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Living in a Far Off Land

History major Michael Bumann on how Bethel prepared him to live and learn in a foreign country.

I still remember one class I loved – Christianity in America taught by Ruben Rivera. We basically went from the beginning of Anglo settlement in America through the 19th century. The thing I loved the most about it was that we read a lot of original source material – letters, in your own words kind of things, specifically from industrialized America. I hadn’t experienced that in history classes up to that point.

I didn’t know that I wanted to be a teacher until I came to Bethel. That class was an 8 a.m. interim class. So students stumbled in, maybe half awake, maybe not, and by 8:15 we’d be in a full-blown discussion. It takes a pretty special teacher to be able to do that. Dr. Rivera always had people engaged. I remember thinking "I want to be that kind of teacher one day."

Then I took Gary Long’s Hebrew class. Before that I didn’t give much thought to language, but I realized that history, culture, and linguistics are all intertwined. You can’t separate them. I did well on a really intense paper, and that gave me the confidence to think about being in academia. I proved to myself that, if I worked hard, I could be good at it.

Bethel professors are eminently approachable. There’s something special about that. They’ll broaden your worldview and lift your level of confidence. They’re invested in the formation of students. I’m still in touch with several of them. I’ve made the effort to maintain those relationships and so have they. It’s a two-way street.

Since 2006 I’ve lived in south-central China. I’ve been working with the English Language Institute/China (ELIC) teaching English, leading a teaching team, and studying Chinese. When I went I thought I’d be there for a year, but it turned into a long-term commitment. When I go back this fall I’m moving to a city in northeast China. I’ll be in a new role as part of the language teaching staff at the language school, teaching introductory Chinese to people who want to stay longer term, and getting more involved in the cultural education side of things. I’ll also be a full-time Chinese student myself.

There were times I wanted to come home. When you live full-on in a foreign context, it’s a traumatic experience. Your entire world has been flipped upside down and everything comes tumbling out. But when I stopped and looked around I realized that much of my dissatisfaction was very self-driven.

I had a lot of support from friends and family. A lot of people reminding me that I’m young, and I wouldn’t regret the time I spent in China. Reminding me that there are things in China I really care about. I knew the right thing was to stay.

I’m better for having stuck it out. If I had left I would never have led a teaching team. I wouldn’t know the students I’ve built relationships with. I wouldn’t be going back in a new role that I’m really excited about. None of those doors would be open. I’m doing work that I feel is meaningful. Not just work that gives me a paycheck, but work that brings me fulfillment.

Bethel taught me how to pay attention to the world and find a way forward. I gained a lot of cultural research tools in my history major. I learned how to attach one idea to another. In college, that comes out as a paper. Now I’m living life and I can use those same tools to live and learn in a foreign country. It’s critical thinking. That’s been really helpful.

If I could offer advice to Bethel students, I’d say this: You have 4 years in this place. Dig in. If you want to do something, do it. That’s what it’s there for. If there’s something you want to do at Bethel, don’t give me reasons why you can’t. Find the people who are going to help you and encourage you, then do it.

More info about Michael


College of Arts & Sciences

Pierre, SD

Traveling, Chinese history, language & culture, singing, exploring neighborhoods (Minneapolis, Beijing, Hong Kong, Nanchang, & Changchun are the best!), good donut shops, South Dakota, spending time with family and friends