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News & Stories: 2009-10

Serving and learning in southeast Asia
May 28, 2010

When he is in Indonesia this summer, Kevin Van Harn will try to remember not to point with his finger. “It’s very disrespectful,” said Van Harn, a 21-year-old Calvin senior majoring in secondary education. “Always point with an open palm,” he explained, demonstrating with one hand, then the other. Van Harn, who will be working in a summer enrichment program, also plans to keep his head down (another sign of respect), and to refrain from touching children on the head.

Corey Poelman, Kevin Van Harn and Maria Geleynse"The head is where the spirit dwells, and you never touch the head.” agreed Corrie Poelman, a 21-year-old junior philosophy and sociology major, who is off to Malaysia to teach English.

Training week

Van Harn and Poelman are two of the 13 Calvin students who are preparing to do service-learning in southeast Asia for 10 weeks this summer. Four students, including junior Kait Botma and seniors Ben Shoemaker and Katy Carlson and Van Harn, will be working at Sekolah Pelita Harapan, a Christian school in Indonesia. Six students, including sophomores Emily Clark and Amanda DeVries and seniors Maria Geleynse, Nicole Lenko, Alyssa Massey and Jordan Wood, will work at Mother’s Choice, a Hong Kong-based, non-profit organization that provides support to young women during crisis pregnancies. And three students, including Poelman and sophomores Emily Granger and Emily Larson, will teach English at The Language Studio in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

"They’re going to get a real experience of working with these organizations,” said Calvin director of off-campus programs Don De Graaf. “The programs that they’re running would be happening even if they didn’t go, but we’re just coming along and working with them.”

The program, designed on Calvin’s service-learning model, gives students an opportunity to work with and learn from local staff in international settings. “In addition, the program offers Calvin an opportunity to further build relationships with like-minded organizations in Southeast Asia,” De Graaf added.

The briefing on cultural taboos was part of the students’ four days of training in cross cultural competence, training that touched on subjects such as training in an ESL context, working with children, behavior management, risk management, finances, travel and safety tips, representing Calvin well and having fun.

The views, the wildlife, the challenge

Van Harn is looking forward to how the final category is represented on his trip. Specifically, he’s looking forward to visiting a nature preserve in Sumatra. “Apparently, we’ll see the wildlife,” he said. Geleynse is eager to see the view of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor. The students are also anticipating the challenge of being in an unfamiliar culture. “You have to be flexible,” said Poelman. “You don’t know what to expect. We’re getting ready by keeping open minds.”

She also confessed to a little anxiety: “I don’t like the feeling of going to a place and being an outside with so many expectations placed on me. But being an outsider has some advantages. We’re looking forward to the hospitality—both receiving and giving it.”

As part of their training, the students read chapters of the book Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity, a book about Christian hospitality authored by Calvin Germanic and Asian languages professor David Smith. “I hope they’ll come back with eyes wide open to the challenges but also the opportunities of experiences like this,” said De Graaf.

Swimmer can travel

Asia summer service-learning studentsThe southeast Asia service-learning program was created because of a student request, he said. In 2008, the year De Graaf was named director of off-campus programs, a young woman approached him with a quandary. She was a swimmer with a yen to travel internationally, but her team’s training and competition schedule prevented her from taking a semester, or even an interim off. ‘Could we do something in the summer?’ De Graaf remembers her asking.

The following year he sent four students to Mother’s Choice in Hong Kong. “They did a tremendous job. They were awesome,” he said. "Mother’s Choice wanted more.” He’s gratified with the program’s expansion, and he’d love to see it grow further:

"The dream for me would be if we had 20 to 25 students going out in the summer doing service learning; that would provide opportunities for students, and would give Calvin an additional presence overseas,” he said.

The students' room and board and part of their airfare will be covered by the agencies. “They’re getting a four-to six week experience in Asia, and it will cost them $1,500,” said De Graaf. “I’m excited for them. I wish I was going with them.”

~by Myrna Anderson, communications and marketing

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