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I nearly plowed down a first-year college student as I raced to a much-needed bathroom. The large cup of hotel coffee combined with a 4-hour bus ride meant that my usual concern with professionalism around students had been replaced by a nearly frantic need to reach the travel stop’s restroom.

This episode during a short-term study away trip led me to consider how such travel programs offer the opportunity for Christian educational institutions to integrate faith and learning in powerful ways. One of the central claims of Christianity is the proclamation that Jesus, as the Word, became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). In other words, Jesus traveled. Although this assertion pervades the Christian message, its implications for study-away programs deserve to be considered. I would like to suggest that study away1 programs provide an opportunity for Christian educators to follow Jesus’s example by modeling an incarnational ministry of presence and proximity to their students while also providing students with a chance to practice such incarnation across cultural and geographic barriers. In short, study-away programs offer the promise of integrating faith and learning in a meaningful way.

My thoughts about the faith integration potential of study-away programs emerged from my own experience of visiting the ancient city of Corinth for the first time. Before that, I had taught a course on 1 and 2 Corinthians for several years. In the classroom, I led students through considering Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 related to the question of eating meat that had previously been sacrificed to idols. I invited students to consider the various rhetorical moves that Paul made in his argument and to attempt to reconstruct what the Corinthian positions on the question seemed to have been.

However, after having enjoyed the experience of traveling to Corinth where I got to visit the remains of the ancient city, including an area identified as the meat market directly in front of the imposing edifice of the Temple of Apollo, I found that the words of the biblical text suddenly came to life in a new way. I realized that the Corinthians could not have looked at the meat market without seeing the pagan temple immediately behind it.

As someone who has studied these texts for decades and taught about them extensively, I was surprised by the the deep impact that this experience had on me. Simply from the vantage point of engaging high-impact practices to contribute to the best possible student experience, study-away opportunities offer a great deal of pedagogical promise.

The remains of the meat market (arched structure on the right) immediately adjacent to the remains of the Temple of Apollo (pillared structure on the left) in ancient Corinth.

Beyond the pedagogical benefit, though, I would suggest that study away opportunities can be viewed as more than just a helpful teaching tactic or “fun” diversion. Rather, such programs provide a unique way to integrate faith and learning by encouraging students both to consider and practice incarnation.

In his own incarnation, Christ stepped fully into the human experience. He entered physical geography, lived through mortal experience, and encountered bodily pains. He learned the human customs of his time and engaged with others who were different from himself. In other words, he had the ultimate “study away” experience!

If a core tenet of Christianity is a belief in the incarnation of Christ, then by extension, one of the possible implications of this for Christ’s followers may be to practice a form of incarnational ministry through our own embodied presence. Incarnational ministry could take several forms. At its heart, though, such ministry is fundamentally manifest through proximity to other people and, often, through connections that cross barriers of culture, place, or status. For Christian educators, it may be that one form of incarnational ministry is the development and support of study away programs that invite students (and instructors) into the incarnational experience of stepping into different geographies, cultures, and locales that bring course material to life in new ways.

For educators who take on the challenge of leading study-away programs, we have the opportunity to model incarnation for our students. A few years ago, Paul Kim wrote for this blog about how leading a study abroad program helped him to rethink interpersonal boundaries with students. Building upon his many good points, I would like to go a step further in suggesting that the appropriate erosion of interpersonal boundaries that Dr. Kim identified takes on theological significance for Christian educators. That is, beyond merely providing a helpful point of human connection with our students, study-away experiences afford Christian educators a unique opportunity to demonstrate incarnational ministry with our students.

Separated from the sterile environments of our classrooms and campus offices, Christian educators can practice incarnational ministry. We bring our whole bodies (including, as my own experience illustrated, desperate bathroom needs) to teaching in the context of travel. Rather than appearing as mere intellectual leaders in the lecture hall, we can practice a form of incarnation with our students by allowing them to encounter us in our full humanity. We are not merely experts in our academic fields; we are fellow pilgrims who seek God’s truth in new places.

Both in our example as well as through the travel experience itself, we as Christian educators are ultimately able to point students to Christ. The Christ who left the heavenly realm and deigned to travel into the human sphere becomes all the more understandable as students leave the relative comfort of their dorm rooms to tour unfamiliar territory. This embodied act of journeying into another place becomes an opportunity for students to consider the theological significance of Jesus’s own incarnation. Thus, whether students are learning about meat-eating in ancient Corinth, contemporary immigration policies at the United States’s southern border, or religious pluralism in Delhi, their embodied experiences in these geographies are fundamentally an act of integrating faith and learning.

To be sure, many higher education institutions offer study-away opportunities. In that sense, Christian colleges and universities are no different from their secular counterparts. However, Christian institutions are in the unique position of being able to imbue such experiences with a deeper spiritual meaning that enlivens a learning experience with faith. As Christian educators journey (both literally and metaphorically) alongside their students in encountering new places, peoples, and cultures, we can guide our students in recognizing how these travel experiences help us to appreciate the incarnation of Christ. Likewise, when students practice their own form of “incarnation” through travel, they also have the chance to consider the Christian faith anew.

The same student that I had nearly run over in my mad dash for a bathroom experienced this renewed appreciation for the Christian faith and its development. Later in that same trip, the student and I walked on the remains of one of the Roman roads that the Apostle Paul would have used for his missionary travel. The student commented to me, “Seeing how hard it is to walk on such an uneven surface, I can’t believe the lengths that Paul went to spread the Gospel!” It was through sharing in this experience herself that the student was able to come to a new appreciation for the development of Christianity. Through practicing incarnation in a different geography, my student connected her faith and learning in a way that I could never hope to replicate in the classroom alone. Study away programs, then, offer a powerful tool for integrating faith and learning as they invite students to reflect on incarnation.


  1. I use the term “study away” rather than “study abroad” to indicate that educational travel experiences need not occur internationally. For example, colleagues at Messiah University have raved to me about Messiah’s Civil Rights Bus Tour that also offers faculty and staff the opportunity to participate in a domestic study away opportunity. Additionally, for my undocumented students, domestic study away experiences are usually far more accessible than international ones.

Melanie A. Howard

Fresno Pacific University
Melanie A. Howard, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Program Director of Biblical and Theological Studies at Fresno Pacific University where she also serves as the Chair of the Biblical and Religious Studies Division.

One Comment

  • This blog is a fine reflection on study-away programs. I encourage Christian universities and colleges to shape such student opportunities as pilgrimage, instead of tourism. While tourism isn’t evil, often tourists dabble instead of digging in another location. For our educational purposes, we should walk with students as we dig deeply into the layers of place and people as well as the political, economic, and religious factors that have shaped a region. A pilgrimage also is an excellent space for spiritual reflection and growth. In our work with INCHE, we encourage the development of study-away programs whether within or far beyond one’s home region.