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After 9 years of service, Middle East University president is back at home

Leif Hongisto, Middle East University President, took new challenges in Finland.

After 9 years of service, Middle East University president is back at home

[Photo courtesy of the Middle East and North Africa Union]

As the only institution of higher education in the Middle East and North Africa region, Middle East University (MEU) has stood as a bastion of Adventist education and a beacon of light since 1939. Its resilience and mission have uniquely positioned it to not only train future church leaders but to share the gospel message with the surrounding community.

An educator by profession, Leif Hongisto accepted the call in 2008 to serve as the 17th president of MEU and arrived with his wife Patrizia in April 2009 to assume his new role.

For the past 9 years, Hongisto guided MEU on the path towards increased student enrollment and continued institutional growth as he worked with the team to foster and establish institutional best practices that promoted inclusive excellence and a culture of high achievement for all students. During this time, Hongisto focused on building the university through improving the physical plant, increasing degree offerings, strengthening the core SDA faculty ratio, emphasizing service, and supporting the spiritual life on campus.

Before entering his teens, Hongisto had already designed an entire house which his father then built. This love for architecture and natural talent served him well as there was a need for significant facility restorations upon his arrival. The 2nd and 3rd floors of North Hall and 2nd floor of South Hall were renovated for student and guest housing. A new electric generator was installed, a necessity as government power is restricted to specific hours during the day. Outdoor sports facilities, including a regulation-size soccer field, basketball and volleyball courts, and tennis court were constructed. Facilities for Al Waad TV and Radio production, which are housed on the MEU campus, were refurbished.

Most recently, Hongisto oversaw the renovation of the old bakery into a science complex complete with labs, classrooms, and faculty offices. Pre-med students now study chemistry, biology, and nutrition while conducting practical seminars such as CREATION Health and Breathe Free in the community. Not only did generous donors make it possible for this project to succeed, but the Gulf Field also sponsored a two-family student housing unit on campus to accommodate their pastors-in-training.

In 2011, the MA in Islamic Studies was launched, followed by reopening of the Bachelor of Theology in 2014. Partnering with Adventist Colleges Abroad, in 2012 MEU began a 1-year Arabic language program with cultural and missiological focus so students would catch a vision of ministry in the MENA region and abroad. In 2016, the Bachelor of Science in Biology with emphasis in pre-med enrolled its first students. To strengthen these programs and the university overall, Dr. Hongisto actively recruited and increased the total number of SDA employees and volunteers at MEU from 45% SDA faculty in 2011 to 73% SDA faculty in 2017. This has helped to facilitate communication of our Adventist philosophy and ethos to our largely non-SDA student population.  

In addition to ensuring that all MEU degrees were fully accredited by the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education and by AAA, Dr. Hongisto also signed partnership agreements between MEU and Montemorelos University in Mexico, Bogenhofen Seminary in Austria, and Andrews University in the United States. These have provided for collaborative exchange between universities as students and faculty benefit from the enhanced opportunities available to them from an online records management system to expanded degree offerings to ease of transfer. A BA in Elementary Education at Bogenhofen Seminary will now train Adventist German-speaking educators as MEU provides their credentialing.

As part of the wholistic education at MEU, Dr. Hongisto affirmed service as a high priority in supported service-focused initiatives and added a vital member to the MEU team in 2016. Sara Saunders, Service Learning Coordinator, brought a meaningful depth of engagement and social responsibility through a variety of service opportunities such as World Vision workshops, health expos, international mission trips, and introducing a core general education course in the philosophy of service. These initiatives have reflected MEU’s mission: To influence students’ hearts and minds to live with professional competence, integrity, compassion and faith.

The spiritual life of MEU grew through a variety of programs both on campus and in the MENA region. These included colporteur programs, supporting the 4 Your Life Center and Adventist Learning Center that primarily assist refugees, painting murals with messages of hope as part of the Beyond Walls project, and hosting various spiritual emphasis events. From a handful of dedicated students and faculty worshipping in an echoing auditorium to a now-fully-packed auditorium each Sabbath, MEU University Church now represents more than 40 nationalities and its diversity brings energy and inspiration. Each year, students make the decision to be baptized and join the church, strengthening the local membership.

Mrs. Hongisto served as Dean of the Faculty of Business Administration and she was also instrumental in initiating the Office of Communications. While using her expertise to increase public awareness of MEU throughout Lebanon, Mrs. Hongisto organized high-level conferences and community-friendly events on campus where hundreds of potential students had the opportunity to experience MEU as a welcoming retreat just out of the city. In addition, MEU interacted with more than 26,000 high-school students at recruiting forums in the 2016-2017 academic year.

Dr. and Mrs. Hongisto returned to Finland in December 2017 and Dr. Hongisto assumed responsibilities as the Rector of our SDA Junior College in Finland in January 2018 while Mrs. Hongisto is completing her doctoral studies. Dr. Larry Lichtenwalter, Faculty Dean of Philosophy and Theology, is now serving as interim president of Middle East University.

Rick McEdward, president of the Middle East and North Africa Union, expressed his gratitude for Hongisto’s contribution.

 “In the nine years that Leif and Patrizia served, MEU has grown so much. We see a different campus and new students.  I, personally, appreciate the great service that Dr. Hongisto provided that made MEU stand out in the way it serves the MENA region and Lebanon,” McEdward said.