving to me,” she said. “It helps me to learn and encounter God in different ways and to witness the work of the Spirit in another context and culture.”

Students who are part of AMBS’s learning community both on campus and at a distance have echoed Kristiani’s sentiments.

Ron Moyo (MDiv 2018), outreach pastor for Whitestone Mennonite Church in Hesston, Kansas, alternated between living on campus and studying at a distance to earn his degree. Moyo, who is originally from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, used the metaphor of a seed to reflect on his experiences at AMBS, noting that a seed’s outcome depends on where it’s planted and how much sun and water it receives.

“AMBS has communicated with consistency the message of being the solid foundation,” he reflected. “Varied international and intercultural differences have helped in the process of cross-pollination, and the essence of each seed has been enhanced, thanks to the unshakeable foundation that has provided good soil and environment.”

Margaret De Jong from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada — one of six Canadian students — is earning her degree at a distance through the MDiv Connect program. She said she’s valued hearing her classmates’ perspectives as well as sharing from her own experiences of serving with Mennonite Mission Network in Senegal and Mennonite Central Committee in Haiti. She remembers listening to a fellow student from another culture describe how he was working in the U.S. with immigrants from his home culture.

“I was hearing what the issues were for that culture and being encouraged about how he was addressing them,” she said.

AMBS professors such as Safwat Marzouk, Ph.D., associate professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and a former member of the seminary’s Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism (ICUR) Team, intentionally create space in their courses for students to reflect on their cultural influences. Marzouk asks students to write and present on how their backgrounds have helped form their theology.

“This assignment raises students’ awareness of the context from which they read the Bible and helps them name the contributions they make and the obstacles they face in this learning community,” said Marzouk, who is originally from Egypt. “They also become aware of where their classmates are coming from, which strengthens the intercultural competence of everyone involved.”

Similar to Marzouk, Andy Brubacher Kaethler, Ph.D., associate professor of Christian formation and culture and an ICUR Team member, believes that having students from diverse cultural backgrounds amplifies the need for and benefits of intersectional thinking, which he describes as “identifying and considering the different parts of ourselves that we bring to every experience — gender, social class, age, cultural or ethnic background, geographic background, etc.”

“I encourage students to pay attention and to notice what other people are noticing in whatever we’re studying together, and to be curious about it,” he said. “Might it be that their experience is from a different cultural context?”

Brubacher Kaethler — who grew up in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario; Bangladesh and Ghana — noted that international students face many challenges in navigating an unfamiliar culture. For international and domestic students and professors alike, an interculturally diverse environment requires careful listening and articulation of one’s thoughts, expectations and ideas, he said.

“I think it helps me to be a more gracious teacher,” he reflected.

“When I relate with international students, I need to intentionally look for places that I’m making assumptions,” he added, observing that learning often happens by trial and error. “Sometimes cultural misunderstandings can be humorous, and sometimes they are less humorous, but they’re all learning experiences and opportunities to go deeper.”

De Jong acknowledged that it’s not always easy to consider perspectives different from her own.

“There’s always the challenge of ‘Whoa, that’s not how I see it!” she said. “That’s been helpful so that I can step back and look at why I think and believe the way I do and what needs to be recalibrated in my own thinking and believing.”

She added that she has appreciated the process that some of her professors use of listening to everyone before anyone responds.

“Whether in face-to-face or online discussions, we have been guided well in how to listen and how to respond,” she noted.

The seminary prepares students to engage and navigate differences, in part by incorporating a component on intercultural competence led by ICUR Coordinator Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, M.A.T.S., into AMBS’s orientation course. Alexis, Brubacher Kaethler and Marzouk are also all qualified administrators of the Intercultural Development Inventory, which each admitted student completes.

“All incoming students are introduced to the idea of intercultural competence, not just for how they think about their ministry onward, but also for being here at seminary together,” she said. “Intercultural competence doesn’t erase conflict or difference but gives us concepts and tools for engaging these things well, out of a posture where joys and difficulties are all wrapped up in the process.”

Esther Muhagachi, a Master of Divinity student from Dodoma, Tanzania, said she found the orientation week especially helpful.

“The classmates do understand, and there’s a lot of emphasis on listening carefully,” she said. “That respect is there, and it is so helpful.”

One challenge to listening, though, is the speed with which people speak, she noted.

“Professors are willing to stop and explain, or later you can go to their office to ask, or ask a fellow student,” she said.

Near the end of each semester, the ICUR Team hosts a lunch for international students; participants are also invited to bring food from their cultural backgrounds. At last spring’s lunch, those present counted that among them, 23 different languages and dialects were represented.

“It’s a way to fellowship with our growing international student community and to celebrate the completion of each semester,” said Alexis. “However, we also use it as a dedicated, relaxed space for students to share about their particular experiences within the AMBS community as they bring their cultures into the mix.”


(l. to r.) MDiv students Sophia Austin of Missouri and Febri Kristiani of Salatiga, Central Java, Indonesia, write thank-you notes to donors during a Giving Thanks break in the fall of 2017. (Credit: Melissa Troyer)

Ron Moyo (MDiv 2018) (at right), outreach pastor for Whitestone Mennonite Church in Hesston, Kansas, with his wife, Sue, at AMBS commencement in May 2018. (Credit: Jason Bryant)

(l. to r.) Andy Brubacher Kaethler, Ph.D., associate professor of Christian formation and culture, chats with Safwat Marzouk, Ph.D., associate professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Both Brubacher Kaethler and Marzouk have served on the seminary's Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism Team. (Credit: Jason Bryant)

(l. to r.) Naomi Tice (MACF 2014) of Salisbury, Pennsylvania, and Margaret De Jong, an MDiv Connect student from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, worship during Hybrid Week in June 2017. (Credit: Peter Ringenberg)

(l. to r.) AMBS international students and Admissions Team members visited Sauder Village Living History Museum and Farm in Archbold, Ohio, in August 2018. (l. to r.) Students Yukino Ohyama of Japan; Shabnam Pratik Bagh of Janjgir, Chhattisgarh, India; Peace (daughter) and Esther Muhagachi of Dodoma, Tanzania. (Credit: Perdian Tumanan)

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