Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Assessing Liberal Arts and Place from Multiple Perspectives: Research Findings

Alumni Interviews: Setting the stage for living out life commitments in their particular communities

More than 40 Calvin College alumni were interviewed to explore their understanding of the role their liberal arts education played in their own lives and in the formation of their commitments to place.  We also explored the role liberal arts colleges play within a particular place—city or community.  The alumni interviewed represent various age groups, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and both genders and therefore offer diverse perspectives on liberal arts education. The findings described in this section are organized under three broad themes which emerged in the alumni interviews:  the benefits of a liberal arts education at Calvin, the limitations or barriers of a liberal arts education at Calvin and the opportunities available upon which to capitalize.  See Appendix C for a bulleted summary of key themes uncovered.

The alumni interviewed in this part of the study claimed that liberal arts education offers unique benefits which can foster a sense of place. The benefits of liberal arts education at Calvin College, particularly where they related to community engagement, are often intertwined with a Reformed Christian worldview.  Alumni report that all disciplines were equally valued—from the arts to the sciences—and this gave them a broad view of life.  They described how their liberal arts educational experience at Calvin College helped them see the interconnected nature of reality as understood both from a liberal arts approach and through a Reformed understanding of creation.  This foundation helps them understand the context within which they live and was described by several alumni as “understanding your place in the world.”

This interconnectedness and understanding of context could be described as a generally broadening influence from the study of history, psychology, religion, science and how they are interrelated. Another theme that arose from the interviews is that alumni clearly saw that their liberal arts education gave them the tools they need to learn how to learn or to become life-long learners. 

“I feel like the education I got at Calvin, uh, trained me to be a life-long learner. You know, the exposure to math, to science, as well as to the softer history, and political science and sociology gave me a taste of all those that can prepare me for whatever the future is.”

Another benefit consistently articulated by alumni was the role and impact of the core curriculum at Calvin which not only gave them a broad understanding of the world and of their context but also gave them understanding with a purpose.  This purpose-driven learning is what made it difficult to separate Calvin’s liberal arts and Reformed Christian perspective.  Underlying a Reformed Christian perspective is the honoring of all vocations and explorations—seen in the alumni group’s clear experience that all subjects of study were valued. This also translates into a clear sense that all vocations were ‘sacred’ callings, whether it is being a banker or community organizer.  Alumni stated consistently that they felt that everything they did for work or service had significance for the world.  Thus values were integrated with learning—the integration of knowledge, the broadening of understanding, meant you understood your responsibilities in terms, for example, of stewardship, justice, treatment of employees, and decision-making related to where to live. The liberal arts education had a clear purpose tied to a sense of responsibility and social change.  For example, one alumnus said she was taught a way of thinking that led her to see herself as not just as a bank president, but also as a community leader. A strong sense of responsibility came with her liberal arts education.   

“In my position that I am in, I have responsibilities to the community.  And I serve on thirteen boards in the community.  I do a lot of non-profit work... And so I spend a lot of time today because of my position in the community working on making this a better place to be.  I also think that it is part of my responsibility as an employer that I make this a good community for the folks that work here and that is an obligation that I have to my eighteen hundred employees.”

It was clear that alumni felt that even those liberal arts courses that can be quite abstract and non-contextualized were taught in such a way as to connect with everyday choices.  Philosophy was not seen as detached, but rather involved foundational thinking that was necessary to frame decisions on the concrete outworking of a normative way of seeing the world—the connection between worldview/ beliefs and living/ doing/ being in the world.  This underlying viewpoint, that what you believe makes an impact on what you do, may or may not be unique to Calvin College

An important component to the integration of worldview and the “living and doing” was the impact of alumni seeing faculty live out this worldview in a day to day way—whether it was serving on City Council, starting the Grand Rapids recycling program, being involved in neighborhood organizations and local nonprofits, or becoming active at the state or national level.  As one alumnus stated, a liberal arts education at Calvin was ‘education with a heart’ which connected to what the hands were being asked to do. There is significant evidence from these alumni interviews that a Christian liberal arts education has led alumni to be dispersed and active in all kinds of sectors of the city and region (and beyond!)   These alumni interviews suggest that one of the benefits of a liberal arts education is that it can foster a commitment to and a sense of responsibility to particular places.

Liberal arts colleges, such as Calvin College, face certain barriers or limitations in relation to place.  Some are unique to this particular institution while others are applicable to higher education in general.  Calvin College and the City of Grand Rapids no doubt have much to offer each other.  However, a pervasive sentiment in many of the interviews seemed to be the sense that barriers existed between these two entities.  Multiple respondents seemed to articulate ideas that certain ‘walls’ existed between the college and the surrounding community.  In some cases these barriers were a complex milieu of sociological and psychological reasons.  In others, it was a much more palpable understanding of a physical, geographical separation of the campus.

That physical separation seemed to have its historical underpinnings in the move of the college’s campus from an urban residential neighborhood to a farm at the periphery of the city fifty years ago.  The city eventually extended itself to include the new campus and suburbs grew up around the remaining perimeter of the college.  It should be noted, though, multiple respondents indicated that the timing of the departure – in close proximity to white flight from Grand Rapids – sent bad messages on behalf of the college.  These respondents articulated that despite plausible arguments for space needs for the growing institution, it still looked to some insiders and many more outsiders that the college was abandoning the city.

Moreover, in the fifty years that the college has resided in its newer location, it has remained somewhat isolated from the neighborhoods surrounding it.  In other words, the college is physically insular.  There are gates, trees, and roads that seem to convey a message of remoteness from the larger community.  More than one respondent indicated that the college functioned within a suburban bubble.  Whether intentional or not, the physical location and design of the Calvin College campus is perceived by many of the respondents to function as a barrier between the institution and the city.

Beyond physical isolation, interviewees also indicated that when the institution attempted to develop relationships with certain neighborhoods, it was never seen as a serious stakeholder.  Those who lived and worked in the communities in question understood the college to be a participant in certain projects, but that they would not be a serious, long-standing stakeholder in the neighborhood.  In other words, Calvin’s participation ended when the semester, academic year, or project came to a conclusion.  In essence, the transient nature of college life – both in terms of students and rootless faculty – left community partners somewhat suspicious of college involvement in their neighborhoods and programs.   This contributes to the perception that the college is poor at partnership and collaboration.

That problem of transience, though, is generalizable to almost all institutions of higher learning.  It should be noted as well that respondents to this study also indicated that Calvin College was encumbered by its own unique barriers.  Interviewees frequently articulated that the college’s ethnic and religious identity often was perceived by the larger community as a rigid devotion that could be best described as a “conversation stopper.” Some perceive the college to be intolerant to difference.  For instance, some respondents wondered how the college could claim to have much invested in the city when its faculty requirements made public education verboten.  These types of issues also fed into another barrier:  perceptions of elitism.  Respondents frequently indicated their assumption that members of the larger community perceived Calvin College as a center of elitism that was not interested in dirtying itself with the problems of the city or when it does get involved, its connection to the city is often based on charity perceptions.  This perception, accurate or not, was compounded by the notion that other colleges and universities in the area were more adeptly inserting themselves into community issues so Calvin suffers from low visibility within the city as a significant community partner.

In the end, the two most dominant barriers as articulated by interviewed Calvin College alums could best be described as physical isolation and negative outside perception.  It should be noted that the college is addressing the former by establishing a presence downtown with new art studios and galleries and the purchase of the Ladies Literary Club building.  The case of addressing the latter may be more difficult.  It may require some kind of campaign to publicly acknowledge much of the good work that has, is, and will occur in Grand Rapids under the auspices of the college.  The specific barriers that Calvin faces may resonate with other liberal arts colleges.  The historical precedent for many liberal arts colleges is that they are isolated and unconcerned about the people and issues beyond their campus, but this is changing.

Liberal arts colleges face particular opportunities for future growth and development within their place. A number of themes emerged during the alumni interviews which could be embraced as opportunities. The first notable finding is that there needs to be a growing awareness of how the city enriches the college.   Some alumni seemed to hold a rather vague understanding of the importance of a college connecting with its city.  Even using the phrase ‘connecting with the city’ lacked definition and clarity. Some comments revealed a charity mentality—that is, that the college should ‘do more’ for the community—but not a clear sense of what that means or why this is necessary.  On the other hand, some articulated the need for a greater recognition and acknowledgement of what the city has to offer which does and can enrich the college.  This poses a challenge for a college, like Calvin, which tends to not see itself as being ‘needy.’  One respondent argued,

“I think it’s been rare for me to be working with Calvin professors…in a community situation or a project situation where you don’t feel that they feel that they could do it better if they were in charge…  somehow, Calvin has to be needy… but what does Calvin need from the community that would really make it better?  [If you ask that question you might have] a hard time finding people that would come up with something significant.”

So a liberal arts college needs to build more awareness of what it needs from the larger community and then be able to identify its own self-interest in the growth and development of the college-community connection. 

Some alumni argued that the college needs to be a physical presence downtown so that the city’s concerns actually become its concerns, as well.  This was articulated by some alumni as a counter balance to the geographical isolation that college’s location has created.

“I think the college should have a distinct physical presence somewhere in the central city… It’s already doing a little bit with the art faculty on South Division Avenue…I think the college needs to take that model, that sort of engagement and write that much bigger.  The college would do very well to have some form of facility where it can offer classes, where faculty members might …hold offices, particularly those faculty that are engaged in some sort of sabbatical research that has to do with the city, broadly defined… But there’s a tremendous skill base within the faculty and I don’t presume to know how much they’re engaged today but … to whatever level they’re engaged today, it’s not enough.” 

This comment confirms and builds on what others have said about the important contributions faculty members can make in helping the college to do a better job of being in the public square. 

Some alumni expressed an opportunity for Calvin to make strategic long-term commitments and to become better collaborators on issues of mutual concern.  Liberal arts colleges have a tremendous opportunity to deepen faculty teaching and scholarship if they identify the key strengths and challenges their city or community faces and then carefully and strategically plan a course of action to be engaged in addressing these issues. Several alumni spoke about the changing regional economy and wondered how the academic resources of a liberal arts college can be brought to bear on this conversation.  One particular challenge for most liberal arts college faculty is their teaching load leaves little time for community engagement unless creative ways are found to connect this work with the teaching and research demands faculty members     face. Finding ways to have college representatives at decision-making tables that influence the direction of city and regional issues can also be a challenge. For example, in this area there is a growing conversation about regional planning and the West Michigan Strategic Alliance has been created to be a catalyst for regional collaboration to make West Michigan the best place to live, learn, work, and play in the Midwest.  Local liberal arts colleges are not intimately involved in these conversations but they could play a significant role since colleges do have a vested interest in the economic, political, cultural and social strength of their region.  

Other alumni spoke about particular challenges in neighborhoods and raised concerns about how a college interacts with its immediate surrounding neighborhood in ways that are mutually beneficial and reciprocal, rather than exploitive. Some alumni suggested that the college has a unique educational opportunity to embody its mission by focusing on upper-level students who live off-campus in city neighborhoods and fostering in them a care for the place and the people who are their neighbors.  

There are a myriad of ways a college or university could become involved in its place.  The alumni interviewed generated a long list of possibilities which could be applicable in almost any institution of higher education. Their list includes inviting the larger community to the campus more; encouraging community groups and residents to use the college’s facilities; conducting survey research for community groups; collaborating more closely with the public schools;  providing English as a Second Language (ESL) services and training or serving as Spanish translators; and networking and partnering with other local colleges and universities. 

The key is for liberal arts colleges to identify the most important issues facing their city or region and then working to foster long-term mutually beneficial ways for the college to play its particular part to address them.  Liberal arts colleges need to find ways to be a presence in the place where they are embedded.    The case studies described later in this paper provide ideas and suggestions for making this a reality.


Next: City / Community Leaders Interviews