To ensure that our students are flourishing is an important goal for Central. So much so that there is a student success team dedicated to that goal. At its heart is the development of relationships – between students and faculty, administration, staff, and other students, as well as to the community in which they live. Some of these connections happen organically. Others require intentionality.
One way this kind of relationship building is done intentionally is through a requirement recently begun for incoming international students. They must have a letter of local support that simply states that there is a person or community here that will help the new student get acclimated. The sponsoring church, family, or friend has no financial obligation (although sponsors are welcome to help the student financially). They simply help ensure a hospitable welcome to an unfamiliar context, like helping the student to find housing and transportation and learning to navigate the cultural differences and practical necessities of moving to a new place.
Sau Nam, from Kachin State in Myanmar, began taking classes in the Master of Arts (Theological Studies) program in 2018. She has been serving as a professor at the Kachin Theological College and Seminary (KTCS), where she teaches feminist theology, among other theology classes, and is preparing for her next step. She plans to enter a PhD program in an American school which she hopes will garner respect and give her the social capitol to better advocate for women in ministry, to offer the best possible theology classes for students, and to move into positions of influence at KTCS as well as the Kachin Baptist churches.
Nathan Huguley in Central’s student success office felt compelled to talk with the leaders at First Baptist Lawrence, where he is a member, about sponsoring her. The church embraced the opportunity to partner with Sau Nam and, through her, with those with whom she will eventually teach/influence in Myanmar. They helped her with some initial needs, including researching apartments, international driver’s license laws, and cell phone plans, as well as volunteering to provide furniture and any other basic necessities. Most recently, Nathan took her to meet her husband and 5-year-old son at the airport when they finally received visas to join her.
Nathan reflected on another relationship-building moment at the beginning of fall classes that happened organically:
I walked into the library last night and stumbled into an eye-opening experience. At the circulation desk was a woman who is a student in our Korean program and works in our library some evenings. She was talking to a Nigerian student who is in his second year of the English MDiv program. I joined their conversation: a guy from North America talking to a woman from Asia and a man from Africa. We talked about traveling with our children. We each shared stories unique to our cultural contexts. I talked about driving over 1,000 miles in one day with my infant son. Joy shared about flying for 14 hours over the Pacific with her young daughter. Albert told us about traveling on a long bus ride with his daughter. Each story was different from the others, but we easily connected over the stresses of keeping children happy and entertained in uncomfortable environments. The fact that we are from 3 different continents did not stand in the way of our personal connection.
About half of the students in class here on campus that night were from two different ethnic groups in Myanmar. As they filed out of class, they joined Albert, Joy, and me in our conversation. Someone needed Joy’s help on the computer. Others began to work out who was going to be driving this or that person home. A few students hung back to talk with Dr. May. After everyone got the help they needed and the rides were figured out, we started to mosey toward the front door. We got to the lobby and one of the new students handed me a phone because he wanted a picture of the international students together. When I clicked the button to capture the picture, something clicked in my mind too. This was a snapshot of Central’s tagline: personal, global, horizonal, online. These students are becoming fast friends and building bonds that span geography, culture, language, ethnicity, age, and life experience. Their personal relationships are necessarily global in scope, and that personal/global experience is horizonal. It heralds the future of a church that transcends nations and cultures. The Body of Christ has never been limited by time or space, and we now live in a time when that essential reality is becoming embodied in our everyday experience. Central is a place where the church’s future leaders come together—either in person or online—to learn with and from folks who hail from very different places, and that is horizonal.
Another aspect of relationship building is good communication. Dr. Sheryl Stewart, Director of Language Development and Curriculum Implementation, works with any Central student who wants help with their writing skills, but she recently realized a need to form a group for Central learners for whom English is their second language. She shared these reflections on how the group has come together:
After the third student in a month came into my office to ask how to improve English skills in general, not in connection with a specific paper or assignment, I felt there was a critical mass for an English skills group that could meet regularly to study and support each other at Central. And there was. Student Naw Awn Paum was happy to be the communications conduit for checking with other international students about a workable time to meet, and he quickly reported that they were ready and eager to meet on Thursday afternoons.
Participants have been willing to make commitments to daily strategies for increasing their exposure to English, such as listening to the radio, reading articles in periodicals,and committing to memory a specific number of vocabulary words they encounter weekly. They also asked for grammar review, and I suggested that we engage in conversation each week.
One of the first meetings brought up the words yieldand intersection,and the phrases blind spotand rear-view mirror, as one student was studying for a driver’s license. I learned corvee, an old word for unpaid labor. From ostracizedand debauchedin reading assignments, to down-to-earthas heard on television, the vocabulary exposure is widely varied, which has led naturally to conversations about informal and formal usage.
This group of gifted, motivated students has decided to meet weekly during each academic term. Their insights are fresh, their commitments are strong, and working with them is a delight.
Dr. Stewart’s efforts combined organic and intentional efforts to make our learners’ seminary experience a success.
It is especially rewarding to see how what is happening with students in seminary begins to flourish within the communities with whom they find themselves. Jessica Williams, Registrar and International Student Officer on the Student Success Team described the joy of serving when witnessing the success of our seminarians, not just in academics but, even more, in fulfilling that to which God has called them:
When Albert Magai Samson arrived in Kansas from Nigeria a year ago to study at Central, God was preparing him and preparing a community for his ministry here. Earlier this year Albert was part of the Justice Ministry Education (JME) cohort at Central. This program, facilitated by Auburn Seminary, has locations throughout the country for seminarians, clergy, and community leaders to engage in action and reflection on justice ministry. As part of the program, Albert served at Bethel Neighborhood Center, mentoring youth in the Kansas City, Kansas, neighborhood.
Twice a week for 6 months, Albert walked from his apartment to his internship at Bethel. The manager of his apartment building was curious about Albert’s weekly excursions. As Albert explained the mission of Bethel and his work there, the apartment manager excitedly asked Albert if he would consider starting a mentoring program for the children in the apartment complex.
Albert organized a program for his neighbors in the apartment building, primarily children of African refugees from Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Congo, who came to the U.S. fleeing war. In partnership with the apartment complex, Albert planned movies, discussion groups, prizes, and games for the children, with the purpose of mentoring and building a strong community within the apartment complex. Since then Albert’s ministry within that community has expanded.
His journey to this ministry started with his application to Central and from each step along the way, from his arrival in the U.S. and finding this apartment to his participation with JME which led to his ministry at Bethel and then to his ministry to his neighbors in the apartment building, God was preparing Albert and this community for his ministry.
And so, Central provides the space for relational flourishing to happen. That space may mean the actual classroom – either online or in person – but probably even more important, it means the welcome, the nurture, the intentionality to make it possible for such flourishing to happen.