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Pandemic to Gaza: Adventist Colleges Abroad Director Discusses Challenges, Goals

Juan Antonio Lopez - Adventist Colleges Abroad

Juan Antonio Lopez is director of Adventist Colleges Abroad, based in Maryland, USA. Previously he was director of Adventist Colleges Abroad Spain, based at Campus Adventista de Sagunto in Valencia, Spain. Lopez has taught at Sagunto, Shenandoah Valley Academy in Virginia, USA, and Collonges in France. In this interview, he talks about his work sending students to study different languages at Adventist Colleges Abroad programs around the world. 

Question: You are the director of Adventist Colleges Abroad, a program that allows students at Adventist colleges and universities in North America and Australia to study in other countries while earning credit toward their degree at home. How many students have been studying through ACA during this school year? How many last summer? And how many do you expect for summer 2024?

Answer: This year, ACA has had an average of 120 students distributed among the six programs available for the academic year. In summer 2023, ACA had a total enrollment of 106 students who participated in the six summer programs offered. For summer 2024, ACA estimates an enrollment of 110 students.

Which are the most popular countries for students to go to?

Based on enrollment data from the past five years, the most popular programs are in Villa Aurora (Florence, Italy) and Sagunto (Valencia, Spain). These programs are followed by Collonges (France) and the South American program at Universidad Adventista del Plata (Argentina). The ACA programs in Bogenhofen (Austria) and Bahia (Brazil) also provide great opportunities for students who want to learn German and Portuguese.

ACA Sagunto campus in Valencia, Spain

What is the primary motivation for students to study abroad through ACA? When I went to Sagunto, Spain, in 1997, I needed an intermediate language credit to graduate with an English degree. Is this still a requirement for many students?

Language requirements still motivate many college students to enroll in ACA programs. However, more students now understand that learning a foreign language is beneficial for all careers. 

Employers value international experience, the ability to communicate in another language, intercultural awareness, and the willingness to step out of their comfort zone to develop skills such as adaptability, critical thinking, empathy, problem-solving, and tolerance of change and uncertainty. 

College age is also an ideal time to explore new countries, learn different ways of doing things, and grow emotionally and spiritually. Our ACA programs offer all of this: Explore, Learn, and Grow.

It must have been very difficult for ACA to cope during the COVID pandemic. Did you bring students home? Did you take a year off from sending students abroad? What happened, and how has the program been impacted since?

The COVID pandemic was a very challenging period for everyone, including ACA and all institutions depending on ACA. Safety is a high priority for ACA. In March 2020, ACA repatriated all students abroad at ACA’s expense —  around 150 students from seven different countries. This significant logistical effort was coordinated by the previous ACA director, Dr. Sandra Esteves, with the help of all ACA program directors abroad. 

At that time, I was the director in Sagunto, Spain, and we won’t forget the day we had to say goodbye, with tears, to the 58 ACA students there —  some of whom didn’t want to leave despite the circumstances.

Students with Adventist Colleges Abroad

ACA learned the hard way not to take things for granted and continued praying together via Zoom, seeking God’s guidance during those difficult times. Some ACA programs (Argentina, Austria, Italy, and Spain) quickly transitioned to online teaching, keeping the program alive from March to May 2020. ACA is grateful to all faculty and students who remained committed to their programs amidst the chaos.

However, since ACA is about living experiences and getting immersed in another country, some programs reopened in person for a few students in the middle of the situation, always following international and health regulations. These students became heroes for ACA, giving continuity and hope that things could return to normal. During the 2020-2021 academic year, ACA had five students in France, 10 in Italy, and eight in Spain.

ACA students in Austria

In summer 2021, ACA was able to hold in-person classes in Italy (five students), Spain (31 students), and the Biblical Hebrew program (nine students) in Villa Aurora, Italy. Despite difficulties, ACA resumed most of its programs during the 2021-2022 academic year (Argentina, Austria, Lebanon, France, Italy, Spain) with a total enrollment of around 80 students. In summer 2022, ACA had 119 students, and in the 2022-2023 academic year, ACA almost returned to normal with 120 students enrolled.

Unfortunately, after the COVID pandemic, the programs at Newbold (England) and Friedensau (Germany) were unable to reopen. We pray for our sister institutions to find the means to return to their pre-COVID status.

What feedback do you hear from students who have studied abroad through ACA?

Students greatly value their experience abroad. Whether they spend just a summer, three months, or the whole academic year, most return home feeling they have grown as world citizens, learned a new language, and explored many new countries. Testimonies can be found in the current ACA Magazine here and on Instagram.

Here are some samples:

“Spending a year abroad was the best decision I could have made. During my time abroad, I got to travel and explore, gain confidence in my second language, and make amazing, lifelong friends.” (Lesieli Savelio-SAU)

“I love how you’re able to travel and experience new cultures while being fully immersed in your target language.” (Mari Weber, PUC)

“Coming to this ACA program has been a dream come true. I have met incredible people, seen many new beautiful places during our travels, and learned a lot along the way.” (Ellie Britain, UC)

“My experience this year has been life-changing. This year has allowed me to grow as a person in many different ways and has also pushed me to get out of my comfort zone.” (Madilyn Bennet, Union College)

What is the newest country or program?

We are very excited about our new program: this coming summer 2024, ACA will have its first cohort of students learning Korean in Seoul at Sahmyook Adventist University, in South Korea. ACA is very proud to partner with such a prestigious university to offer our students the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Korean language at one of the largest universities within the Adventist system.

Sahmyook Adventist University

But our main goal at the moment is to strengthen existing programs through various strategies. Our programs are now available to graduate students or professionals who want to experience a summer or three months in any of our institutions abroad in what we call the non-credit or non-traditional path.

 We are also exploring opportunities with different international Adventist institutions to extend ACA’s study abroad opportunities to more students outside of North America. Programs may open in the future in other countries, and ACA is open to exploring new possibilities to serve Adventist education worldwide.

My parents studied abroad in the 1960s—in fact, they met at Bogenhofen in Austria! Was the program called Adventist Colleges Abroad in those days? How old is the program?

ACA started in 1961 when a group of students and professors from La Sierra University traveled by boat to Collonges sous Salève in France. After French came German and Spanish programs in Austria and Spain. The program grew gradually into what it is today. ACA is currently working on documenting the history of ACA to compile this legacy.

Students of ACA

You became director of ACA in 2023 and only arrived from Spain to work at the North American Division offices in January 2024. How are you finding the job so far?

ACA is one of the jewels of Adventist education. My job as ACA director is challenging and interesting. It allows me to interact with people from many different cultures and provides the opportunity to dream of a global international community where people get to know, respect, and understand others from faraway places.

How many colleagues do you have in your main office? What takes up most of your working day?

The ACA office is located in the North American Division (NAD) headquarters. However, ACA’s structure is very robust and extends beyond the office:

At the NAD, two people are directly involved in processing applications, responding to emails, and ensuring ACA runs smoothly. Additionally, ACA benefits from many NAD resources for marketing, accounting, and other functions. Since ACA shares physical space with the NAD Department of Education, we can share and utilize resources to improve our operations.

Secondly, ACA relies on 13 campus coordinators who are present at the universities that belong to the consortium.

Moreover, ACA’s success depends on the collaboration and input from ACA directors and staff in all programs abroad.

To complete the description of the ACA structure, it is important to mention that ACA has a professional Curriculum Committee that meets at least twice a year. The committee members are specialists in language teaching, and we have a university registrar who advises on all academic affairs.

Finally, ACA’s main decisions are made by the Board of Executive Directors. This board includes members of the Curriculum Committee, six university presidents, and other specialists in finance and church service, allowing ACA to benefit from their experience and wisdom.

On a daily basis, when I travel to the sending institutions, my work involves promoting ACA. When visiting programs abroad, I listen to the blessings and challenges faced by our students and programs. When in the office, I answer emails, prepare promotional activities, handle applications, and address academic issues. I must acknowledge the excellent work of Christian Brown, ACA Administrative Assistant, who does an amazing job keeping ACA running.

What are your goals for ACA? Do you hope to grow the program?

We aim to maintain stable enrollment numbers for each ACA program abroad each summer and academic year. We would like to open additional programs in other countries if there is a need among our constituency.

Are there any opportunities for students from the countries where you are sending North American students (Italy, France, South Korea, Argentina, etc.) to study in the US or Australia?

Next summer, ACA will offer English as a second language programs in America for all international students. Other exchange programs may be developed in the future to meet the needs of young people, the Adventist church, and society as a whole.

The Adventist Colleges Abroad campus in Collonges, France

Are geopolitical factors a big problem for ACA? For instance, is the program in Israel struggling now due to the war in Gaza? What about the Arabic program in Lebanon? And is it difficult when there are challenging internal political situations, for instance in Brazil?

Safety is a major priority for ACA. When the war in Gaza started, ACA quickly withdrew our only student in Lebanon from the program to avoid any safety risks. Currently, the program to learn Arabic at Middle East University is discontinued, and we pray for peace and the right context to resume sending students to this great country. The program in Israel has become itinerant; instead of taking place in Israel, we use other international campuses for this purpose. Last year, it was held in Collonges, France, and in summer 2024, it will take place in Sagunto, Spain.

Is it very expensive to study abroad?

Studying abroad is generally a big and profitable industry, and prices can be quite high. However, the Seventh-day Adventist church is intentional about keeping programs affordable. ACA is grateful to the international institutions for their efforts to maintain low prices while ensuring excellent quality. 

Currently, our summer programs cost around $5,000 for six weeks, and most academic year programs are under $20,000. These prices include everything: airport pickup and drop-off, books, room, accommodation, all trips included in the programs, classes, etc. For detailed information, visit ACA’s Dates and Prices page.

Which colleges and universities in North America send the most students abroad? How do you market the program?

All NAD colleges and universities strive to send students to ACA programs. The highest number of applications currently come from Southern Adventist University, Andrews University, and Walla Walla University. Following these institutions are Pacific Union College, Oakwood University, La Sierra University, and Union Adventist University. Finally, ACA also receives a few applicants every year from Southwestern Adventist University, Washington Adventist University, and Burman University.

For ACA, each student is valuable and important regardless of where they come from, and we truly appreciate the efforts made at each university to facilitate their students’ participation in abroad programs. Recently, medical institutions like Kettering College and Advent Health University have joined the ACA family, allowing their students to benefit from the ACA programs abroad.

Adventist Colleges Abroad: Brazil

We market ACA programs primarily through our ACA campus coordinators present at each university. ACA also visits each NAD university annually with ACA program directors to share updates and hold informational meetings. In addition to our webpage (, we are improving our use of social media (Instagram account @studentsofaca, and soon a Facebook page and YouTube page with videos from each institution). Next year, we will hold periodic webinars to discuss study abroad opportunities in detail, featuring testimonies and updates.

What would you say to a student considering studying abroad but unsure if it is worthwhile?

I understand that going abroad is not for everyone, and the data confirms this. But if you want to be special, have a life-changing experience, learn a language, understand another culture, and explore, learn, and grow, choose ACA as your study abroad provider. We are here to help you achieve your goals.

About the author

Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum. More from Alita Byrd.
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