Book Review: Transformations at the Edge of the World

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Study Abroad is such an important, life-changing event. What happens when you listen to others, learn their cultures and mores, and explore difference and diversity is an incredible journey of intercultural adaptation. I've got a fantastic intercultural resource for you today: Transformations at the Edge of the World: Forming Global Christians through the Study Abroad Experience. Transformations is edited by Ronald J. Morgan and Cynthia Toms Smedley.


Ronald J. Morgan (Ph.D., UC-Santa Barbara) is Associate Professor of History and Director of ACU in Oxford for Abilene Christian University. Ron has worked in cross-cultural Christian ministries (Brazil) and international education (England, Germany). His publications include Spanish American Saints and the Rhetoric of Identity, 1600-1810 and several articles on Roman Catholic history and Christian spirituality. 

Cynthia Toms Smedley (M.S., Boston University) is Director of Educational Immersions at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns. Cynthia taught at Tsinghua University’s Center for Overseas Academic and Cultural Exchange (Beijing, China) and was the associate director of the Uganda Studies Program (Mukono, Uganda). Her international experience also includes work with NGO’s such as Hope International and ChildVoice International.



The book is divided into four sections:
The Journey Inward
Chapters include Doors to Transformation (Abilene Christian University), Students Abroad as Tourists and Pilgrims (St. Olaf College), Reflection as a Means of Discovery: Where is God in the Experience? (University of Notre Dame), and Seizing the "God Appointments" When There is Cultural Disorientation in a Study Abroad Program (George Fox University)


Inward Journey to Outward Living: Community Teacher
New Monasticism Meets Reainssance Bottega: Gordon College's Semester Program in Orvieto, Italy (Gordon College), and An Intentional Roman Catholic Community: Integrating Faith, Reason, and Service at the Heart of the Church (University of St. Thomas)


Coming Face to Face with the Social Other: Bridging Intercommunal Divides
"With Open Eyes": Cultivating World Christians through Intercultural Awareness (Westmont College), Who Is My Neighbor? Forming Kingdom People in a World of Conflict (Abilene Christian University), Middle Eastern Mirrors for Children of the Empire (CCCU Middle East Studies Program, Cairo, Egypt),  and San Francisco Urban Programs: Encountering America's Future-Tense (Westmont College).


The Year of the Lord's Good Favor: Cultivating Solidarity with the Global Poor
Learning from Slums; Study and Service in Solidarity with the World's Urban Poor (Azusa Pacific University), The Phenomenology of a Christian Environmental Study Abroad Program (Creation Care Study Program), The Study Service Term: An Alignment of a Religious Tradition with an Academic Program (Goshen College), and Toward Successful Transformations (Abilene Christian University).


The book ends with a great conclusion about Successful Transformations and an appendix on Liturgies for Study Abroad.



Traveling and exploring new cultures involves personal transformation. Involving spiritual formation into the intercultural adaptation equation is useful and important, as evidenced by these authors. As well, the types of personal transformation described here include aspects of service-learning, as evidenced by the Christian tradition. 


While the book focuses on Christian universities and study abroad programs, I feel that this volume can speak to the challenges that any study abroad student, regardless of religion, will face. Ethnocentrism, gaining ethnorelativism, intercultural adaptation, becoming more than a tourist, reflecting deeply on personal and spiritual growth, making meaning of an experience, becoming less of a tourist and more of a cultural participant - these are all critical to an engaged global citizen while in another culture. The essays in this book are incredible, thoughtful, and provide new ways of looking at and enhancing the study abroad experience. I am extremely impressed and highly recommend it to our readers.


We were lucky enough to sit down with Dr. Morgan and talk about the book, authors, personal and spiritual growth, and more. Here's what he had to say...



WE: Please tell us about your new book, Transformations at the Edge of the World...

RM: Cynthia Toms Smedley and I believe that important personal transformations occur at “the edge of the world,” metaphorically speaking, in places where students experience distance from their normal physical environment, social networks, and mental worlds.  We wanted to explore, in the context of Christian higher education in America, how institutions are taking advantage of the “distance” factor in their off-campus programs.  In the book we highlighted programs and pedagogies that will inspire educators in all sorts of institutions, religious or not, to think creatively about the transformative potential of their study abroad programs.



WE: What inspired you to create this book?

RM: Around 2006 I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by John Barbour, who has now contributed a wonderful chapter to our book.  Through that article, entitled “The Moral Ambiguity of Study Abroad,” I was challenged to think about the ethical implications of the American higher education study-travel phenomenon, and about my role as an administrator and teacher in such a program.  For one thing, whereas Barbour highlighted student experiences in Cairo and Mexico City, where issues of Muslim-western conflict or widespread poverty confronted students in stark fashion, my program brings American students to comfortable, ivory-towered Oxford.  I started wondering whether my university’s program was truly a deeply “transformative” experience, resulting in stronger commitments to global human community.  Because I am a Christian educator at a faith-based institution, I also began to think more than I had to that point about whether our faith commitment was truly pervading the DNA of our program as a whole.

It was such explorations that led me to pursue this project beginning in 2008 by searching for a co-editor with a similar vision before approaching a publisher.

Meanwhile, Cynthia Toms Smedley and Dr. Ken Bussema, a VP in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), had discussed plans to inventory the spiritual formation practices of CCCU off-campus programs.  Through word of mouth, Cynthia and I found each other, and embarked on the project together in the summer of 2008.



WE: How did you choose the programs/authors to include?

RM: The authors of the thirteen chapters are all closely involved in off-campus and study abroad education at church-related or Christian faith-based colleges and universities across the U.S.  Some, like me, are on site directors of an off-campus program; others work as campus-based administrators and directors of their institutions’ off-campus programs. 

To choose contributors to our book, we began by creating a list of those whom we either knew personally or indirectly, adding to that list individuals who had recently published articles or given conference papers on study abroad pedagogy.  Through those networks, and through our own web-based research, we discovered other academic programs that seemed interesting to us.

In choosing contributors of essays, we were guided by three primary factors: writing quality, attractiveness of the narrative (“how interesting is it?”), and diversity (in terms of religious affiliations, types of study abroad programs, academic disciplines of contributors, and thematic emphases of the essay).



WE: Intercultural development includes personal and spiritual growth – how does this book address these issues?

RM: The editors and contributors to Transformations are convinced that, while the cross-cultural learning context is potentially transformational at a number of levels, the deeper transformation of students -- Christian or otherwise -- requires intentionality; in other words, we acknowledge that the potential for maturing students’ worldview, religious faith, or sense of personal vocation can be squandered. That being said, the outlook of Transformations is positive and encouraging; rather than focus on shortcomings, the editors chose to highlight case studies that reveal successful “best practice.”

Your question about the relationship between intercultural development and personal/spiritual growth is one we also confronted as we conceptualized the collection.  In the end, we were able to organize the chapters, and thus the book as a whole, around four themes: growth of the individual, learning in community, encounters with the cultural “other,” and commitments to the global poor.  The collection maintains a good balance between what I would call the need for introspective self-awareness and the importance of cross-cultural, outward-looking engagement.

For educators from all sorts of institutions who are interested in the moral and ethical potential of off-campus, experiential learning, there are superb discussions about training students to “see” (self, community, other); humility is a recurring theme.



WE: How can universities, study abroad offices, and professors best utilize this book?

RM: We envision a reading audience comprised of leaders and practitioners in higher education (and partcularly Christian or faith-based higher education): deans and provosts, directors of international education programs, professors who travel abroad with students, and even members of university boards of directors.   For this reason, Transformations is not overly technical or theoretical; it does not belong to the category of research-based assessment literature, which is often based on quantitative research.  The early chapters establish common foundations for the case studies that follow.  The lion’s share of the volume consists of “how-to” essays by practitioners who narrate their efforts to spiritually, morally and ethically form students through the study abroad context.  In choosing contributors of essays, the editors are guided by three primary factors: writing quality, attractiveness of the narrative (“how interesting is it?), and diversity (in terms of religious affiliations, types of study abroad programs, academic disciplines of contributors, and thematic emphases of the essay).

In terms of how universities might utilize the book, we hope that administrators at church-related or Christian faith-based colleges and universities will distribute the book to the appropriate circles on their campuses – boards of directors, committees that conceptualize and oversee study abroad, professors who will be accompanying an off-campus program – in order to stimulate conversations about the goals for and potential of those programs.

For Fall 2010, I am requiring the book for all students who participate in my program in Oxford.  The teaching faculty of ACU in Oxford will use the book across the curriculum. For example, before students arrive in Oxford, they will have read the book’s introduction, as well as a chapter entitled “Students Abroad as Tourists and Pilgrims.”  In the International Studies course, they will read, among other things, “‘With Open Eyes’: Cultivating World Christians through Intercultural Awareness” and “The Phenomenology of a Christian Environmental Study Abroad Program.”  Our professor of World Christianity and Christian-Muslim relations will use chapters that are very apropos to his courses: “Middle Eastern Mirrors for the Children of Empire” and “Learning from Slums: Study and Service in Solidarity with the ‘Least of These’.” And in my wife’s course, Message of the Old Testament, students will read her own chapter, “Doors to Transformation,” as well as one entitled “Reflection as a Means of Discovery: Where is God in the Experience?”

This strategy will expose students to a variety of pedagogical, philosophical and theological concepts.  My hope is that it will also give them the sense that they are accompanying other students in other parts of the world in a shared journey.  They will learn from the experiences of students who are studying in Belize, West Africa, or Rome, and this will help them to internalize their own experience in more complex ways.



WE: Thanks so very much, Ron.  This is a must-read for anyone involved in study abroad and international education.

Transformations at the Edge of the World: Forming Global Christians through the Study Abroad Experience
Edited by Ronald J. Morgan and Cynthia Toms Smedley
MAY 2010
ACU Press
320 pages


Note: We were sent a review copy of Transformations at the Edge of the World