Education Page


Four Experiences In Overseas Teaching


Professor of Physics
Wheaton College
Wheaton, IL 60187

From: PSCF 45 (December 1993): 108-116.

Many opportunities exist for science teachers who wish to engage in Christian service overseas. These opportunities must be pursued with perseverance and require a high degree of flexibility, but they can also be rewarding in many different ways. My personal experience in this area has resulted from four such opportunities totaling nearly seven years overseas during 35 years of teaching physics and the history of science. These experiences were made possible by both personal and sabbatical leaves from Wheaton College, and by the assistance and support of my adaptable and adventurous wife, Marilyn.

A brief description of these overseas assignments will illustrate the wide range of opportunities available in either secular universities, both national and American sponsored, or Christian liberal arts colleges, both church related and independent. My experience has been with English-speaking institutions in the Middle East and Africa, including Haigazian College in Beirut, Lebanon (1965-68), Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria (1970-72), Daystar University College in Nairobi, Kenya (1988), and The American University in Cairo, Egypt (1991-92). Most of these settings have provided opportunities for Christian witness and service to students from both Christian and Islamic backgrounds. The problems and possibilities of Christian service in each of these diverse settings will be described.

 Haigazian College

An interest in the Islamic world led to several applications to teach at colleges in the Middle East during my first six years of teaching at Wheaton College. After establishing contact with Haigazian College in Beirut, Lebanon, they offered a three-year contract beginning in 1965. Sponsored by the Armenian Evangelical Churches of the Middle East, Haigazian College had about 400 students, about half Armenian and half Arab, with about 20% Protestant, 50% Orthodox, 10% Catholic, and 20% Muslim and Druze. An optional chapel program provided an opportunity for an explicit Christian message, and there were no restrictions on individual Christian witness. The faculty of about 30 Christian teachers, mostly evangelical, included about 7 Americans and 2 Europeans.

My contract provided for round-trip transportation for the family on a three-year commitment and a salary some 25% less than my salary at Wheaton. After arranging an extended unpaid leave of absence, my wife and three small children joined me on a flight to Scotland, where we took delivery of a VW camperbus and proceeded to camp through Europe and Turkey for six weeks on our way to Beirut. My assignment as chairman of the Science Division was to complete the development of a four-year B.S. program in the basic sciences and mathematics with the help of about seven other science teachers on two floors of the six-story academic building. This goal was achieved, but my attention was divided by additional responsibilities in the last two years of my contract due to a request to serve as Acting President when the founding President of the College resigned. Experience abroad often involves more than would be expected at home.

Several unusual experiences revealed God's providence and protection during our three years in Beirut, at a time when this city was the jewel of the Middle East. At the beginning of our second year, the Lebanon-based Intrabank failed shortly after tuition receipts for the semester had been deposited. When I conferred with our semi-retired Armenian treasurer, he calmed my panic by informing me that he had switched our college accounts to a French bank in the preceding summer. However, our income was 10% short of our operating budget, and only by careful spending were we able to finish the year without debt. We finished the next year with a 10% surplus even after faculty salary increases of nearly 10%. During our second year in Beirut, noted theologian Dr. Bernard Ramm* joined us for a sabbatical year to teach Biblical studies and philosophy of science.

As we were planning commencement in June of 1967, the Six-Day War broke out and two days later Americans were evacuated from Beirut. We canceled commencement ceremonies with our first science graduates and Dr. Ramm scheduled as our main speaker, and were flown to Athens where we enjoyed three weeks as refugees before returning for summer session. In our last year in Beirut we were able to recruit Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian from Wheaton College to assume the presidency of Haigazian College for the next three years. After departing Beirut, we camped for seven weeks through Europe with four children in our camperbus, our youngest child having been born in Beirut two years earlier. Haigazian College struggled on through the war years and continues to survive in a difficult part of the world. For us it remains a pleasant memory.

Ahmadu Bello University

After two years back at Wheaton College, we learned of a need for a physics teacher at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, northern Nigeria, through Sudan Interior Mission contacts. We applied and were accepted on a two-year contract, so we secured a replacement at Wheaton College and arranged for another extended leave without pay. In the meantime our visas were delayed for two frustrating months, during which we were uncertain if we would have any job, but were finally able to leave for Nigeria in November of 1970. Our assignment was on a USAID project to help develop a School of Basic Studies at the freshman-sophomore level to prepare for degree studies. It was only after our arrival in Nigeria that the details of our contract were clarified, and we discovered that an adequate salary from the university would be supplemented by USAID in dollars at a level about equal to our Wheaton salary.

Ahmadu Bello University is a state-sponsored institution that was established by the British before Nigerian independence near the ancient walled-city of Zaria to extend higher education to the Hausa-speaking Muslims of Northern Nigeria. Although this region is about 95% Islamic, nearly a third of the students were from the smaller Christian tribes on the borders of the region. These tribes embraced Christianity under British rule to escape their traditional enslavement by the Hausas. Since they had accepted Western education more readily, they qualified for the university in greater numbers. The School of Basic Studies was established to accelerate the entry of Muslims into the British-type degree programs. The modern buildings of the university included both a mosque and a chapel, and the campus Fellowship of Christian Students was very active.

My assignment included the ordering and setting up of laboratory equipment for an introductory physics laboratory, preparing the curriculum in physics and mathematics, training laboratory assistants, and teaching the first classes. An initial enrollment of about 250 students in the School of Basic Studies was projected to increase eventually to about a thousand among nearly 4000 students in the university. About half of the faculty were Americans and British, and several of these along with a number of Nigerians were active Christians. The Fellowship of Christian Students conducted Bible studies, planned the Sunday chapel programs in which Christian faculty members were often asked to speak, and provided annual outdoor evangelistic services attended by many Muslim students. Unfortunately, the Muslim tolerance for these activities has been disrupted in recent years.

Although the university setting in the African savanna region was quite isolated from Western influences, it was not without its amenities. Good faculty housing was provided on the spacious campus, and our younger children attended the university staff school. Our older children attended a school for missionary children 150 miles away in Jos. The faculty-staff club included restaurant facilities and a welcome swimming pool where our family spent many pleasant afternoons. An adequate highway system made it possible to travel to many parts of Nigeria and several neighboring West African countries. Contacts with missionaries and the opportunities to visit a variety of different ministries were especially rewarding. Our family was not eager to leave Nigeria when it was time to return to Wheaton.

Daystar University College

When our children reached high-school age, it became increasingly difficult to go abroad for extended periods of time. Finally in 1988 we were free to accept an invitation to teach for a term at Daystar University College in Nairobi, Kenya, on a paid leave from Wheaton with housing provided by Daystar. Serving as the only independent Christian liberal arts college in Africa, Daystar was founded by missionaries but is presently administered by Africans under an international governing council. It offers B.A. degrees in Bible, business and communications through Messiah College, and M.A. degrees in Christian ministries and communications through Wheaton College. In 1988 about 300 students were crowded onto a 1.5 acre campus near the center of Nairobi, with just over 20 faculty members including half Americans and half Africans. Recently a new campus has been started about 20 miles from Nairobi, and enrollment has increased to about 800 students.

Although Daystar does not currently have any science majors, it offers the basic science and mathematics courses required by Messiah College for the B.A. degree. I taught Physical Science 101 from a historical perspective with a liberal arts emphasis, and Mathematics 101 with an emphasis on probability and statistics for the needs of the non-science majors. Little equipment was available and most demonstrations had to be improvised, but the students were eager and appreciative. Students came from most of the countries in Africa, and many were preparing for Christian service and leadership back home. As the college grows it plans to introduce science majors and will need to recruit more science teachers. Nairobi is a pleasant place to live, with good churches and many opportunities for interesting sightseeing.

The American University in Cairo

During my sabbatical year in 1991-92, I responded to an advertisement for an opening at The American University in Cairo to teach a course called Scientific Thinking in their core curriculum. Although they wanted to fill a two-year contract, I was limited to a one-year sabbatical at half pay. They agreed to a one-year contract with salary, transportation and free housing that more than made up for the other half of my Wheaton salary. Our apartment was on the ninth floor of a new hostel built with USAID money on Zamalek Island in the Nile a short bus trip from the main campus in downtown Cairo. The hostel had a sparkling dining hall, lounge, exercise room, clinic and computer room around an open garden on the first floor, dorm rooms for international students on the next five floors, and 20 faculty apartments on the next four floors. It had central air conditioning and an excellent view of Cairo.

The American University in Cairo (AUC) was founded in 1919 by the son of American missionaries in Egypt and is governed today by a Board of Trustees consisting mostly of executives from American businesses operating in the Middle East. It offers majors in the liberal arts, sciences, engineering and management. Full-time students include about 3000 undergraduates and 600 graduates, of whom about 2600 are Egyptian. Nearly 250 full-time faculty members include 55% Egyptians and 30% Americans. Most of the students are Muslims, but a sizable minority are Coptic Christians and a surprising number of the faculty are Christians motivated by a sense of mission. The AUC campus consists of two square blocks in the center of Cairo near the Nile. In a crowded city, it is an oasis built around a nineteenth-century palace with a growing number of modern buildings, including the six-story science and engineering building.

My assignment as a Visiting Professor was in the core curriculum program of general education required by all students. My six-hour teaching load consisted of two sections per semester of the Scientific Thinking course taught from a historical perspective in lecture sections of up to 120 students each. Two other sections of the course were taught by a Harvard Ph.D. in the history of Islamic science who was an active Christian. We were assisted by a staff of seven recent AUC graduates who did most of our grading, record keeping, and student tutoring. Six of our staff were Muslims, including two "covered" girls who were my principal assistants and with whom I had many interesting discussions about the differences between Islam and Christianity. It was a congenial group to work with, and together with our families we enjoyed several day-tours and staff parties, including celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Egypt also offered many travel opportunities, including cruises on the Nile and retreats to ancient monasteries.

All of our overseas teaching assignments have been richly rewarding adventures and provided high points in the recurring routine of a teaching career. Although they require a degree of sacrifice and effort, they have always provided worthwhile experiences and opportunities for extensive travel at minimum expense, usually with even greater financial benefits and savings than when we stay at home. We have especially treasured the international church experiences and friends that we have gained abroad. Our children had to make adjustments, but they all speak positively of their overseas living and traveling and were always able to return to friendships in Wheaton. In recent years, my oldest daughter, Joanna Moffett, lived in East Asia for seven years and she taught in Singapore and Hong Kong. My youngest daughter, Susanna Smoak, taught for the last five years in Colombia, South America.

Most of my overseas teaching experiences have been in the Muslim world where an overt Christian witness is often restricted. Science teaching provides a non-threatening approach to Muslims, and the history of science makes it possible to present the contributions of both Islam and Christianity to the development of science, while at the same time warning about the dangers of mechanistic materialism devoid of spiritual values. Americans are usually associated with a Christian tradition, and their lives provide an evaluation of that tradition for better or worse. Even in the absence of an overt witness, serving our Muslim brothers is a worthwhile Christian calling, for even a cup of cold water can help to heal the bitter legacy stretching from the Crusades to Western imperialism.

Several by-products of overseas teaching can also be mentioned. Both local missionaries and Christian minorities can be greatly encouraged by the presence and friendship of Christians serving abroad. In these settings teachers are held in high regard and can have considerable influence. Teachers in American schools, especially in Christian colleges, often live sheltered lives which can be greatly invigorated and imbued with a world vision by overseas teaching experiences. These effects in the lives of teachers can also influence their students when they return to their home institutions. In this way the benefits of overseas teaching can be multiplied by challenging students at home as well as serving students abroad.