Leaving Campus Behind

Whether studying peace or Plato,

Whether studying peace or Plato, new spaces and new faces can reveal fresh insights and bring knowledge and experience together in ways that a regular classroom can’t. Many Christian colleges are empowering students for real-world challenges by getting them off campus. Here are three creative approaches to education that get professors and students alike out of the ivory tower.

Into the Woods

Every fall, college students around the United States move into campus dorms, buy expensive books, and begin the fall semester classes they signed up for the spring before. Day after day they see the same people, in the same environment, and, before they know it, it’s time to graduate and join the real world. Are there positive alternatives to this standard way of learning, you ask? The answer is yes.

The Oregon Extension is a program of Houghton College that draws participants from the 13 liberal arts colleges and universities of the Christian College Consortium to spend a semester in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Deeply rooted in the values of social justice and peace, the Oregon Extension has four intellectual themes: contemporary issues, social thought, human stories, and living faith. Students are encouraged to arrive with daunting questions and life-altering thoughts for a program that encourages serious contemplation, both personally and collectively.

Elizabeth Morgan, professor of English at Eastern University and part of the teaching faculty of the Oregon Extension Women’s Studies May Term (a short, intensive spring session), says she "has come to appreciate greatly the interactive, integrative style of education that is possible in a place where students live together, work together, hike together, often worship together, discuss the same books at the same time, have open access to their faculty, and wrestle with issues of faith in open and challenging discourse."

Seeking a holistic approach to the learning experience, Oregon Extension incorporates reading, conversation, and writing into the program. Students grapple with difficult issues concerning the political backdrop of society and find that reading books that span the political and societal spectrum helps foster conversations toward creative solutions.

Finally, the Oregon Extension nurtures writing and reflection. The second half of the semester allows students to work on individual writing projects, encouraged by meetings with professors and classmates who help with research and topic brainstorming. Encouraging rigor and exploration for professors as well as students, the Oregon Extension impacts the lives of all who attend.

"For over a decade now I have sought to appropriate the lessons of the Oregon Extension," says Randall Balmer, an Oregon Extension alumnus and current professor at Columbia University, "[through] the quest for scholarly excellence, the maturation of my faith, the expectation that beliefs extend beyond mere intellectual assent, that they make some difference in the way I live."

Far from the cafeterias and large brick buildings that hold the usual college experience, Oregon Extension teaches in the truest, purest way—with a group of faithful individuals who ask tough questions and generate creative answers.

"I Was in Prison...."

In Matthew 25:36, Jesus says of those inheriting the kingdom of God, "I was in prison and you visited me." Every autumn Professor Jeffrey Paris heeds this call by teaching a philosophy class at San Quentin State Prison that includes both inmates of the prison and students from the University of San Francisco.

The class is a two-fold experience. The USF students take an on-campus philosophy course called "Prisons and Punishment." Students then attend the ethics class inside San Quentin and act as discussion partners with the prisoners. In their on-campus class students study the functions of prisons in society and then apply this knowledge to their experiences inside the prison walls. For the prisoners taking the class, credit can be earned towards an associate of arts degree.

The response to the San Quentin class from the USF faculty and student body has been overwhelmingly positive, with professors and administrators asking how they can get involved and students talking about it regularly in the cafeteria and in other classes. But the prison management keeps this class and similar programs in a tenuous position.

"With the rehabilitative model of prison expunged," explains Paris, "the prison bureaucracy acts ambivalent towards this program and does not value it as a positive force of the prison system."

The ambivalence of prison officials does not thus far stop USF students from taking the course. Held twice a week in the evenings, the ethics class transforms into an interactive experience. Students entering the prison must go through extensive security checkpoints and screenings, as well as enter an identification process at a computer check-in desk.

Students undergo numerous changes through the course of the class. Paris explains that no matter how much preparation the students do before taking the class, they maintain preconceptions of who inmates are. But once the students talk and interact with the inmates, Paris says, they see a different, more human side.

"The primary goal of this class is to change the culture within San Quentin and to provide resources for inmates upon release. With over 2 million inmates in the United States," says Paris, "it’s time for those outside the walls of prison to concern themselves not only with what comes out of prison, but what goes in. This philosophy class helps foster the process to find ways to cross these boundaries and bring a better understanding of prison to the so-called ‘free world.’"

City Living and Learning

In the heart of Philadelphia’s inner city, self-professed "sheltered Christians" choose to live, to learn, and to obey Jesus’ command to serve the least of these. Messiah College, located in Grantham, Pa., began its Philadelphia Campus program in 1968 as a response to the growing problems and tensions in inner cities. Messiah student Kaity Krompasick says simply of the Philadelphia Campus, "It changed my life."

This life-changing experience consists of living in a small community (approximately 50-80 people) of Messiah College students and professors. Students live, eat, and take classes together as they engage in urban immersion and the Guided Discovery Program which, according to Messiah’s Web site, seeks to integrate the experiences of a small Christian community at Messiah and the large, urban atmosphere of nearby Temple University through inquiry and instruction. Referring to itself as a "bridge," a "kaleidoscope," and a "crossroads," the Philadelphia Campus seeks to challenge students to find a better understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Embedded in Messiah’s mission are the values of enlightenment and education about the issues of urbanization and the development of communities. Messiah College, according to its mission statement, seeks to "educate men and women toward maturity of intellect, character, and Christian faith in preparation for lives of service, leadership, and reconciliation in church and society." The Philadelphia Campus helps to fulfill this mission as education and faith are integrated into the program’s goals and ideals.

Messiah’s "City, Vocation, and Christian Faith" internship program is shaped by both the academic and communal aspects of students’ lives, and offers upper-level students the opportunity to work in an internship setting of their choosing. By doing so, Messiah hopes to help students discover the complexities of city life as they also learn to integrate faith into the fabric of their lives.

Krompasick, who spent three semesters at the "Philly Campus," says, "It’s a place where ‘sheltered Christians’ get a glimpse at what’s happening in the world."

Students at the Philadelphia Campus offer support to each other and to the surrounding community. Through this combination of real life and intentional learning, Messiah College’s Philadelphia Campus embodies the call for action as it empowers students to live, learn, and act to improve the world in which we live.

Claire McKeever was executive intern at Sojourners when this article appeared.

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