Located in the metropolitan Chicago area, Valparaiso University is surrounded by a diverse population, but President Mark Heckler envisions the campus as a “microcosm of the world.” Although 56 countries are represented in Valpo’s student population, Heckler traveled with his wife, Veronica, and Peter Kanelos, dean of Valpo’s honors college – Christ College – to Israel to create opportunities for both faculty and students. He also hopes to encourage potential students from Israel and Palestine to enroll at Valpo.
The trip to Israel reinforced several pre-existing relationships. Bishop Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and president of the Lutheran World Federation, had invited Dr. Heckler to Israel after speaking at Valpo’s commencement two years ago. (Younan’s son graduated from Valpo.) A Christian pastor and Palestinian in Bethlehem, Reverend Mitri Raheb, also extended an invitation to visit two organizations that he established. One is the International Center of Bethlehem which hosts academic symposia and discussions on peace and justice, and the other is Dar al-Kalima University in Jerusalem which educates Muslim and Christian Palestinians, a population with a high unemployment rate. Lastly, Dr. Heckler’s relationship with the Israeli Consulate in Chicago was a factor in the visit.
The journey served its purpose in creating opportunities for Valpo faculty and students. Christ College is undertaking a new translation of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism and the Augsburg Confessions into Arabic for print and online publication. Through an exchange agreement with the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Valpo faculty will present guest lectureships at IDC, and IDC faculty will present at Valpo. In addition, a reciprocal faculty arrangement with Dar al-Kalima will allow Valpo faculty to travel there while their faculty visits Valpo to develop graduate programs. Faculty relationships will facilitate student exchanges over time.
Dr. Heckler aims to establish a study center in Bethlehem with Dar al-Kalima, similar to Valpo study centers that exist in China, Germany, Mexico, England, and Costa Rica. Currently Valpo offers a short-term study abroad program in Israel, which gives students two weeks to examine the region.
Danielle Slowik, a Valpo freshman majoring in theology and global service, traveled to Israel this past spring with Professor George Heider and 13 other students.
“I wanted to go on this trip to see the places that I’ve read about in the Bible,” said Ms. Slowik. “Just like any other part of history, the stories become much more impactful when you can see where they happened firsthand.”
Creating a study center in the region would build on the short-term program goals, allowing students to more deeply immerse themselves in the culture and dynamics of the region in a safe, supportive environment.
These relationships also may contribute to Dr. Heckler’s goal of bringing as much global diversity as possible to the Valpo campus, which he said is important to making sure graduates are culturally competent and have the skills they need to live in and contribute to an interconnected world.
There has been significant progress toward Dr. Heckler’s goal of creating a microcosm on campus. When he arrived at Valpo in 2008, the incoming class had 244 international students. The incoming class of fall 2013 had 556 international students, representing a 127% increase. In 2008 there were 430 domestic minority students; last fall there were 801 domestic minority students, reflecting an 86% increase. Dr. Heckler’s goal is to enroll 1,000 international students.
“We are very intentionally building an international community that represents every major religion in the world,” said Dr. Heckler. “Valpo’s vision is to be a university constituted by people from many beliefs and backgrounds in dialogue with one another and in the common pursuit of truth.”
Whether home or abroad, making new connections with people from different backgrounds is having a major impact on Valpo students. Deborah Metcalf, a Valpo junior with a theology major and music minor, was moved by the stories she heard while traveling with Dr. Heider’s group this spring.
“When I was in Israel, I learned a lot about the story of suffering of the Palestinians – a story we don’t often hear in America. But the Palestinian people do not want our sympathy, they simply want their story to be heard,” said Ms. Metcalf. “Before I went to Israel, I didn’t know anything about Palestine, or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the Palestinian point of view. What I will remember most about my trip to Israel is the people I met, and the stories they shared – stories of struggle, stories of hope, stories of the Palestinian people, because really, we are all just people living in one small world.”