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

Student Interviews: Fostering  an awareness and embrace of place

The student interviews focused on an exploration of how students learn to identify with their place, their perceptions of how their particular actions contribute to the public good or public harm, the role of their liberal arts education in helping them live as involved citizens of a particular place, and how they form ethical commitments that are transferable to other places and times.

More than 45 Calvin College students were interviewed in this stage of the study and they represent all class levels, freshmen through seniors, various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and both genders.  In particular, we were looking for evidence that reveals students’ awareness of place, an articulation of their ethical commitments and the role of a liberal arts college in fostering these commitments. The findings reveal that the formation of ethical and civic commitments by students is directly connected to (but not limited to) three things:  liberal arts curriculum, place-based pedagogical strategies and experiences beyond the classroom.  See Appendix B for a bulleted summary of key themes uncovered.

The students interviewed articulated that the liberal arts curriculum has played a formative role in their lives and this is expressed in many and varying ways.  One set of responses had to do with what could be a called a de-centering of the self, or at least developing a perspective beyond oneself.  Respondents spoke in varied ways about how their liberal arts education has impacted them.

“[My] liberal arts education really stretched and opened up my eyes to some things in the community … or [it] just helps me see things differently….” 

“The liberal arts gave me certain ideas about altruism and justice.”

“The liberal arts curriculum “increase[d] my perspective about just caring for people.” 

“The liberal arts allows for all the voices to be heard.” 

 “I’ve seen needs…how does that connect to the particular place that I’m in, in Grand Rapids and the people that live here?” 

“It just broadens your view … and it forces you to be more of a well-rounded person. …. And so you’re not as me-centered….”

“My liberal arts education has shown me that it’s important that I am involved with my community. I think in both taking up our role as citizen of the kingdom and citizens of the place we find ourselves in, I think that my liberal arts education has shown me various needs throughout Calvin, throughout Grand Rapids, throughout the US, and throughout the world.” 

These comments reveal that one outcome of a liberal arts education for some students has been the development of empathy for others and the ability to think beyond themselves. 

“The liberal arts fostered an entire mentality that I’m not out to just get a job and be well paid and whatnot but that it’s actually important to be involved with other people and interacting with the community.  … [it taught me] what it is to care about other people and not simply be focused on your own goals or your own self-affirming actions….”  

 The message here seems to be that liberal arts education had a palpable, albeit general, benefit of helping foster not only a broadening of perspective, but one which the student saw him or herself as less the center of things. Its strength, from these responses, seemed to be its ability to break through the “me first” individualism and self-serving strategic interests that a student might have first brought to his or her educational experience and generating a sense that life ought to be oriented outward.

Another emergent theme was the benefit of the integrative and theoretical character of the liberal arts.  Liberal arts helped students see the inter-connectedness of the world and of knowledge.

“I think with liberal arts education you learn a discipline but you learn how the rest of the world is working too.  You get the sense that the whole world is interconnected.” 

“[My core classes] opened my eyes to thinking [about] particular environmental problems and social problems as well”

“[My intro course in biology] helped me be a lot more, I don’t know, just aware and concerned about my personal use of certain resources that we didn’t have very much of….” 

Further in what seemed to be a surprise to the students themselves, the prototypically theoretical courses actually aided in understanding the particular and the local.

[Professor_____] ended up making it [philosophy] something that was so practical and applicable to our lives that it made it a lot more obvious that philosophy can help us become better people, but also better at interacting with people or creation or place…”  

This points to a tension in the liberal arts between the global and the local, the universal and the particular. On the one hand, the liberal arts often deal with issues in an abstract and global perspective, forcing the student into abstractions and broad thinking. The obvious benefits include a theoretical perspective that gives the student a powerful set of analytic tools to think through a broad set of issues. However, the tension shows in the surprising notations about the often ‘practical’ nature of some of these supposedly theoretical courses. By implication we might conclude that students expect the usual result of liberal arts is a focus on the global and universal with little attention paid to the local and particular. It might prepare students to be citizens of the world and think through global issues more than connecting to the particular, local issues of the more immediate surroundings.

A third theme was the general benefit of broadening one’s perspective and gaining a ‘big picture’ understanding, including learning how to think.  Students made numerous comments describing how liberal arts education has been formative for them.

“It teaches you how to think and how to live [and answer questions like], ‘What does it mean to be a citizen?’ ‘Who am I?’… The liberal arts have been so influential because it has allowed me to explore different disciplines and see these underlying themes throughout….”

 “What it brings is a more holistic perspective to what’s going in and around the city.”

 “[The liberal arts] opened my eyes to see that it’s really not only doctors that can help. A writer, for example, writing story about a family in need [can] spark a … response from people.”

 “A liberal arts education has given  my experiences a broader context culturally, politically, and socially.” 

The general story here seems to be that students feel that the liberal arts helps them develop a broadened perspective on how to live generally and to see connections and opportunities that hadn’t been considered before. When the liberal arts curriculum is a significant and central part of a student’s education, even in a professional program, it impacts how students view the world and their place in it.

For current students the relationship between liberal arts and place (in particular, Grand Rapids as the city within which they are living) is expressed in cautiously positive terms. The cautiousness comes out in the focus on general benefits – a broadened perspective, a holism, increased thinking ability, a de-centering of self – rather than on the ability to articulate a list of particular, more tangible and immediate benefits. The nature of liberal arts is such that it is a set of general studies, embedded in disciplines that are themselves abstract and theoretical. The liberal arts, at Calvin also, emphasize the global and the universal. And so it would be of no surprise that the students’ responses would reflect this. Yet they thought that the liberal arts contributed positively, in precisely that way, to their understanding of the particular and their possible involvements, if not embeddedness, in this particular place. The contrast between the general and the particular is a creative tension that is interesting and worthwhile.

Another important finding is that place-based pedagogical strategies build an ethic of care among students.  Academically based service-learning is one strategy that has been quite successful at Calvin in fostering within students an ethic of care for particular people and particular places. At Calvin, we have seen rapid growth in the Academically Based Service-Learning program in recent years. Calvin faculty have contributed to the public discourse about higher education’s  connections to contemporary civic, social, economic, and moral problems through the 2002 publication of Commitment and Connection: Service-Learning and Christian Higher Education. “Our experience has shown us that service-learning can be a bridge connecting faculty and students in concrete ways to issues and problems faced by people who, like us, struggle to make sense of their life experiences” (Heffner and Beversluis, eds. 2002, p.x).  

During the student interviews many students commented on the value of the first-year orientation program, StreetFest, where they first encountered the college’s commitment to its place and to the practice of service within it.  Students noted that though this experience was generally a good introduction, it doesn’t necessarily lead students to ongoing involvement in the larger community and the issues it faces. Those faculty who utilize academically based service-learning as a pedagogical strategy provide opportunities for students to become involved with community people or community organizations and a number of students spoke about the impact this has had on them. These examples reveal something of the value the students themselves place on such experiences. 

“I had an English 101 course where we read a lot about New Urbanism and we did interviewing for service-learning and I really appreciated that. The concerns that I have about connecting with the neighborhood that I’m in now, have come from those kinds of educational experiences.”

I took a Music and Community class and [we went] to different churches or schools and did interactive music sessions with people …so it was really neat to interact with people from all different backgrounds.” 

“I did a project with my Social Psychology Class last fall with Safe Haven Ministries which is a domestic abuse shelter and I’m actually still volunteering there now.”  

Interviews with Calvin students regarding the students’ perceptions of the existing connections between their college and its city revealed a range of patterns in responses. In general, students gave one of two responses to questions concerning the intersection of liberal arts and place depending on their background, current living situation, and experience with course work.  Either they drew distinctions between the liberal arts and caring for a particular place, or they were able to articulate a unified understanding of the liberal arts and place.  In other words, some described liberal arts as a balanced, well-rounded education but distinct from caring for issues and people in this place such as participation in the local economy or performing acts of service.   Other students articulated a clear understanding of the connection between liberal arts and place.

“[Without a set of liberal arts requirements] I wouldn’t have gotten to take classes on Sociology and Geography and History, and just a variety of classes that have forced me to think about where I live and forced me to care about [it].” 

“The most important lesson I understand about liberal arts education is that everything is connected, every field of study, every activity, everything.  And liberal arts education encourages cultivating intellectual, personal growth in a wide variety of areas, and I guess that sort of cultivation needs to be applied.  It’s applied within the community of the school, but I think that there’s a lot of valuable things that liberal arts education offers that would sort of have external benefits more if that view is taken out of the classroom into the neighborhoods.”

Another pedagogical strategy that fosters an ethic of care within students is faculty using the local place as a teaching tool.  Faculty members in various liberal arts disciplines have used this pedagogical strategy and a number of students commented on the impact on their thinking and life.  We will describe three quite different examples here.  The first example is from a biology student.

“I’ve been involved with the Plaster Creek Watershed doing a floristic quality survey [of the plants] for one of my biology classes”

The student went on to speak with enthusiasm about the findings of this research. Discovering rare plant species that no one knew about previously not only had an impact on the student but it made a significant contribution to decision-makers working on the watershed management plan. 

The second example describes the role of the Nursing Department in addressing childhood lead poisoning, which is a significant issue of public concern in Michigan and in our city, Grand Rapids, which has the second highest incidence in the state. A nursing student said,

“Our professors work with the Get the Lead Out Coalition this year we're actually doing some lead assessments and doing some home teachings.” 

Having faculty tie their teaching to specific issues of importance to the local area, such as childhood lead poisoning, leads students to think differently about their education and the importance of the work they do.

The third example is of a sculpture student who described a project his class worked on in urban Grand Rapids and then described how this affected him.

“There is a certain energy and excitement about the PLANT! project and [we have] ownership that this is our project.   We are doing something important and something special…And at the same time I have been able to apply to this sculpture project the reading that I did [in other classes].”  

Some students articulate appreciation when they are able to see connections between the learning in one discipline or class and the learning in another. All these examples highlight the contribution to student learning that can be fostered when the particulars of place are used as teaching tools. Note some of these examples are described in more detail in the case studies that appear later in the white paper. 

Students also articulate that their experiences in sustained off-campus study have contributed to their developing an ethic of care and this was explained by students in several ways.   One student described the empathy that she gained upon her return home for people living in the U.S. who are non-native speakers. 

“[Empathy] came mainly through my experience in Spain… The whole study abroad thing was good for so many reasons…it gave me a much more accurate and compassionate perspective about other people who are struggling [to learn a new language in the United States].”  

Another student connected what was learned in a core class in biology to issues experienced during a semester abroad program and how this raised new questions upon returning to the U.S. 

“My Biology 111 class [was a] core class …in particular, we spent some time talking about environmental issues that I had never really learned very much about before.  And we did some stuff with global warming, but even also talking about,  let’s see, the amount of fresh water that’s available in the world and …recognizing the problems and issues associated with that I’d never been super aware of before…so the things that I had learned in my biology class helped open my eyes and make me more aware of the fact that even if I did have fresh water available to me here, there’s no reason why I should be wasteful with that. And then being in [Europe], in that place where suddenly I didn’t have that much fresh water available to me. It helped me understand more about, you know, like this really is a real problem.”  

One key finding is that sustained off-campus study or experience, whether the place is near or far, can significantly contribute to students building an ethic of care.

“When I was in Belize we learned how to more fully articulate and develop the idea that if you feel an attachment to the place where you live it makes sense that you would want to take care of that place, serve it…and preserve it.” 

These comments point to the value of students having a extended experience of off-campus study or off-campus work in a place new to them in order to be able to recognize and identify with the strengths and issues of their own place.

The third important finding evident in the student interviews is that experience beyond the classroom fosters important connections, both to place and to people.  This can be seen in the comments they make about the influence particular faculty members have on them and in the choices students make about their living situation, their work, and their church commitments.  Faculty influence cannot be underestimated. A number of students interviewed shared stories and examples of professors who encouraged them to think carefully about how to make important decisions regarding their life priorities and their ethical commitments. This influence includes what occurs in the classroom but also goes beyond at times.

“The reason that she [a Calvin professor] has had even more impact on me is because of the model that she has set in her life and allowing me and other students to get to know her on a more personal level.”

A few of the students told stories about observing their professors’ lifestyles and noticing that they walked or rode bikes to work. Watching their professor’s arrive at school in this fashion caused some students to think about using public transportation or using their own cars less.  In addition to faculty members serving as role models, some students described the mentoring role faculty members play in their lives.

“She has encouraged me through her involvement in the community. We have talked a lot about social justice and things in Grand Rapids and figuring out how we can help here.”  

The students noted that this personal out-of-the-classroom interaction had a strong influence on helping them determine their own ethical commitments.

Students also mentioned additional experiences beyond the classroom such as work or church involvements as playing a role in fostering connections both to place and to people.   For some, involvement in a local church was influential in their becoming involved in community issues.

“[Cambridge] is a church that intentionally focuses on the community…and I want to be a part of it. And through the interactions and experiences there I know I’ve grown.”

“I became aware of issues in Grand Rapids through work at [Oxford Park] Church.  They really push a lot of being involved not only in the community but in AIDS and social justice and helping to recognize problems in the world.”

For others, where they have chosen to work has been influential in their forming important connections to the place.   One Grand Rapids native described an epiphany that coincided with the decision to leave college temporarily to work. 

“When I was a sophomore at Calvin, I dropped out of school and I started an art gallery on Division Avenue downtown, and I lived above it with some friends, a couple of them were Calvin graduates and some were Calvin students… I’ve been involved in the Division Avenue Arts Cooperative, the Heartside Promotions Community. I work at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts now.  I was an intern, when I came back to Calvin I was an intern for the RAPID, the Grand Rapids Transit Authority.  I was involved with the Grand Valley Metro Council, so I’ve been involved with the community of people interested in working in Grand Rapids, and also through that involved with the neighborhood association where I lived.”

Some students also clearly came with prior life experience that influenced their predilection to concern themselves (or not) with place or with community.  The most interesting cases in this theme were the students who had grown up in the same city as the college – Grand Rapids.  These students seemed to be either foreclosed in their understanding of where the city’s strengths and weaknesses were located or they were very surprised and interested to be discovering areas, strengths, and resources within the city of which they had no prior knowledge.  One Grand Rapids student discussed her reasons for not taking public transportation or visiting certain parks in stark terms of fear and danger.  She noted that there are

“…pockets of just not really great areas in Grand Rapids, like downtown, like Division it gets kind of gross and shady and … they’re doing a good job of starting to [improve] the kind of nasty areas, they’re starting to revamp them and make them more, you know, people friendly… But I wouldn’t want to walk there by myself or even just with another girlfriend or something through my neighborhood like towards the ML King Park side, after dark I wouldn’t do that…”   

Students’ prior experience and their stereotypes can lead them to become involved or to avoid becoming involved in their place.

It is noteworthy that a number of students referred to the impact of their choice of living situation as being influential in what matters to them.   At Calvin College, most freshmen and sophomores live on campus in college-owned residence halls.  Upper-level students have three choices—they can continue to live on campus in college-owned apartments, they can move off-campus to a college-owned apartment complex close to campus, or they can move off-campus into a neighborhood.  In our study, we identified students’ choice of living situation as one of the strongest factors determining their awareness of city issues and their articulation of ethical commitments and civic engagement. For students who lived on campus throughout their college experience, their perceptions of the existing connections between their college and its city were somewhat limited.   Students frequently used the image of a bubble to describe the feeling of always being on the campus, and this sentiment was almost universally used in a negative light. 

“As cute as it is that it’s a bubble, it’s also nice to get out – pop it.”  

For students who chose to move off campus, their perspectives on the city and region changed significantly.

“The simple fact of moving off-campus made me much more aware of what Grand Rapids is like, what its assets are and what its downfalls are.”

A few students articulated a relationship between their place and their habits and choices.  Particularly students who were experiencing a larger percentage of their average day in urban environments understood that the images and places that they more frequently saw were more likely to enter their consciousness as places and communities to care for and about. Living off-campus can be a broadening experience for most students.  Proximity can build understanding and empathy.

“I lived on campus and everything I needed or everything that I did was either on campus or somewhere near campus. When I moved off campus as a junior that connection [to the city] became much more obvious and important.”

 “I think that once you move off campus and you get plugged into a neighborhood you realize, I’m living on this street and I’ve got a single mom and her two kids next to me.  What can I do to interact with them?” 

If you want to learn about someone you actually have to live where they are.”

As the students noted proximity to issues within the city like poverty or education was an important factor in their developing a sense of care for these issues and transferring that care into action. 

Interestingly, the students we interviewed who grew up in the Grand Rapids area but were currently living in the on-campus housing were less aware of city issues and were less involved in the city than students who currently lived off-campus.  Among the students who lived off-campus, their awareness of city issues and involvement in the city increased as their location was further from campus. 

Alternatively, some students articulated a sense in which the stress and burdens of their academic and personal lives “within the bubble” precluded them from taking full care and responsibility for any particular place outside the bubble as engaged citizens within their communities. These comments reveal the impact a student’s living situation has on their understanding of a place and its people, of what’s important and of what’s insignificant and of what demands a response and of what can be ignored.  It is interesting to note that alumni often made similar comments—that where they chose to live during college had an impact on their perceptions, their attitudes, and their decisions on whether or not to take action on any particular issue.

We have seen through these in-depth student interviews that several key themes dominate the findings. 


These student interviews offer insights for liberal arts colleges interested in building future leaders who will act with knowledge, skills, and virtues to work towards a more equitable society.


Next: Alumni Interviews