What do getting a library card at the National Archives in Washington D.C., climbing a 19,000-foot-high volcano in Peru, and attending church where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, Germany share in common?
For more than 50 years, thousands of Calvin students have lived and learned in dozens of cities and countries, some for a few weeks, others for a few months. The shared memories—like eating paella, octopus, and sea urchins in Denia, Spain; hiking the trails of the Chartreuse mountains in France; biking the streets of Amsterdam, the Netherlands; or taking selfies in Kalvin Square in Budapest, Hungary—live on through images captured on a Nikon F2 35mm camera in the ’70s, on a Canon Powershot in the ’90s, and, more recently, on an iPhone or Android.
While the photos represent moments in time, their shelf lives go well beyond “snapshots.”
That’s because they are captured not by tourists, but by pilgrims—students who, through their experiences, grasp a better understanding of the world and further discover their place in it.
“Our students have come to appreciate the approach we take when it comes to off-campus programming,” said Cynthia Slagter, director of off-campus programs. “They learn a deeper way to connect to places and cultures, which allows for more meaningful connections and experiences.”
Programs offered through Calvin have taken students to six continents, some through short-term interim trips once offered in January and now in May, and others through semester-long programs. Some of these programs, such as the semester in Spain, have remained in place for four decades, while others, such as the January interim, thrived for a season and have since been replaced with new opportunities. Leaders say what remains consistent is Calvin’s commitment to creating formative and transformative experiences for students studying off campus.
“When you travel abroad your faith and cultural beliefs will be challenged,” said Slagter, “but our faculty-led, faith-infused approach allows our students to navigate this terrain and work through these challenges alongside a cohort of their peers and with the support and guidance of a Calvin faculty member.”
Recently, Calvin faculty have blazed new trails, building opportunities for students to experience different cultures and, in the process, become better global citizens.
REIMAGINED COURSE GENERATES BETTER STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES
Access to clean water may not be on most Calvin students’ minds, but for many communities around the world, it’s a pressing need that significantly impacts citizens’ quality of life. The best way to grasp that is through experience. That’s why Doug Vander Griend decided to teach the first iteration of his public health course Impact of Clean Water in Honduras during May 2022.
“In many ways it was a fantastic course, transformational for students,” said Vander Griend, who noted the course fulfills a stu- dent’s requirement in both the environmental sustainability and the global regions and cultures categories of the core curriculum.
With all the benefits, he realized there was still room to make the experience even more meaningful.
“We were trying to jam all of the reading and writing in during our stay, which is not the best space to do that more academic part of the course,” said Vander Griend, citing both time constraints and access to reliable technology. “So, we reinvented the course and ran it again the following spring.”
During the revamped spring 2023 course, students studied on campus for the first seven weeks, doing all their reading and journaling. Then, during spring break, half of the class traveled to Honduras, while the other half went to Navajo Nation. For one week, students focused on experiential learning—visiting water treatment plants, talking with people from local villages, and gaining a better understanding of the programs and infrastructure already in place to help people gain access to clean water.
“By reimagining how we delivered this course, we gained so much,” said Vander Griend. “Students would do their reading and then have a week to digest it and talk about it. It got to percolate in them over a longer period.”
When the class returned from their respective off-campus locations, they had another seven weeks together on campus, which Vander Griend noted to be markedly different.
“If you walked into class post spring break, you knew this was a group that had traveled together,” said Vander Griend. “We tried to build community while in class for the first seven weeks, but once we got in the vans and on the planes, community took off.”
So too did the learning outcomes.
“The quality of writing projects went way up [from 2022 to 2023],” said Vander Griend. With more time on campus, “rather than students blitzing a policy proposal out in 48 hours with limited feedback from peers and professors, they were able to submit drafts of each section, allowing more opportunity for revision.”
Cynthia Slagter hopes the success of integrating the on- and off-campus experience will spark more innovation in course offerings in the future.
“Having seven weeks of class, a fabulous intensive experience in the middle, and then another seven weeks of class has never been done before [at Calvin],” said Slagter. “I’d love to see more professors do something like that.”
SHORT-TERM TRIP, LONG-TERM IMPACT
Philip Johnson spent nearly 20 years learning about operations and supply chain management, working at a large agricultural original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and an electronics supplier for multiple OEM end-user markets. Now, it’s his job to pass that knowledge base along to his students.
“There’s a lot to it that you can’t get from a textbook or even from someone like me who spent 20 years in industry,” said Johnson, a professor of business.
Johnson is trying something new this semester, splitting his Supply Chain Management course into two parts: the first half is being taught in a traditional class setting on Calvin’s main campus. Then, for the final two weeks, the students will head on the road and overseas.
In the classroom, students will gain knowledge and understanding of aspects such as technical skills, quality management, manufacturing, and managing business between global regions. Students will gain a unique perspective by not only looking at the standard business and financial metrics but also at the impact of global business decisions on local communities engaged in the complex supply chain.
In essence, the class will need to increase their global knowledge and understanding, and Johnson says there’s no better way to get that than through experience.
“I can teach that from a book perspective,” said Johnson, “but until you take time to live in different regions around the world you won’t have the true appreciation for that. That’s really what we are trying to do through this class.”
In January 2024, students will travel to Monterey, Mexico where they’ll spend 10 days visiting different manufacturing facilities and learning about culture by touring museums and cathedrals.
“We are trying to help students live into a vision of shalom in how we structure our relationships globally,” said Johnson. “We want to teach that perspective to our students, teach what that means in how one does business with another company, and we want students to understand what factors they should be thinking about if they are looking to start a company in a global region. It may mean you don’t go to a major manufacturing center where everyone else is, but instead you go to a small town 30 minutes outside the city that’s losing people to the industrial center and try to contribute to that smaller town’s flourishing.”
During the final two days of their trip, the class will see a first-hand example of a company that did just that, when they stop in a small town in Iowa to visit the Vermeer Corporation.
“Vermeer’s presence and the way they do business in that community is a great example for our students to see,” said Johnson.
Taking students into the field also provides them with a unique opportunity essential to building global awareness, something employers value.
“This is the only program like this that I am aware of,” said Johnson. “People with field experience can articulate what they’ve learned and apply it in new situations, and that’s a true distinctive in the eyes of prospective employers. This is an awesome opportunity for our students.”