On June 11, 20 students, all still in high school or recently graduated, boarded a plane at O’Hare Airport in Chicago bound for Guatemala. For the next two weeks these students would engage in an intensive program created by Goshen College and the Lilly Endowment called Study-Service Theology Term (SSTT).
This program was designed with the intent of exposing young people interested in theology to different ways of theological thinking, and to start nurturing the tools for theological leadership.
The Lilly Endowment is a philanthropic organization based out of Indianapolis that recognizes the need for a new generation of driven and qualified young people in pastoral vocations. In 2015, the Lilly Endowment launched an initiative offering grants to private colleges and universities to start up theology institutes for high schoolers. Goshen College was invited to apply and ultimately became one of the 82 schools to receive the grant.
Keith Graber Miller, professor of Bible, religion and philosophy, came up with the idea for the Guatemala program, and then worked together with a team of faculty to write the grant proposal, including Tom Meyers, director of international education, who serves as the grant director. Graber Miller credits Goshen College’s longstanding Study-Service Term (SST) as a source of inspiration for the new initiative; both of the programs are designed to expand students’ understanding of what it means to be a global citizen.
“High schoolers are taken out of that familiar context where they are more vulnerable, perhaps, and more open to learning,” said Graber Miller. “Guatemala’s history and current context provides a rich context for discussing poverty, politics and sociology through a theological lens.”
Students arrived on Goshen College’s campus on June 8 from a variety of places including Indiana, Georgia, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. For the first two days the students stayed on campus and engaged in an orientation to the program.
The group then flew from Chicago to Guatemala City with Graber Miller and three Goshen College alumni, and from there settled in on the campus of Seminario Anabautista Latinoamericano (SEMILLA). This would be the students’ home-base for the next two weeks, as they attended lectures, explored the area and visited local community-oriented organizations such as orphanages, children’s hospitals and women’s co-ops.
About 15 schools and several theological backgrounds were included, including Baptist, Mennonite, Catholic, Presbyterian and non-denominational. One of the very intentional strengths of this program is its diversity.
“In our 2017 group, whites were in the minority,” said Graber Miller, “and most students were Latinx, African-American or Asian. It was thrilling to watch these students from such diverse settings get along swimmingly, learning to love each other in the Guatemalan context.”
Participant Talia Miller noted that she had considered taking a gap year before beginning college, and though she ultimately decided against it, SSTT provided her with cross-cultural experience she had been hoping for.
“The group of 20 students and the leaders that went were all very diverse in many ways. However, we all really bonded and embraced our differences. We were also in a completely new environment and were, at times, really pushed outside our comfort zones. Being in a new place with people I had just recently met really showed me how to embrace new challenges and how to appreciate diversity,” said Miller.
For students who are interested in getting involved in the future, applications are being accepted until Oct. 31, 2017 for the second SSTT program. Due to the generous grant and support from the college, participants are only required to make a $100 down payment, with all other expenses covered.
The application process is straightforward: students fill out the application form and send in their transcript and two recommendation letters. The selection is competitive; Graber Miller noted that the program could only accept about 40% of applicants for this past term.
For Erick Ortiz, a first-year at Goshen, the program prepared him for a new kind of learning as he entered college.
“I think the best thing about being on a foreign college campus was the difference in thinking that the teachers have. It was refreshing to hear the passion in the teachers and lecturers. This trip has made me appreciative of my own cultural background and the gifts that I bring, while also becoming more appreciative of other cultures and what they have to offer, both in personal experiences and history,” said Ortiz.
“This blending of different cultures and experiences at Goshen College is one of the things that initially encouraged me to come to Goshen and, thus far, has reaffirmed my decision.”