June 12, 2009 | Matt Decker
Roland Hoksbergen was 15 years old in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In an attempt to understand what was going on around him, Hoksbergen attended a rally in his hometown of Lansing, Mich., for George Wallace—a man Hoksbergen describes as a “southern racist governor running for President.”
“I never really could understand why we needed to be fighting about this,” said Professor Roland Hoksbergen about the civil rights movement. “It was sort of beyond me: why this was an issue, in anybody’s mind, that a whole group of people should be suppressed as they were.”
Hoksbergen has dedicated his life since then to helping the underprivileged across the globe.
“We all live in a world and we all interact and affect each other. What we do in the United States at a governmental level, and a business level, at a church level, at an individual level has huge impacts on people around the world,” said Hoksbergen.
“He has a real passion for the issue because he realizes that it matters,” said political science professor Amy Patterson, who serves on the International Development Studies committee. “Economic development and social development and local development matter for real people. It matters if people get enough to eat. It matters if they are going to get their kids immunized or if they are going to live beyond 35 years. For him it is not just about theories or economic models.”
Hoksbergen began gaining hands-on experience in 1976 after a massive earthquake struck Guatemala and approximately 30,000 people perished. He was taking time off from Calvin after having completed his initial two years, and knew that he wanted to help people when he received an opportunity to travel with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC).
He lived in Guatemala for a year working on reconstruction of block homes. “We were trying to help people get decent places to live again,” he said. He had the opportunity to live with “one of the nicest families in the community” and ended up marrying one of their five daughters, Lisseth. They have two children together, Laura Maria, who is 27 and a Calvin alumna, and Juan David who is 21.
Hoksbergen went abroad again in 1986, this time to Costa Rica where he worked with student programs for three years. He came back to Calvin in 1989 with an interest in setting up a program oriented towards development. “Not just economics, not just population studies, but focused especially on how it all comes together in the development program,” he said.
In 1993 the development studies minor program started. Even though Hoksbergen is an economics professor, he sees his purpose as being in development. “If I had to pick an identity, it would be more the IDS program identity,” he said. “That was my interest when I studied economics. Economics was my way of getting into development. I came here to teach economics and then gradually moved in that direction.”
In 1995 Hoksbergen went abroad with the CRWRC again, this time to Nicaragua. Hoksbergen, then in his mid-40s, thought in Nicaragua about what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. “At that point I decided, for a lot of reasons, that the right thing for me to do was to come back to Calvin and to try to establish a full-blown development program,” he said. He knew that Calvin faculty and student interest was increasing. “I came back here in 1997 with a sense of mission or purpose to try to get a major program going,” he said. By the fall of 2005, the major was on the books.
“I came to Calvin in 2001,” said Patterson, “I remember when I came, he sort of hunted me down pretty early on because he knew I was interested in development and African politics.”
As the director of the International Development Studies Program, Hoksbergen has had the privilege of watching the program grow to house 100 majors and graduate 32 seniors this past May. Apart from the day-to-day tasks of keeping a program running, Hoksbergen sees his purpose as being a source of encouragement to students to get involved and to be aware of the world. “Also, to help them find ways to actually get involved in that part of life in a career way, a vocation, when they are done at Calvin,” he said.
Patterson has seen him in action.
“He has this unique ability to really see where the students are and to recognize their gifts and recognize that some of them are going to go on and be policy makers, but some of them are going to do really hands on things, and that they are going to do all kinds of things in between,” said Patterson. “He is really good at taking students where they are, and nurturing them, and encouraging them. I am constantly amazed at just how well he knows all of the students in the major.”
Knowing the students and helping others make a difference flow from how Hoksbergen views the world as a follower of Christ.
“I know with great conviction that every person out there is an image bearer of God,” said Hoksbergen. “God created us to live together and to care about each other. When I was 15, why did I care? I don’t know. But it seems awfully natural that people that are God’s children, who are followers of Jesus, would not have to fight that or convince themselves that they ought to care. It is a natural thing. To me you’d have to give me an explanation for how can it be that you don’t care for people? That is what needs an explanation, and I don’t understand it.”
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