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Boyce College program for Vietnamese students sees first graduates
June 30, 2003
By David Roach
Professor Charles Lawless talks with Vietnamese professor An Van Pham during a recent class at Southern Seminary. Twenty-one Vietnamese students recently graduated from Boyce College as the inaugural class in a bilingual education program. Photo by Dave Merrifield
Twenty-one Vietnamese students recently graduated from Boyce College as the inaugural class in a bilingual education program at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s undergraduate college.
According to the program’s founder, An Van Pham, these students, 60 percent of whom hail from Georgia, will play a vital role in bringing much-needed theological education to ethnic congregations in the United States.
As director of language missions for the Atlanta Baptist Association, Pham conducted a 1993 survey, which discovered that 75 percent of ethnic pastors in the Atlanta area had no seminary background. A full 50 percent had not even completed a four-year college degree.
So motivated by the need to educate pastors of non-English-speaking churches, Pham contacted Bob Johnson, then the dean of Boyce College, about starting a bilingual education program for Vietnamese ministers.
In the fall of 1993, 42 Vietnamese students began working toward an associate of arts degree in biblical studies. By 1999, the program had been modified in order to permit the students to earn a bachelor of science degree. Finally, on May 16, 2003, the first 21 students received their bachelor’s degrees.
Students attended weeklong classes at the Louisville campus several times a year for more than 12 hours a day in order to complete the program. Classes typically involved an English-speaking professor lecturing for much of the class time, Pham said, followed by an additional seven hours of Pham reviewing the material in Vietnamese.
“[The professor’s] part is to cover all his lectures in class,” Pham said. “My part is to review, be sure the students understood textbooks and handouts and lectures. I lead them in group discussions of questions they can discuss in their own language.
“Then questions that they could not ask in class, they ask in their groups and I am there to help them.”
Despite the occasionally difficult language barrier between professors and students, however, these students managed to perform at a comparable level to native English-speaking students on exams, Pham said.
The success of the bachelor’s degree program led administrators at the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Seminary to inaugurate a bilingual master of divinity program this year.
And the Vietnamese students have wasted no time in taking advantage of the opportunity to earn a master’s degree. In fact, several of them began work on their first master’s level class just hours after their Boyce graduation ceremony, Pham said.
The early success of bilingual education at Southern Seminary makes Pham optimistic about the future of the Vietnamese degree program. Currently, 33 students are enrolled in the program.
But by January 2004, “my goal is that the enrollment will increase to 40. By May of next year, my goal is to have up to 45 or 50 students in this class,” he said.
Graham School leaders share Pham’s optimism about bilingual education -- so much so that they have begun preliminary discussions for a Spanish language master of divinity program, according to Charles Lawless, senior associate dean of the Graham School.
In the final analysis, Pham said that bilingual theological education for church leaders is vitally important because it provides local leadership for the increasing number of foreign-language congregations in America.
“In 1987 I started to work in Georgia, and anytime we wanted to start a Vietnamese or a Korean or a Chinese church, we looked to move someone from California or Texas or New York to Georgia,” he said. “Now after 10 years we have strong education and we don’t need to move anyone from other states to Georgia. I can see now that they [Asian church leaders] are training and preaching to and teaching their own people.”