Volume 5 Number 3
by Kent Annan
Princeton Seminary gives a lot to students like Tu Truong (Vietnam), Galina Draganova (Bulgaria), Kesari Godfrey (India), and many others from around the world who are on campus now and who have attended over the years. International students benefit from a quality education, access to great resources and faculty, a prestigious degree, and relationships meaningful to their hearts and their professions.
Why does Princeton invest teaching time, more than $500,000 in annual scholarship aid, and significant administrative resources to educate students from countries around the world? President Gillespie, when he welcomed the twenty-six international students from seventeen countries in this year’s student body (which did not include Ph.D. students), got to the heart of it: “I hope that when you return home, you will go back as better ministers of Jesus Christ.”
“It’s the parable of the five talents,” adds John O’Brien-Prager, director of professional studies, who oversees Immigration and Naturalization Service matters for foreign national students. “We need to share our staff, faculty, facilities, and financial resources because God has given this bounty to us.”
But the exchange is not one way. It is also hoped that American students will better understand the world and the church because foreign national students are on campus. Referring to a world map dotted with various colored thumbtacks indicating from what states and countries PTS students hail, Victor Aloyo, director of vocations, puts into words what many have experienced at Princeton Seminary over the years: “The presence of international students broadens the learning perspective for all the students. It deepens the flavor here—culturally, theologically, spiritually.”
Princeton has long benefited from the presence of international students. A Scottish student came to Princeton in 1913, graduated in 1915, went on to study in Spain, teach in Peru, and then, from 1936-1959, John Mackay served as president of Princeton Seminary. Toyohiko Kagawa, a Japanese student who went on to be an internationally known evangelist and social worker in Japan, graduated from PTS the same year as Mackay. (Japanese students were the largest percentage of foreign nationals at PTS during the early twentieth century.)
President Gillespie fondly recalls his own long friendship with fellow Class of 1954 graduate Paul Verghese (later Paulos Mar Gregorios). Verghese, an Indian who died in 1996, went on to become an influential church leader and Metropolitan of Delhi in the Orthodox Syrian Church of the East.
Tu Truong, an M.Div. junior, comes from Danang, Vietnam, which is located in the narrow center of the country. His family (two brothers and six sisters—“Vietnamese don’t care about money, they care about children, and if you have many children, you are rich”) still lives there, where his father is a minister. In 1990 Truong moved to Saigon (Ho Chi Min City) to work for a Thai company that manufactured paint. Studying theology in the USA was his desire, but the Vietnamese government wouldn’t give him leave for that purpose. Instead he moved to California to study for an M.B.A., which he earned from Yuin University, a Korean university in Compton, California, while simultaneously earning an M.A. at Union College of California, a Vietnamese Bible school. Though in California for three years, landing in Princeton was for him really arriving in America. “Everything in Princeton looks interesting,” he says. “In California I was in a Vietnamese community: we talked Vietnamese, ate Vietnamese food.”
Truong is interested in learning more about American culture and making American friends, but another goal drives him. “Of course, my purpose here is not to get a degree. It is to learn as much as I can. I don’t know if I will be a pastor when I go back. I would like to be a Bible teacher. There is a lack of pastors there, so I could help to train them.”
The Vietnamese government still exerts considerable control over the religious lives of its people. Truong estimates that there are 700,000 church members and 350 pastors in the country. No official Bible school or seminary exists, though there are some underground Bible courses taught. Part of his dream is that someday soon the government will allow the Christians to open a Bible school. If so, Truong wants to teach there.
“To be a pastor or teacher in Vietnam is to sacrifice a lot. If a husband is a pastor, his wife cannot work outside the home and must depend on the husband. My father, a pastor, earns $35 a month. A college graduate in his first year after school could probably earn $150 a month. Since I have an M.B.A. from America, I could go back and earn $500 a month. But when you decide to be a servant of God, you don’t worry about money.”
American students have grown up surrounded by American images of success: expensive cars, designer clothes, status, fame. Truong’s living, eating, and studying in the Seminary community is a valuable wake-up call to those entranced by the American dream. Not that this dream isn’t alluring to him as well. But on considering the possibility of staying in the USA, he asks himself, “Would I be staying to serve God or to live here? I love my people. I saw the poverty; I saw the lack of education. So if I can help, I will do it. It is my dream to go back, because they are my people and they need me.”
Galina Draganova, M.Div. junior, moved from Silistra, Bulgaria, to Rhode Island four years ago, where she earned a B.A. in theology from the Zion Bible Institute. She came to America because there were no Bible schools in Bulgaria. She came with a memory of Christianity’s struggle under communism and its aftermath. Already a licensed Church of God minister who had pastored a congregation for a year in Bulgaria, she wanted ministerial training.
From the moment she became a Christian at Girlage thirteen, a year before the wall came tumbling down, Draganova never doubted that she wanted to go into ministry, “though my father wanted me to be a lawyer,” she says.
She considers seminary vital preparation for pursuit of her ambitious goals on return to Bulgaria: translate the Bible into Bulgarian, start a seminary in her homeland, and set up theological courses for Bulgarian laity. To those ends, she is glad to attend Princeton and thinks it is preparing her well, though because of its reputation, she says, “I never thought Princeton would accept me.”
Draganova has done well in her classes thus far. She finds the language difficult, though she speaks English well and with an attention to grammatical correctness that often eludes native speakers.
When asked about other difficulties, she says warily that sometimes the morals are different. That students would go out for a late night beer seemed questionable to her—though, with some effort it seemed, she refrained from pronouncing judgment. It might be a helpful exercise to imagine oneself, one’s church, seen through the eyes of someone who lived under persecution for his or her faith. In a place where religious freedom and even Christ are sometimes taken for granted, it is a welcome reminder to have someone on campus who lived behind a curtain that, among other things, sought to keep Jesus out. Though Draganova is not all seriousness. She dresses sharply, likes shopping malls, and is quick to smile with her friends.
The first time Kesari Godfrey, Th.M., used a knife and fork was when he arrived in Princeton. So what does he miss about India other than the food and the freedom to eat with his hand in the cafeteria? “I miss the whole context,” he says in his articulate, beautifully accented, sing-song English. “My church [the Church of South India]. My friends. I miss being home. I want to go back soon, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it here.”
Godfrey’s father earned an S.T.M. at Drew University and recently retired from his position as the Church of South India bishop of the Kanyakumari diocese in Tamil Nadu. Godfrey is following his fathers footsteps to America, but plans, on his return to India, to be a lecturer at Truelock Theological Seminary.
When he considers his classes at Princeton, the obvious difference in context comes quickly to mind. “Liberation theology is more relevant in my place,” he says. “So are issues of social justice and interreligious harmony.” One wonders whether he is also thinking, but is too polite to say, that liberation theology and social justice might be more important at Princeton were students more aware of India’s billion people, many of whom live in a context of dire poverty.On campus and in American culture in general, diversity and inclusion are popular topics. Godfrey, however, approaches the subject differently than a Christian American student would. “In my country, there are only 2.5% Christians,” he says. But in Princeton he has found a Dutchman, Wentzel van Huyssteen, professor of theology and science, who is helping him think more thoroughly about the subject. “I like van Huyssteen because he is open to my context, to hearing from me. How do we deal with differences in religion? Plurality is a reality, whether we accept it or not. He tries to make us respect that.” On a less academic subject, Godfrey is also thankful to van Huyssteen for showing him a way to phone home cheaply, “something you don’t expect a professor to do!”
Before coming to Princeton, Godfrey had never flown in a plane. As he looked down he thought, “The world is very tiny. And God is very big. What I thought of was the greatness and goodness of God, the richness and diversity.”
He doesn’t want it to be a one-way trip. Not only does he want to return to India, he also thinks Americans should hop on a plane and look down on the earth on their way to India. He hopes they can learn as much from Indians as he has from Americans. “God’s greatness will be learned. Also, humility. It will impact our theology,” he says.
When international student applications arrive, they go to Debbie Watson, international student enrollment specialist in the Office of Vocations, who is universally praised among the foreign national students. That begins a process that takes anywhere from a year to three. The delays? “Things get lost,” says Watson. “Sometimes people don’t want to put things like letters of endorsement in writing because it might be used against them [in a country hostile to Christianity]. Also, for example in Nigeria, it can sometimes take three or four months just to get an appointment with an embassy officer.”
Once the application file is complete—with financial data, essays, letters of recommendation, academic records—it is given to a subcommittee that examines international applications and recommends to the general admissions committee whether each student should be admitted. Another committee decides on scholarships. In March, a decision is made and students are notified. From that point, John O’Brien-Prager and his assistant, Mary Munn, work with the students to get them into the country.
The majority of international students discover Princeton through PTS alumni/ae (including both internationals who returned to their countries and missionaries) or through Presbyterian connections. The Seminary does not advertise
outside North America. Aloyo says he is happy with the current mix of students, though he would like to see more from Central and South America. He is also pleased to see a notable shift in the Seminary’s relationship with other countries. “Our commitment to the larger church has continued to increase over time,” he says. “PTS always had missionaries going out, and now we have people from those countries to which we sent missionaries coming here for theological education.”
She recently received an application from the brutalized country of Sierra Leone that had the following note attached: “If you accept me, please send clothes for me to travel in.” Watson says, “He had a wife and four kids and couldn’t even afford clothes good enough to travel in.” Applicants who are not on full scholarship are often aided by their home churches or institutions.
Students who make it over the many hurdles and arrive in Princeton begin a two-week orientation program. (It is federally mandated that schools provide orientation for foreign national students.) Students are met at the airport by a PTS student, for which they are always very grateful. A warm welcome and a “care” basket (filled with nutrition bars, bottled water, juice, a local map, a campus guide, candy, a coffee mug, a “Welcome to the USA” book, a list of emergency contacts, and a phone card) greet them.
The next two weeks of the program have two aims: to prepare them for the academic work of their degree program, primarily the writing aspect, and to orient them to the American way of life.
Students are expected to arrive with language proficiency, but academic expectations and grammar are reviewed. Many have never before followed the standard American style of presenting a thesis statement at the beginning of a paper and then following through to prove it. “Also, the definite article in English, especially for Asians, seems a bit difficult,” says Raewynne Whiteley, herself an Australian Ph.D. candidate, who coordinated the writing aspect of the orientation. “We try to pick up their grammar problems during orientation so we can let them know what to watch for. The reward comes later, as when one international student told me, ‘I got my paper back and the professor said it was the best-written and best-argued in the class!’ A lot of the writing orientation just has to do with giving them confidence.”
If not for orientation,” says Godfrey, “it would have taken a long time, but this made transition smooth…for both life and academics.” All the students looked back on the orientation with gratitude for its help in beginning a year of rigorous study.
In addition to the orientation, there are efforts to continue supporting students throughout the year. The International Friends’ Group and the International Students’ Association (ISA) link international and American students. Clothes are donated to the International Clothing Shop that are free for foreign national students and their children. The Writing Center helps foreign and American students with academic papers. Rides to WalMart, proofreading papers, and other help is often given informally by American students. The ISA sponsors several World Churches in Conversation lectures each year, sometimes featuring international students, that raise the level of dialogue on campus. It also sets up several day-trips during each academic year; the first excursion this year was to New York City, where, among other things, students toured the United Nations headquarters.
Jon Keune, an American M.Div. middler who is president of the ISA and who studied for fifteen months in India, is involved for several reasons. “People not in the dominant group can use someone reaching out to them, and I say this in a nonjudgmental way because this is what I’ve appreciated. What I try to do is to pass on what others have done for me. For example, several Indians and a Korean Buddhist monk really reached out to me while I was in India and helped me feel more comfortable.” He also relishes cultural and theological conversations with colleagues who have different thoughts and experiences than his own. Finally, he says, “I love traveling, but I hate being a tourist. Now I have invitations to visit people all over the world!”
Toward the end of an international student’s degree program, the allure of staying is often great. Some stay—because they find good and needed ministries here to immigrant populations. “But as part of one, worldwide body of Christ,” says O’Brien-Prager, “Princeton does not want to be a theological drain on other countries. We want to be part of a true exchange program.” Most students do return to their native lands, many to become pastors and leaders of national churches.
The list of leadership positions that alumni/ae hold in churches around the world is impressive. To name a few: Abuna Paulos is patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Patricio Proaño is founder and president of the Universidad Cristiana Latino-Americana in Ecuador. Anna May Sa Pa is principal of the Myanmar Institute of Theology. Setri Nyomi, a Ghanaian, is general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Hannibal Cabral is a professor and director of an indigenous music project at Karnataka Theological College in Southwest India. Sang Chang is president of Ewha Woman’s University in Korea, one of the largest women’s universities in the world. Reinhelde Ruprecht is head of the Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht publishing company in Germany.
“The benefits to you at the outset are hidden,” says Brad Gustafson, an M.Div. senior who helped with the international orientation program. “You seem like the one who gives; they seem like the recipients. But the reciprocity of the giving becomes almost intoxicating. You come thinking you’re the giver, but then, ‘Wow, how could I have gone on without what I’ve received?’ The fruit of the encounter comes as a surprise. Now I can’t imagine my PTS education without my conversations with internationals. It would have been much the poorer.” z
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