By Jack Brymer
For 200 years, Christian education in Myanmar, formerly Burma, has endured through all kinds of challenges and the future is as bright as the promise of God, according to Dr. Samuel Ling, principal of Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT).
In a plenary session of the annual meeting of the Consortium for Global Education held September 18-20 at Samford University, Dr. Ling traced the history of the institution back to Adoniram and Ann Judson, the first American Baptist missionary couple who arrived there July 13, 1813.
"Burma is Baptist country," he told the international educators. "The country is changing to a more democratic, freer nation and offers new life in the future, but education is still important," he said.
In introducing the plenary session entitled Myanmar - Celebrating 200 years of Christian Education, Dr. Jeanna Westmoreland, Samford's first lady, told of studying about the Judsons in missions organizations in her church as a youngster. These memories became special to her during a recent visit to the country with Samford faculty member Rosemary Fisk and several students. "It was transformational," she said. "Tremendous changes are taking place there."
Dr. Fisk, who was unable to attend the session due to illness, first visited Burma in 2001 on a tour that retraced the route of the Judsons. "I saw the potential for a transformative study abroad experience for Samford students, and in 2004 and 2007 took groups back," she said. "We read accounts by missionaries learning the Theravada Buddhist culture, and works by Burmese Buddhists who had encountered westerners."
Fisk returned in 2011 as part of a Fulbright appointment to Hong Kong, where she lectured at Myanmar Institute of Theology. "I saw that the Christian institutions somehow have been able to keep an educational system going with no resources from the government," she said. "My goal now is to create a sustainable Samford-MIT partnership that builds on our Baptist heritage for the benefit of both institutions and creates more opportunities for all of us to think about the role of religion in a democracy. I do believe that Myanmar is now on the road to democracy; hence, I can begin to use the government's preferred name instead of my beloved Burma."
The current institution began in 1927 with three students and was founded by the Myanmar Baptist Association. Today, the private Baptist institution has 620 undergraduate and 447 graduate students with membership and/or affiliations in several international organizations, including Samford University. Of its 447 graduate theology students, 245 are male and 202 are female.
Principal Ling called Myanmar a "colorful nation" with eight major ethnic groups and 135 dialects. The student body includes 22 ethnic groups, 11 denominations and four religions--Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu.
The consortium, which is headquartered in Atlanta, signed agreements with two new members during the session--Bashkir State Pedagogical University in UFA, Russia, and American College of Thessaloniki (ACT) in Greece. Representatives of both institutions encouraged study abroad, claiming statistics indicate that students who do so earn better grades and mature faster.
Several Samford faculty with international experience contributed to workshops dealing with special subjects. Former Samford faculty Charles (Chuck) Sands, now provost of California Baptist University (CBU), and Michael Hogue, acting dean of the McWhorter School of Pharmacy (MSOP), co-led a session focused on the intentional mission service learning opportunities in which the two institutions are engaged, specifically in the health care education area.
"It has become very popular in higher education for institutions to expand their global student exchange and study abroad initiatives," said Hogue. "However, Baptist institutions have a unique opportunity to be intentional in providing educational opportunities abroad which are clearly centered on Christian mission service."
Sands added that intentionality in international learning options for healthcare professions is critical. "We go back to the same places every year because we value relationships," he said. "This also ensures follow-up, and our experience is that the long-term institutional relationships also tend to provide much more intentional academic engagement through service as well."
CGE has assisted both MSOP and CBU's health-related professions in sending faculty and students to strategic hospitals globally to facilitate strong Christian service through the academic programs.
According to David Shipley, director of Samford's Education Abroad, internships abroad multiply exponentially the importance of experiential education.