The Best Study Abroad Program in Christian Higher Education

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I recently completed a study abroad course with students from Gordon College (where I used to teach) and Valparaiso University (where I currently teach). Covid certainly caused some difficulties but we made it. We hosted Gordon College’s study abroad program in Orvieto, Italy. It’s a great program in a beautiful place. Being there again made me repost what I previously wrote about it. Herewith:

American Christian higher education offers many worthy study abroad programs. But one that shines with particular brilliance is the Gordon College program in Orvieto, Italy. I recently had the opportunity to teach there. Why is it glowing so bright? Let me count the ways:

Many programs are so-called “bubble programs”. The students are technically abroad, but the program does little to integrate them into the patterns and ethos of the host country. Not so with Gordon’s program. Students regularly participate in the choir of San Giovenale, a 1000-year-old church; her food is prepared by an amazing, convivial Italian cook (Maria!); they have the opportunity to pick grapes during the harvest season; and they regularly participate in the richly celebrated events of the church calendar: Epiphany, Holy Week, and Easter and Pentecost…

The leadership increases. Founded and originally directed by John Skillen, the program, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, has deep roots in the community. Skillen lived in Orvieto with his family for ten years and is still recognized on the street as a normal Orvieto. Artist Matt Doll is now directing the program. Doll speaks fluent Italian and attends local schools with his three children. In doing so, Doll continues Skillen’s far-sighted legacy of inclusion in the local community. Many program directors take the lead for a year or two before returning to the States. Not so with this program. Doll’s very capable wife Sharona (who has lived abroad all her life) makes the students feel safe, welcome and cared for. Not to mention the excellent rotating teaching staff recruited from both Europe and the United States and from colleges such as Gordon, Wheaton, Messiah, Westmont and others.

Many programs are located in big cities: London, Paris, Berlin. Of course, there are many sights to see in these places, but also dens of injustice and distraction. Orvieto is a small, picturesque town of approx. 7000, in an amazing cliff-top location. And yet it is only an hour or two from Rome, Siena, Florence and Assisi. The program combines the security, charm and familiarity of a small town with quick access to impressive cultural treasures.

The bread-and-butter of the program is understanding and exploring art in situ, ie in the context of its original environment. So students are not herded into museums to encounter art that has been taken out of its original context. Rather, they explore art as it appears, often for purposes of worship, in churches, convents and convents, town halls and more. In fact, Skillen has written an entire book on the subject, Putting Art (Back) in its Place, as a sort of probing rationale for some of the program’s main focuses. As the description of the book reads:

“Most Christians today look at art from afar: Don’t touch! Art is sealed off from the rest of life in frames and galleries. Christian discussions of art focus primarily on artists as lonely dreamers, encouraging artists to train them in technique while leaving them to decide what to create and how to keep food on the table. But for a long time, artworks helped communities to carry out actions that defined their common work and identity (their liturgies). Art touched the entire community: the artist, client, consultants who articulated beliefs and ideas, and representatives of the community for whom the art was made. The whole body of Christ played a part in the creation and use of art that said touch me and see!”

For Christians to foster a vibrant art culture, we must restore and nurture active and respectful relationships between artists, patrons, scholars, communities, and the art they create. Putting Art (Back) in its Place enables laypersons and clergy to reflect historically on the vibrant role that visual arts has played—and could play again—in the life of the Church and its mission.

While art plays a big part in the program, you don’t have to be an artist to participate; it is open to all students regardless of their field of study. However one enters the programme, one will leave with a deeper understanding of art, architecture, history, literature, theology, culture – not to mention the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Many programs have predictable Soundbyte mission statements. Compare these to this display of thoughtfulness:

“The Gordon IN Orvieto semester program hopes to foster in our students an attitude of responsive seeking and listening for signs of new life in the traditions inhabited by artists, poets, saints and mystics of the past, particularly those of pre-modern Europe Italy . With a keen eye, neither nostalgic nor wry, let us explore the crumbling fragments of the West’s classical Christian civilization, plundering the past to rebuild the present.”

This general objective includes four other specific ones:

• To inspire young people of faith to reconnect with the artistic traditions of the past, neither in a mood of nostalgia nor in a mode of academic dispassion, but to encourage a creative engagement with the past to shape a humane future The arts .
• To create a workshop environment that encourages collaboration between teacher and student, integrating listening and writing with seeing and doing, and emphasizing an interdisciplinary approach to the study of art, history and theology.
• To give students an experience of rhythms of life that are slower and simpler than the forms of contemporary American life (with its speed and size, its flood of visual imagery and its pervasive sense of impermanence), through eating together, to sustained conversations encourage the experience of traditional liturgies of religious life and civic celebrations, a more down-to-earth life amidst vineyards and olive groves and swapping the car for foot.
• To provide contemporary American students—whose lives are largely lived according to or without tradition—a living experience of tradition in the arts, spirituality and worship, and civic life.

Finally – and last but not least – the program is not only open to students, but also to parents. While the semester program is intended only for enrolled students (who come from various colleges and universities), a new “J-Term” seminar after Christmas will also invite “adult learners” to participate. Whole families took part. Current topics have explored moral philosophy, virtue and vice in art and literature, music and the liberal arts, and more.

In short, if you’re looking for a study abroad program for your college-age child (or for yourself), look no further. Go to this website: http://www.gordon.edu/orvieto/vision

And then take you to Italy.

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