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From the Midwest to the Middle East

Affectionately referred to as “Dr. Doug” by students in the Middle East Studies Program, anthropology grad Doug Magnuson ’79 wants his students to be able to answer one question: What difference does it make to be a Christian?

By Jenny Hudalla ’15, senior content specialist

November 29, 2018 | 1:30 p.m.

Doug Magnuson

Doug Magnuson '79 and his wife, Patti

Doug Magnuson ’79 thinks about it when he’s brushing his teeth. He thinks about it when he’s on his way to work. And he thinks about it when he walks down the street to his local coffee shop in Amman, Jordan, where the sun shines 310 days a year. One question has fascinated Magnuson since his days as an anthropology major at Bethel University: What difference does it make to be a Christian?

For Magnuson, there’s no better place to work out the answer than the Middle East, where he and his wife, Patti, have lived for the last 35 years. As the director of the Middle East Studies Program—a study abroad offering available to Bethel students through the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities—Magnuson teaches in the birthplace of the world’s three largest religions.

“I love working with college students because they’re at such a salient point for learning,” he says. “Even a small change in attitude can impact the trajectory of their life and how they choose to live it.” 

That was true of Magnuson’s own college years, when a first-year Introduction to Liberal Arts course challenged him to consider how faith influenced his perception of social issues, the news, and his own nationality. Anthropology professor Tom Correll, who had lived among the Inuit of northern Canada, became a mentor to Magnuson and helped him envision how his interests—anthropology, linguistics, and ministry—could intersect.

“Bethel was foundational to everything I’ve been doing,” says Magnuson, who went on to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. in anthropology from Brown University before moving to the Middle East. “It’s the place where my interest in anthropology was born, it’s where my curiosity about other cultures began, it’s where I learned how to relate to different people. Bethel was a place where my faith was challenged and nurtured, where I was exposed to professors who challenged my assumptions and worldview and encouraged me to think beyond the confines of how I saw things at the time.”

"Bethel was a place where my faith was challenged and nurtured, where I was exposed to professors who challenged my assumptions and worldview and encouraged me to think beyond the confines of how I saw things at the time.”

— Doug Magnuson ’79

Now affectionately referred to as “Dr. Doug,” Magnuson teaches and mentors MESP students as they study Arabic, Islamic thought, and the cultures of the Middle East. Based in Amman, Jordan, and featuring excursions to Egypt, Morocco, and Israel-Palestine, the program brings students face to face with some of the most challenging issues on the evening news cycle. As they wrestle with the complexities of the Syrian refugee crisis, a growing fear of Islam, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Magnuson aims to help them understand the difference their faith makes in the way they see the world around them.

“I want our students to relate positively to others,” he says. “I want them to become the kind of people who don’t feed polarization, but bridge differences and find common ground with people whom they disagree with.” In his experience, the best way to do that is through relationship. Since moving to the Middle East, Magnuson has taught in five countries, learned to speak fluent Arabic, and established meaningful friendships with his Muslim neighbors, whom he says have pushed him to know Jesus more sincerely.

“Dr. Doug has lived in and is a part of the exact culture we studied,” says Merissa Russie ’17, a program alumna who majored in Teaching English as a Second Language. “There aren’t many professors like him in the world. He approaches learning with a balance of logic and love and with a Christ-centered perspective.”

With the intention of building meaningful relationships of their own, students engage with local speakers in the classroom, participate in a community service project once a week, and stay with Jewish and Palestinian families during their trip to the Holy Land. Some students get involved in local running or recreational groups—one even joined a group of young Jordanians who practiced parkour. “They’re getting into much more than learning subjects—they’re learning to engage with people at the heart of the topics,” Magnuson says. “By nature, it’s life-changing.”

Russie would agree. Now an English Language Learner (ELL) instructor, she works with immigrants and refugees from all over the world. “MESP gave me the skills to not just appreciate my students, but be able to sit down with them and have real conversations with love and grace,” she says. “My connection with my students is greater because I have a further understanding of their language and culture.”

The program initiates a growth trajectory in the lives of students that Magnuson hopes will continue as they launch careers in diverse fields. According to results from the Intercultural Development Inventory, which measures intercultural development and spiritual formation, MESP students experience an average growth of 13.6 points in less than four months—a figure Magnuson says is among the highest of any semester-long study abroad program.

“That’s the heart of our focus and energy,” he says. “We’re trying to help our students think through what it means to follow Christ in relationship to the people and issues in the world today, so that ultimately they can cast a vision for the kind of people they want to become.”

Ready for your own adventure?

Bethel offers more than 30 study abroad and off-campus programs to students. Go for a semester, a summer, or a January Term and experience hands-on learning at a whole new level.

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