STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 11/06/2009

FEATURE | Into The World: European Seminar Celebrates 50 Years of Global Education Programs

Adoniram Judson Gordon would be happy about this. The vision he had for sending students into the world was, after all, the point of the missionary school he began in 1889. And nearly 70 years after his college was born, that vision for global education was formally integrated into the academic experience when Professor David L. Franz began what was then called European Seminar.

Franz spent several months researching in Holland and England following his faculty appointment in 1951 and was so affected by his studies abroad that he began to weave into his lectures references to places he’d visited. His students in turn began to wonder why they couldn’t take some of the same trips. Though Gordon administrators at the time encouraged such travels, they simply couldn’t afford to support the idea financially. If Franz and his students wanted to create a travel program, their budget would have to become self-sustaining, a principle that would be maintained throughout its history.


But in 1958, navigating the world presented its own challenges. Airliners, for instance, had barely replaced ocean liners as the preferred means of crossing the Atlantic. The possibility of a travel program throughout Europe seemed nothing short of  radical--and consistent with Gordon’s mission.

So the young history professor took a chance: he gathered 18 students and a few colleagues and sailed from New York to Europe on a converted World War II troop ship in June of 1958. They spent less than $600 per person for an eight-week trip, traveling, studying and camping throughout Europe. They discovered the Christian roots of the West, entered the medieval world of castles and cathedrals, and traveled the roads of the Protestant Reformation. That trip laid the foundation for European Seminar.

“The spark came out of my own study experiences,” Franz wrote in a manuscript, now stored in Gordon’s library archives. “I had seen the damage of the war all over the place. When we got to Paris, I began to feel a sense of excitement for being in Europe, aware of how abstractly I had studied history before, but how alive it came by actually being there.”

Franz’s students seemed to experience the same excitement; the October issue of the Tartan--Gordon’s student newspaper, which also began in 1958--included “European Seminar Issue” on the masthead. Throughout the newspaper student reporters described the Brussels World’s Fair, the various customs and foods, the monuments and adventures they experienced following heroes like “Zwingli, Farel, Luther and Calvin” on “exciting trails into eight different countries.”

By the early 1960s enrollment for the seminar exploded and the study route grew. A leadership team was formed which included Diane Blake ’58, who had been a student on that first seminar, Lillian (Bennett) Harper ’60 and William Harper ’62. Some time later Blake returned to campus with her Ph.D. and played a critical role in the program’s development as administrator, historian and eventually associate director of European Seminar until 1986. Until 2006 Lillian Harper worked in the office that evolved into what we know today as the Global Education Office. Blake also wrote numerous guidebooks for the group and helped the team recruit student leaders and organize tours, including several years of renting houseboats for over 100 students on the Rhine River. The redesigned barges with prefabricated cabins served as the seminar’s base of operation, stopping at historic points along the river for lectures, short trips and explorations.

“It was a groundbreaking program for its time--first that it existed at all, second for its duration. Eight weeks was a substantial tour,” says Bill Harper, retired political studies professor, who went on his first European Seminar in 1961 as a student and returned 15 times in all as a faculty member. “It was also very economical. We had a shoestring budget--$58 in personal spending money that first trip in 1961--and it had to last for the 56 days of the tour. But you could get a fairly satisfying meal--steak, French fries and a Coke--in Europe then for 35 cents. It was a different world: there were no credit cards to fall back on. You had to manage your money and make it work.”

As the tours evolved, the seminar’s reputation for integrating Christian faith with academic topics became its distinction. Students researched specific topics as they related to European and Protestant history, and eventually the program included political studies trips studying comparative governments, geography and educational systems as well, all while attracting students from Christian colleges across the country, not just from Gordon.

“There’s nothing like being there, seeing it, feeling it yourself,” says Nancy Mering, current director of alumni relations, who joined European Seminar in 1967 when she heard classmates at Wheaton College talk about that “Gordon tour.” (Two years later Mering came to Gordon to work as the first office assistant for the program.) “I learned church history from personal encounter. We prepared beforehand, but when we visited each place on the Reformation tour, or when we heard Peter Stine quoting Wordsworth at Wordsworth’s home, we began to understand the common foundations of our lives as Christians.”


By 1969 students on European Seminar had already seen their share of world-changing events. The year before, they’d watched Soviet troops and tanks line up to invade Czechoslovakia. They’d traveled to Israel just as the seven-day war broke out, forcing them to detour to Turkey. They’d gone through East Berlin, passed guards and palpable animosity toward the West, and watched smugglers on board trains in Yugoslavia throw bundles out the windows when conductors came through. They visited the beaches at Normandy, mindful of the many personal relatives who’d fought there, and they visited the death camps at Auschwitz, the Christian communities in Rome and the literary landscapes in Ireland.

Each experience was valuable. “It becomes very contemporary when students can actually see what is happening,” Franz wrote. “It’s very instructive for students to see the tenseness of the world situation as well as discover their Christian--and in some cases family—roots,” referring to how one young woman’s trip to Italy helped her embrace her heritage.

By the early 1970s hundreds of students and faculty from over 46 colleges had joined the seminars—so many that they’d begun to charter their own planes and hire Volkswagen vans and buses for travel. Each year students and faculty alike discovered what happened when books and stories and history become colors and shapes and buildings only steps away; a mission still at the heart of Gordon’s academic experience.

“In part because of our rich history with European Seminar, Gordon continues to see these experiences as a key part of our identity as an institution,” says Dr. Cliff Hersey, director of today’s Global Education Office, which now oversees student involvement in a broad range of programs in dozens of countries. “Gordon is still a key leader in making international and domestic culture crossing accessible for students. Global education, both as a department and as a vision, is at the center of who we are, largely because as a Christian college we have a larger incentive, one that goes beyond the simple economic realities of job preparation in a global society; it goes into the philosophy of what it means to be a world Christian and helps us define ourselves as a community.”

A. J. Gordon would indeed be happy about this.

Jo Kadlecek, M.A., is a former waitress and soccer coach who backpacked throughout Europe during her undergraduate days and somehow ended up at L’Abri. Now as a senior writer at Gordon, she wishes she could have gone on any of the European seminars. She has master’s degrees in humanities and in communication.


European seminar selection process
On the Rhine River
In Bruges
A photographer in Athens