Yale Divinity School and the world: An interview with Jan Hagens

Jan-Lüder Hagens is Director of International Student Exchange Programs at Yale Divinity School as well as Director of the School’s Visiting Fellows Program. YDS interviewed him about his work and these international dimensions of life on the Quad.

YDS: A big part of your work is overseeing international exchanges. Tell us about those programs. What opportunities does YDS offer to our students to study abroad?

JLH: We currently support student exchange programs with eight universities abroad, all of which have distinct features that appeal to different student applicants from YDS. At Cambridge, Westcott House offers the opportunity to study and live in a unique Anglican theological college and its liturgical community. Our three German partner universities (Heidelberg, Tübingen, and Freiburg) are theologically first-rate and among the most famous in Germany; they have 600-year traditions and sit in picture-perfect historic towns. With Copenhagen, we have an informal exchange arrangement that dramatically reduces tuition fees for students from either institution. This coming Fall, we will start an exchange with Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel’s premier academic institution. In Hong Kong, we collaborate with the Divinity School of Chung Chi College, the only theological education institution operating within a Chinese public university. And in Singapore, our students attend Trinity Theological College, which offers a specific Southeast Asian perspective and is a gateway into all of Southeast Asia. For the future, we envision additional exchange programs with universities in South America and Africa.

YDS: How many YDS students study abroad, and how many international students come to YDS?

JLH: Each year, we select about ten students from YDS and enable them to study abroad, at our academic partner institutions in Cambridge, Heidelberg, Tübingen, Freiburg, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, Hong Kong, or Singapore. The other way around, we welcome about ten students from these institutions to YDS—English and Germans, Danes and Israelis, Chinese and Singaporeans. It is a win-win.

YDS: So those programs are about students – but you also head the YDS Visiting Fellows Program. Who are these Visiting Fellows?

JLH: Yes, each year Yale Divinity School appoints as Visiting Fellows about 10 or 12 distinguished professors, ministers, priests, and other well-known professionals who have research projects in the fields of theology and religion that necessitate work with specific YDS Library holdings. Most of these individuals are from abroad, often from China (because the YDS Library has superb holdings of special interest to Chinese scholars), Korea, Japan, or Europe. We do what we can to make these guests feel welcome and at home, and provide a bit of social life, with monthly lunches and lectures. YDS also has a specialized program headed by Doreen Generoso that invites younger researchers who are in the process of completing their dissertations (and most of whom are from abroad) to come here and work under the guidance of a YDS faculty member.

YDS: How does YDS benefit from the Visiting Fellows Program?

JLH: These distinguished researchers bring their knowledge and skills with them from all over the world and share their expertise with us. All of these people are superb professionals who have gone through competitive application processes and received grants from their home countries, home institutions, or foundations. We open up our Library to them, with its first-rate research possibilities, and they in turn connect us to cutting-edge theological research that happens in other parts of the world. They associate with our faculty and students here at YDS, attend and deliver lectures, and start lunch conversations in the Refectory. And when they go back to their home countries and publish their books, they put us on the world map of theological research.

YDS: So, how international is YDS? Can you give us some numbers?

JLH: Between 2008 and 2018, the number of international students at YDS has steadily risen, from 40 then to 66 this year, which means that now 18% of our students at YDS are non-U.S. citizens. But don’t forget—the global character of YDS is obvious not only from these international students, Visiting Fellows, and Ph.D. Researchers, but also when you look at the faculty and staff. I know we have professors from Australia, Canada, Croatia, Gambia, Germany, Greece, Ireland, the U.K., and probably many other countries.   

YDS: Why is it important for YDS to have these international dimensions? How does it affect our students’ experiences?

JLH: Regardless of whether a student is preparing for an academic career or parish ministry, or yet another field, study abroad often is a life-changing experience. College and graduate school are the ideal contexts and the ideal period in most people’s life for such an experience, a time when one is most able to learn, to benefit, and also to give in the fullest and most generous measure. After YDS, an opportunity like this may never come again. In my six years of sending and receiving more than a hundred students, 99 percent were enthusiastic about their study abroad experiences, and ended up richer in mind and spirit, with new insights in their fields of theological study, new ideas for their post-graduate careers, new friends in another country and often another language, and new dimensions to their faith. 

With regard to what happens right here in YDS classrooms and within campus life, ask any American student or any YDS faculty member if the international students are a plus or not. Or just imagine YDS without these students from other countries. They bring different perspectives into the classroom and are very visible and active on campus. They play an important part not only in their own YDS International Student Fellowship, which is headed by YDS students themselves and which very much welcomes U.S.-American students, but they also contribute to our community at large. They make everything so much richer, more multi-faceted and complex, livelier, just more fun.

YDS: How does your work relate to the greater mission of YDS?

JLH: Christianity is a universal religion and not reserved for specific nations, peoples, ethnic groups, or races. It does not make sense to limit ourselves to a domestic scenario. In fact, even for the sake of our own U.S.-American questions, we may want to cast a wider look and get help from those with other perspectives, just as we hope we can help them. Such an international orientation is not gratuitous or optional; it is at the core of what YDS stands for and endeavors. Two demands that are essential to Christianity are love and justice, and we have to learn how to follow and apply them across borders and despite different passports. 

YDS: More of a personal question: How did you end up in the United States after being born and raised in Germany?

JLH: Your question is right on topic, because I first came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student in the mid-1970s. In college and graduate school, I kept going back and forth between the U.S. and Germany, but eventually completed my doctorate in the U.S. Finally, I fell in love with a theological ethicist from the U.S. and decided to live here and help others go abroad.