Fifty years ago, an overseas study program launched at La Sierra University when a group of 25 daring students crossed the country and an ocean to learn the French language in France.
First called La Sierra College Overseas, the Adventist Colleges Abroad program is now based in Washington, D.C., and has grown since its inception in 1962 to involve Adventist college and university students throughout North America. Courses are offered in 10 languages in 13 countries. All told, about 20,000 students from around the continent have participated in ACA over the years.
Members of that first adventurous student group were recently honored for their pioneering efforts. La Sierra’s alumni weekend, held April 19-21, celebrated the Adventist Colleges Abroad program and recognized La Sierra alums and LSC Overseas participants Tom Smith, class of 1963, and Ione Brunt, attended 1964. “Don’t we owe a bit of gratitude to these people who were willing to break new ground?” said La Sierra University President Randal Wisbey during a Friday evening banquet.
Smith was also recognized with an Honored Alumnus Award for his role in developing the ACA program and leading its expansion after it moved to the North American Division in 1970. He later worked at La Sierra as registrar and director of enrollment services.
In 1962, the initial group of 22 La Sierra students, including Smith and Brunt, and three others from Pacific Union College faced an arduous journey to reach their home for the next nine months — an Adventist college, Collonges-sous-Saléve, France, in the mountainside village of Saléve overlooking Geneva, Switzerland. Before they could sail to France from New York City, they first had to traverse the United States, a harrowing adventure in its own right.
Once in France, the group, led by faculty sponsor and music professor John T. Hamilton and his wife, Arlene, enjoyed a cornucopia of cultural experiences while enduring record cold and snow. They traveled the European continent during school breaks and met Princess Grace in Monaco, visited the famed Louvre museum in Paris and attended a Christmas Eve performance of “Silent Night” in Austria’s Franz Gruber chapel named for the composer of the much-loved Christmas carol. Students also received an education in manual labor. They cleaned animal stalls in the college dairy barn, herded cows and washed dishes. (A full account of the first ACA group and an historical background of the program is available in the Spring 2012 edition of La Sierra University Magazine.)
On April 20 during alumni weekend, La Sierra held a reunion for Adventist Colleges Abroad alums with special guest Odette Ferreira, the ACA director for the North American Division. La Sierra ACA students recited Scripture in several languages, and former ACA students described the impact of the program on their lives.
“I look back at my time with ACA as one of the best times of my life,” said Jonathan Davidson, a 2012 business graduate and former ACA participant who took Spanish language classes in Sagunto, Spain, in fall quarter 2011. “I made lifelong friendships and was inspired by great professors.”
Smith recounted with humor the struggles he and other students faced in taking that first trip to study overseas and the strength they found in each other and in God. “You’re never by yourself. You’re always part of a group,” said Smith to the alumni audience. “And the biggest part of the group is up there,” he said, pointing skyward.
Between the start of the school year last fall and this spring, a total of 46 La Sierra University students have studied abroad or are currently doing so in Spain, Japan, Italy, Argentina, France and Brazil.