Attending an international graduate school can have a long-lasting effect on a student’s life academically, culturally, spiritually and financially, said Cedarville professors.
Bible professors Greg Couser, Dan Estes and Jason Lee, attended graduate school in Great Britain. And though the language is (mostly) the same, they said the social and academic experience is quite different. For grad students and their families, they said studying abroad can be a positive, life-changing experience.
Lee attended the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He and his wife moved overseas because of an interest in both schooling and missions. He said he chose the University of Aberdeen because of its academic quality and friendliness toward evangelicals, something many European schools lack.
While attending Aberdeen, Lee tutored undergraduate theology students. He said lecturers taught broad content in classes three days a week, and the tutors met with the students one or two other days, working mostly with primary source readings. In British education, students specialize much earlier, he said. In America, students begin focusing on a specific area of study for a master’s degree, but in Great Britain, the specialization begins at the undergraduate level.
While this allows students to gain expertise in their fields quickly, he said, this does not allow them to see how their disciplines fit with other areas of study. Having a background in American education while studying abroad was good for him, Lee said, though it did require extra work to compensate for the difference in training.
Couser, who also attended the University of Aberdeen, though at a different time than Lee, said another difference in American and British academics are doctorate degrees. In Great Britain, they are much more research-based than they are in America, he said. Students at that level of study are expected to have the skills necessary to research and complete their work without much help from others.
The American system also has more positive feedback than the British system, Couser said. There, it’s very self-motivated. At the graduate level of education, he said a student’s dissertation is of utmost importance, and the student is expected to do what is necessary to complete it without much assistance.
“There, they’re going to help, they’re going to give you advice, they’re going to listen and give you input, but they’re not going to follow you up and make sure you get things done. They’re not going to have a curriculum that you have to fill out,” Couser said. “They’re going to give you a time limit to work within and you have to finish within that. But it’s very much left to your own initiative.”
In Britain, Estes said, students have the opportunity to interact with students from many different academic fields. He attended Cambridge University, which is divided into 32 interdisciplinary colleges, he said, and each student belongs to a specific one. His college was small, with only about 100 students and 80 professors. The idea, Estes said, was that students were part of an interdisciplinary community of scholars, allowing them to interact with and receive help from students in many areas of study.
“There were many times that I would be sitting at a table and I’d have a philosopher here and a historian there and a physicist there,” he said. “And these were people that were very highly regarded in their fields and to be able to have that level of conversation, I remember several times when I was at a sticking point in my research and asking questions of someone like that at lunch, it just gave me a fresh direction to go in. That was a huge benefit to me.”
As well as a variety of scholars, Lee said there are many different countries represented in schools overseas. Studying abroad, he said, provided an enlightening experience as a member of an ethnic minority in another culture. He said it also gave him an awareness for the nations, both as a people and in their need for the Gospel.
“Academically it was just fantastic. We had Ph.D. studies with people from Kenya, from Korea. … Actually, the lowest number were Europeans,” Lee said. “There were a lot more North Americans or Africans or Asians than there were Europeans because Europe is dwindling in its interest in theology. Most of the other places in the world, the third world, it’s growing.”
All three professors said finances are always something to consider when deciding on a graduate school. A downside to attending an international graduate school, Estes said, is that students are not allowed to work while overseas. The decision is a long-term financial risk and can become a spiritual responsibility, he said.
“It becomes a matter of stewardship,” he said, “where you have to say, ‘Can I, before God, take on that level of debt burden, knowing that will probably mean that for a number of years, I will not be open to doing a number of things that He might call me to do?’”
Lee said he counsels strongly against gaining debt, whether studying overseas or in the U.S., and recommends that students look for means of financial aid if finances are a hurdle to studying abroad. He suggested students take a year before graduate school to find and accumulate funds for their international studies.
“If you’re really diligent enough to study overseas, you ought to be diligent enough to find as many funding resources as possible,” he said. “Don’t see that as a hassle, see that, if you would, as a prior year of research. Even if you have to delay your study a year, it’s worth it.”
While in England, Estes and his family lived in a small village outside of Cambridge. This provided them with a deep immersive experience in the culture, Estes said.
“We came back with a genuine cross-cultural experience which was very, very good for us,” he said. “And for our children, it was life-changing.”
Living in another culture, he said, prompted him to think more carefully about different issues. Because of the cultural differences, he said, he had to learn to speak and think about topics in a way that his neighbors would understand.
Couser said the experience holds sweet memories for him and his wife, including the births of two of their daughters. While abroad, they connected with a community that they continued to keep in touch with after they returned to America. Just this past summer, they stayed in London with friends they met while living in Scotland, Couser said.
“All around, it was just a very, very positive experience. It shaped us in ways that are hard to calculate on some levels,” he said. “It broadened us in many different ways and gave us an appreciation for many of the things about our own culture and also provided the opportunity to look at it and critique it from our own side and through the views of other people.”
While overseas, Estes and his family used their time as an opportunity to minister to their neighbors. For many of them, he said, he and his family were the first genuine Christians their neighbors had met. This allowed them to have a rich ministry within their community, he said, and prompted many deep conversations.
While in Scotland, Lee and his wife also ministered to their community, with Lee pastoring a small, newly planted church.
“To get around a group of Christians from other cultures was just wonderful for our spiritual growth, as well as maturity,” he said.
Removed from family and friends in the U.S., the Christian community quickly became like family, Lee said. The experience was culturally enriching and beneficial to his wife and him, he said, and he encourages students studying abroad to get involved with other believers while there.
Should You Go?
Estes said students considering going overseas for graduate school should not assume that it is not an option, but they should approach the matter cautiously. Prayer and advice from godly people can prevent students from taking on more than they can handle, Estes said, and help them have the right focus.
“Certainly, you can get a wonderful education, but you really have to ask, what is it that’s driving you in wanting to do that? And how does the Lord view that?” Estes said. “You really have to be able to answer to the Lord and say, ‘I’m doing this because you called me to do it and I’m doing it as unto you.’ It’s not just, ‘this is what I want to do.’”
Don’t just study abroad for academic reasons, Lee said. Creating crippling debt or pulling out of ministry simply to study abroad would not be worth it, he said.
“Consider it on multiple levels, in the sense that you only have a few years to devote to academic study, so you want to do that well,” Lee said. “But in the same sense, those years need to be lived. You’re not just a student at that time, you’re also a church member, a citizen, various other things. And so, is there a ministry there you could do or a group of believers that could use your gifts and talents while you’re there? So then, it becomes a more holistic experience that way.”
Emily Finlay is a junior journalism major and reporter for Cedars. She loves writing, reading and every type of geekery and hopes to eventually write for the National Geographic.