I traveled to the Soviet Union in 1991 together with 18 others from the United States and Canada to teach English for the summer. I viewed it as a bucket list adventure. Instead, I found my calling.
That Summer Language Institute in Klaipeda, Lithuania, has developed into the only fully accredited Christian liberal arts university in a region twice the size of the U.S. By comparison, 140 Christian colleges and universities in the U.S.—including Tabor College and Fresno Pacific University—make up the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
LCC International University was born because of the inspiring vision of two Mennonite Brethren couples—Art and Leona DeFehr, Winnipeg, Man., and Dennis and Rene Neumann, Abbotsford, B.C.—and a Lithuanian pastor and his wife, Otonas and Raimonda Balciunas. LCC was created to bring a western-style educational model with a decidedly Christian distinctive to the emerging democracies of the former Soviet Union.
This was a bold decision, moving into uncharted territory in that region of the world. At the time, there was not even a category for private institutions in the Lithuanian higher education system. Not surprisingly, LCC was frequently misunderstood by educational and political leaders, creating some significant challenges for the university.
Over time, however, LCC’s alumni have demonstrated the university’s unique mission and the quality of the student learning experience. Today, a common critique of LCC is that we do not produce more alumni!
LCC is unique when compared to other universities in the region. Most universities in Eastern Europe and Centra Asia focus on disseminating knowledge. Class attendance is optional. There is very little concern about what happens outside of class.
Educating the whole person
LCC, by contrast, focuses on developing critical thinkers, competent communicators and servant leaders. It is intentional in addressing the whole person—engaging students in inter-culturally relevant experiences through a residential campus community—all within a Christian worldview.
This will sound familiar to those of us who have attended or worked at Christian liberal arts institutions in the U.S. It is not familiar to most LCC students. This fall (2021), LCC welcomed 781 students from 57 countries. Eighty percent of our students come from outside Lithuania; 63 percent of our faculty come from the U.S. and Canada. LCC is an intentionally international university that happens to be located in Lithuania; it is not a Lithuanian university that claims to be international.
Being international means that we have become skilled at things that some universities never have to worry about—things like processing hundreds of visas each year. We help interpret local culture to new arrivals from other nations and different backgrounds. We work hard to ensure that students from different cultures can live, study, learn and communicate peaceably together, even when their own nations are in conflict with each other.
- LCC has hundreds of students and alumni from Belarus which shares a border with Lithuania. The Belarus president, often called “Europe’s last dictator,” is currently weaponizing migrants who are trapped at the border and are becoming a European crisis. Our Belarusian students and alumni live in fear.
- Students from Armenia and Azerbaijan, two countries that are fighting over disputed land, recently hosted a campus-wide candlelight vigil for all those affected by this crisis.
- Through LCC’s Middle East Scholars program, we have welcomed at least 40 students from Syria and Iraq, war-affected young people who have formed friendships on campus that have reshaped how we watch the news and think about global conflict.
- With hundreds of students and alumni from Ukraine and Russia, we recognize the deep political tensions in that region but are grateful for how our students relate to each other as friends in spite of the broader context.
- The world’s attention has been focused on Afghanistan. LCC has 12 Afghani students who are deeply concerned about their families. As the deadline for the U.S. pullout approached, the families of our students had to destroy any evidence of English language skills or that their children were studying abroad. We are working with UNHCR and the Red Cross and the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find ways to support the many family members who are now living under fear and enormous uncertainty.
Lithuania is a member of NATO. Over the past three years, LCC has had several visits by NATO officers who noted that LCC is doing the peacekeeping work of NATO. With the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, peace and freedom were re-emerging in Lithuania. Today, LCC welcomes students from countries that are desperate for that same peace and freedom. LCC not only offers education; it provides hope.
Building a culture of hope
Given the many challenges within this region of the world, LCC will soon be launching the Center for Dialogue and Conflict Transformation as a part of building a culture of hope. It will engage people in conversation where there is conflict, teach the skills involved in reconciliation and promote a culture of collaboration and peacemaking.
As an initial step, Naomi Enns, the new director of this center, together with a team of colleagues and students are planning a conference for March 2022 with the theme of “Stories Shaping Peace.”
LCC is calling out and preparing a new generation of leaders for a world that is desperate for peace, hope and trust. Alumni like these are making a difference:
- Anastasiya works for an international nonprofit organization that is exposing corrupt practices in Ukraine.
- Henrikas, a Lithuanian entrepreneur, created a translation app that can be used in large venues, including large churches in the U.S., so that multiple language groups can worship together.
- Saulius and Sanna have pastoral hearts and this has led to the development of what is now the largest evangelical church in Lithuania.
- Anton returned home to Kyrgyzstan where he started a Christian mentoring program for orphans who are transitioning to the “real world” at age 18.
- Vitaliy started a Christian camp in Ukraine that serves young people with disabilities and young people displaced by the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Over the past 30 years, LCC has mobilized literally thousands of faithful people on behalf of the vision for a Christian liberal arts university that would bring higher education and hope to the former Soviet Republics—and beyond.
These include professors, researchers, chaplains, student life staff, construction workers and other volunteers. These supporters have brought their skills and talents to the Christ-centered mission of the university. Others have also helped provide the financial resources that have made the original vision a reality.
We have seen what has happened during these first 30 years. We pray that LCC’s vision will become a reality—to be a leading Christian liberal arts university “renowned for its flourishing academic community, spiritual vitality and global impact.”
Marlene Wall is a graduate of Tabor College and received her master’s degree from Southern Illinois University and a doctorate from Kansas State University. She has served LCC in full-time roles since 2002—10 years as academic vice president and is currently in her 10th year as president. She is a member of Ridgepoint Church, a USMB church in Wichita, Kansas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.