90’s Middle East cross-culturals gather for ‘sacred’ sharing

With thanks to contributor Cynthia Yoder

When he travels, Dale Collingwood ‘98 sets out walking to get a feel for the place and the people — just as he did when an EMU student travelling through the Middle East.

After graduation, Laura Schildt ‘00*and couples Jen Linder ‘98 and Landon Miller ‘97 and David Roth Sawatzky ‘98 and Rachel Roth Sawatzky ‘98 decided to work for Mennonite Central Committee. 

Nathan Musselman ‘00 studied Arabic and returned to the Middle East to live and work. Christopher Martin ‘97 and Brian Emery ‘98 * went on mission trips. Eric Eberly ‘98* became an ESOL teacher and lived overseas. 

Leah Emery Kratz ‘00 and Kelly King Emery ‘98* have raised children who eat Middle Eastern food, dance to Middle Eastern music, and know expressions in Arabic.

For all of these Eastern Mennonite University alumni — participants on three different semester trips to the Middle East in the 1990s — their travels and encounters left indelible and reverberating memories.

Even in the virtual space and more than 20 years later, the sharing of those memories felt “sacred,” as described by one of the participants.

Twenty-six alumni participated in virtual reunions hosted this spring by Cynthia Yoder. Yoder led three semester-long cross-culturals with assistance from Heidi King ‘89 in the fall 1996, John Fuller ‘89 in the spring of 1998, and Kendra Yoder ‘96 in the fall of 1999. 

EMU’s cross-cultural program is still going strong. After a pandemic hiatus for international trips during the 2020-21 academic year (Washington Community Scholars’ Center still hosted students), the program was back to normal this summer, with groups travelling to Lithuania and the Navajo Nation (and WCSC, too!).


1996
1998
1999

The gatherings drew alumni living in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Indiana and California, and the countries of Mexico, China, Spain, and Germany. 

For Yoder, listening to her former students share memories and explain how the semester impacted them far beyond those four months was inspiring and a joy, she said.

What she heard is echoed by many alumni over the years who report that their cross-cultural is one of their most transformative experiences, both while studying at EMU and in their life’s trajectory. “They all said that the experience changed them. They may not have seen the direct impact immediately and some of the learning may have happened later and in hindsight, but they did change,” she said. 

Before the online time together, Yoder started and shared a Google doc for each group so that participants could voluntarily share updates on their lives since the cross-cultural. “That worked well so that everyone who wanted could catch up on their classmates’ news of the past 20 years, and then our time together could be focused on the Middle East experience itself,” Yoder said.

In the two-hour gatherings, participants reflected on a series of questions: What were your most memorable experiences? How did your time in the Middle East impact you from then on? How do you stay in touch with the Middle East today? What do you miss the most?

One at a time, alumni shared memories and the impact, followed by comments and questions from those listening.** 

Among the strongest memories: attending a wedding in Beit Sahour (a village still visited by current cross-cultural groups) and being stuck on a bus for 24 hours while caught in a flood in the Egyptian desert (‘96); witnessing a car accident from the bus (‘98); and attending the Sabeel conference where Kofi Annan and Hanan Ashrawi spoke (‘99).

Lives changed in ways the participants could not begin to see or imagine at the time. This included professional careers, return for further travels or living in the region, and the development of lifelong friendships, especially among the Beit Sahour community.

Participants talked about a growth in empathy for those who are disempowered and for those living in conflict areas, and a desire to lift and leverage their own empowered voices on behalf of the marginalized. 

Kendra Yoder, now a professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies  at Goshen College who  has led several Study Service Terms there, read from a journal entry she had written in 1999 while an assistant leader: “I am so small. I know so little about this world.”

Curiosity, vulnerability and empathy were all part of the experience: characteristics rooted in often searing memories of their travels.

Pediatric oncologist Trent Hummel ‘97 often relates to parents of many different cultures as he treats their children with brain tumors at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “Saying something as simple as ‘salaam alekum’ to a mother [of a patient] has been so meaningful, a reminder of our shared humanity,” he said.

***

EMU cross-cultural groups often use the fall Homecoming and Family Weekend to host a reunion. If you’re interested in organizing a reunion, contact Jennifer North Bauman, director of alumni relations, at alumni@emu.edu.

We’d love to hear from other alumni about their cross-cultural memories. Use the alumni update form or the comment box below.

You also might enjoy coverage of the spring 2020 crosscultural to Guatemala that includes a history of interrupted trips. 

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*  Four alumni also earned graduate degrees at EMU: Kelly King Emery earned an MA in education in 2005.  Laura Schildt earned an MA in conflict transformation in 2006. Brian Emery earned an M.Div at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in 2007. Eric Eberly taught in EMU’s Intensive English Program and earned an MA in conflict transformation in 2019. 

**   The 1998 group held a special time of memorial for Weston Elliot Strickler ‘01, who passed away in July 2020. Students shared memories of Weston and honored his unique contributions to the group and their experience abroad together.

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Contributor Cynthia Yoder was the first full-time faculty member in EMU’s Intensive English Program. She taught in the program for eight years, from 1992-2000, and then moved to Palestine. There, she directed an English language program at the Arab American University of Palestine from 2000-05. In 2020, she published the memoir This is Life; “Haik al-Haya”: Five Years Teaching in Palestine.

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