YDS survey assesses student international experience and aspirations

By John Boyles ’10 M.Div.

Twenty-two years of employment in the U.S. Foreign Service, international recruitment, the Peace Corps, missions trips, and language immersion programs. These are only a few examples of the types of overseas experiences Yale Divinity School students possess prior to matriculation, according to a recently completed student body survey focused on the international aspects of education at YDS.

GraphThe survey was commissioned by a committee of faculty and administrators appointed by Dean Harold Attridge to assess the Divinity School’s current international programming and potential future needs—after Attridge and the Admissions Committee sensed a growing trend toward the international on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle.  Data was gathered about student international experiences and about the kinds of international ventures that might best add to already bulging student portfolios.

“I was particularly impressed” Dean Attridge reported, “with several of our new students whom I met during orientation week in August, when they described for me their significant experience aboard, including time as volunteers in the Peace Corps or in work for their religious denominations, in cities and rural areas of Africa, Latin America and Asia.  Four of five students who won a ‘sail on the sound’ in a karaoke context during orientation had spent more than a year abroad in meaningful engagement with the issues of a shrinking world.”

In a world that is shrinking more and more each day, the church and academy face their own unique challenges and opportunities. Congregations now need to address a variety of life experiences and cultural backgrounds, including regular bilingual or non-English services.  In the academy, technology allows information to travel at instantaneous speeds. Thus, temporal, geographic, or linguistic boundaries no longer isolate scholarship, and educational institutions like YDS face the challenge of preparing students in this context.

Alongside the recent expanding of international partnerships with institutions in China and Singapore— complementing longstanding programs in the UK and Germany—Attridge believes the time has come to explore even more offerings and to consider the role YDS might play in leading theological education into the globalized arena.

The survey not only confirmed that many students have significant international experience when they arrive on campus; it also provided a glimpse into the kinds of international exposure expect from a Yale theological education.

Survey results show that YDS students desire extra education in the international theater during their breaks, not just during the academic year, and that they are interested in expanding language skills so they can communicate in contexts where English is not the only language spoken.  Spanish in particular is a language that many students find important for their work in bilingual congregations, social justice, and international collaboration. Others have become increasingly interested in the Middle East as a context for the pursuit of peace and interfaith dialogue.

Many YDS students arrive on campus with a wealth of language skills. At least ten percent of the current student population speaks at least two additional languages besides English. Our students speak Arabic, a variety of Chinese dialects, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Danish, Japanese, Korean, Modern Hebrew, Russian, Swahili, Zulu, Khmer, and others.  Some students are passionate about the need to learn a foreign language.  One wrote,  “I feel foreign language study is non-negotiable in the modern age of globalization. Even if we remain in the United States, everywhere we go there are different languages spoken.”

Learning foreign languages and sending students overseas are not the only components of an education for a future in global leadership. YDS also brings the international experience to the campus by aiming at having at least one-tenth of the student population coming from abroad so that these rich international experiences can be shared in the broader Yale Divinity community.

Efforts to provide a welcoming and hospital environment to foreign students have apparently been worthwhile, as students from abroad generally rated YDS support as good to excellent.  One student wrote, “Everything has been great—everyone so friendly and helpful and nothing too much trouble. Berkeley and Div School both deeply supportive—well above and beyond the call of duty!”

In coming months, the faculty and administrators on the committee will examine the survey results in detail and begin preparing recommendations to the dean for further expansion and refinement of YDS’s international programs. As many students noted, increased financial aid would be a major boon to their ability to participate in these programs, and the survey may play a role in generating that kind of financial support.

As YDS continues to reshape its international component, the changing landscape of every aspect of life in the globalized world presents new challenges each and every day.  The survey results suggest that YDS students are poised to rise to the occasion

Editors note: John Boyles is a Master of Divinity student graduating in May 2010 who worked with YDS administrators on the survey. He was born and raised in Florida where he attended the University of Florida earning a Bachelor of Music in French Horn Performance, a Bachelor of Arts in Music Theory and Composition, and a Bachelor of Music in Mathematics. Upon graduation, he hopes to continue his studies in doctoral work on the New Testament and Early Christianity.