Students learn to wrangle a horse, clean a toilet and serve as leaders at the Leadership Challenge Institute at Snow Mountain Ranch.
The time is 5:20 a.m. High on a mountainous peak, a small group of Calvin students slowly ease into wakefulness. Their noses, fingers and toes are chilled to the bone, and dew glistens on their sleeping bags. As the group blearily packs up camp and begins the trek down the hill, faint snatches of the morning sun flicker over the treetops. For just a moment, they pause near a small pond. Steam rises from the water as the sun rises in the sky.
“It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced,” wrote Lisi Wiersma. “Everything was quiet and still. Maybe it was the promise of a warm bed and not working until noon … but I think it was more than that. I think I was in awe of the creation around me and I doubt I was the only one who took notice of that beautiful morning.”
Lisi is just one Calvin student who contributed reflections and stories for the blog chronicling this summer’s Leadership Challenge Institute (LCI) in Colorado. Her words, like those of her peers, speak of a summer filled with change, challenges and beautiful scenery.
Calvin’s LCI takes place each year at Snow Mountain Ranch, YMCA of the Rockies. Snow Mountain Ranch—all 5,000 acres of it—is a family camp and conference center nestled in the heart of the mountains, just north of Winter Park, Colo. Each summer, Calvin students leave “normal” summers behind to spend 10 weeks living and working on the ranch. During their stay in the mountains, they also participate in leadership training.
Trained as leaders
Thirty-four students undertook the journey this summer. All students must apply to be accepted into the program. Once accepted, they are assigned a job at Snow Mountain Ranch based on their interests and skills. A broad range of jobs are available, including housekeepers, horse wranglers, camp leaders, lifeguards and cooks. In addition to a summer job, students receive free housing, meals and access to the camp facilities.
This summer marks the 11th year of Calvin’s partnership with Snow Mountain Ranch. Started by Glenn Triezenberg, director of career services, the program is now administered by residence life staff members John Witte and Christopher Klein.
While 40 hours of each week on the ranch are consumed by work, Calvin students come together every Monday night for LCI. Each Monday features a different speaker and a different leadership topic.
According to Klein, while students in previous years enjoyed living and working at Snow Mountain Ranch, they wanted more coherence in the leadership training from week to week.
“It was important to have an overarching theme for the entire 10 weeks,” said Klein. “I wanted to find something that was rooted in Calvin’s mission while also relevant to modern leadership.”
Virtues come alive
Klein asked each of the seven speakers to look to the virtues listed in Calvin’s core curriculum. Each seminar was to be structured around the question “What does leadership look like as an act of [insert virtue]?”
“I’m fascinated by how different people will answer the same question in different ways,” said Klein. “This prompt was designed to make Calvin’s virtues come alive.”
This year’s LCI speakers were Chris Klein; Steve Peterson, chaplain of Snow Mountain Ranch; Julie Walton, professor of kinesiology; John Witte, dean of residence life; Glenn Triezenberg, director of career services; Chad Tatko, professor of chemistry; and Henry DeVries, vice president of finance, administration and information services.
For Klein, the hybrid program of work and leadership training at Snow Mountain Ranch often proves more challenging than students expect.
“There’s this great conflict going on,” said Klein. “Our students are cleaning toilets or changing bed linens every day and wondering ‘What does this have to do with leadership? Aren’t these the kind of tasks you become a leader to avoid?’”
For sophomore Katie Van Zanen, this question was only answered over the course of the summer. Looking back, she thinks that leadership can be exhibited even in the most seemingly mundane places.
“I think leadership is an inherent calling for a Christian,” said Van Zanen. “It encompasses all areas of life. To be a leader is our responsibility. It’s an act of gratitude to fulfill your calling and thoughtfully live out your faith. [A leader] tries to model a good life for others. You can, and should, do this in all places at all times, even if you’re cleaning toilets.”
The best summer
In addition to her role as a recreation assistant at the ranch, Van Zanen also served as the group scribe for the summer, writing and compiling blog entries.
“The blog was a reminder for me of why I had chosen to participate in the summer,” she said. “It forced me to rearticulate those goals … it was a wonderful thing for me as a writer to participate in, and I think it lent a profundity to the experiences I wrote about.”
Despite all the challenges, junior Kelly Johnson, one of two student leaders for the program, would do it all over again. She encourages other students to look into the program.
“It might be one of the most adventurous things you ever do,” Johnson said. “I worked with people from all over the world, camped outside on a mountain under the Milky Way and climbed mountains with elevations of over 14,000 feet! It might be extremely out of your comfort zone, but with prayer and courage, it could turn out to be the best summer of your entire life.”