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"They little know of England who only England know,"-Rudyard Kipling

Not As Tourists
Calvin students see the world through International Study Programs

By Lynn Bolt Rosendale 85

It's an opportunity few have. In fact, only 10 percent of all adult Americans have ever experienced it.

This year alone though more than 600 Calvin students took advantage of the opportunity offered at the school-a chance to experience cultures outside the United States.

"There is tremendous value in knowing other than our own," said Ron Wells, a Calvin history professor who helped initiate the semester in England program.

Overseas off-campus programs have been growing at the college ever since the first group of 14 students traveled to France during the 1972 interim.

"I remember administrators being a little bit fearful of sending students out of the country like that," said Wells. "But what the college has come to find out is that there is danger not from knowing too much, but from knowing too little."

In , 19 international interim programs were offered. They varied in location from Ireland to Cairo to Paris to the Galapagos Islands.

The first whole semester overseas study program began in 1983. That spring about 30 Calvin students made their way to Spain to spend a semester immersed in Spanish culture.

"It's important for the students not to be tourists," said Marilyn Bierling, Calvin professor of Spanish and director of the semester in Spain program. "They need to really become part of the culture."

The program was a natural first choice because of the language element.

"For Spanish majors and minors it's important to get overseas experience if at all possible," she said. "Our program is the only Calvin-sponsored program that focuses on speaking a foreign language."

Students who spend a semester in Spain need not be Spanish majors or minors, however. It is also a way for students to meet the core requirement for a foreign language. In fact, initially that is how it was set up. An advanced language study program wasn't added until 1986.

Students in the program first spend the interim studying the culture and learning some basic language skills that can be used immediately upon entering the country, where they live individually with Spanish families in Denia for their entire semester-long stay.

"Because students live in homes with Spaniards it is important that they have some basic language background before they get there," said Bierling.

"Before I went I was nervous about that (living with a family)," said Calvin student Karen Waanders, who went to Spain this past spring. "It was absolutely incredible, though. Living with a family was a big part of the education. I learned about the culture, the way they do things and I was constantly exposed to the language. I think what I came away with most is an understanding of the way other people live."

That understanding, according to Wells, is the whole reason for Calvin's overseas programs. "How can a Calvinian not take the whole world into their domain?" he said. "If a liberal arts education is circumscribed between Woodland Mall and the East Beltline and Lake Drive (where Calvin is located), then the game is up and we lose."

Calvin's second semester-long program was introduced in 1989.

Like the Spanish program, immersion in the culture is the focus. "I require students to engage the culture," said Wells. "I require an essay on the history of a building in London. They attend plays which offer a variety of cultural comment."

Students in this program (about 15 each semester) live in the residence halls at Oak Hill College with British college students. They also attend classes with the students.

"London is a terrific place," said Wells, "and there is no language barrier. It makes for a great experience for any major."

Because of the interest in the first two programs, three more have been added in the last six years and enrollment has doubled in the last four years.

"We used to have to scrounge for students to fill them up," said Frank Roberts, director of off-campus programs. "Now we have waiting lists."

The reason for the increase is threefold, according to Roberts. "First we've been promoting them better," he said. "Second, word of mouth from students. Some students mistakenly see these as 'rich kids' programs. Actually, you can go on a Calvin program abroad for about what it costs for a semester on campus, and that includes travel. We have tried to make it available to any person who can afford to go to college. And third, international education is getting more and more common and more expected."

In fact, the trend to study abroad is taking off across the country. Still in a recent study, Calvin was ranked tenth nationally in a category of more than 400 schools for the percentage of students who are involved in international programs including interim.

"We didn't set out to achieve a ranking," said Roberts. "We have just discovered that, in general, overseas study broadens the horizons of the students tremendously."

In order to offer more culturally diverse programs to students, Calvin has started semester programs in Hungary, New Mexico and most recently Honduras.

While the New Mexico program is not an "out-of -the-country experience," it does offer an interesting look at Native American culture-a culture that is foreign to most students at Calvin.

The Hungary program, started in 1994, is located in Budapest, where students live in dormitories at a Hungarian university.

Classes are taught in English, but students are required to take a Hungarian language course.

"There is something subtle that happens to a person when they learn the language," said Kurt Schaefer, Calvin professor of economics and business, who helped initiate the program. "There is a warmth shown to you because you cared enough to attempt to learn the language."

Schaefer would like to see even more students become involved in a program like the Hungary one. "It is so important for American students to know a big world," he said. "American culture is so invasive that we can get away without being informed. It is imperative for an educated person not to enter adulthood that way. How are we going to do this without giving students the chance to see the world through the eyes of someone else?"

The Honduras program offers its own unique experience. "It's a way of getting past newspaper headlines about poverty in the Third World," said Roberts.

As with the Spanish program, students in Honduras live with native families. During the semester, students study development theories, not in the abstract, but as they play out in the Third World. The group visits banana plantations; shrimp farms; and agriculture, health and literacy projects of development organizations and analyzes their impact in the lives of the poor of Honduras.

"Our goal is to give students a basic understanding of Third World culture and history and then to go on to the next step-to plan things and think critically about what others are doing," said Kurt Ver Beek, the program director. "What has happened unintentionally is reflected in what students have said about the program. They have said that they feel like this is one of the first times they are being challenged to think critically about the United States' role in the world, about mission efforts and about well-intentioned efforts to help people which may not have good results."

The Honduras program, which has been in existence for two years, has been very popular. Each of the past two years the number of applicants has been more than double what is necessary to fill the 18 slots.

"It goes against what people told me," said Ver Beek. "I was told students in the '90s weren't interested in poverty and the Third World. What I have are students who are really struggling with U.S. materialism and the U.S. concept of success and even Christian lifestyles. They ask the questions about all of these issues and they want answers."

Trish Vanderkooy '00 was looking for answers to those very questions on her recent experience in Honduras.

"I was looking to clarify my career goals," she said. "I have always been interested in overseas work and this really led me towards international development."

Another benefit for Vanderkooy was the addition of increased independence, character building and critical thinking.

"I learned about respecting other countries and their cultures," she said. "Almost the whole world looks at us as the standard for living," she said. "Maybe we aren't giving these countries enough credit for what they have to offer."

Like others, Vanderkooy found that most of her learning took place outside the classroom.

"You have to have a passion to learn," she said. "If you go up and talk to people on the street or if you go to a local church or talk to your taxi driver, you're going to learn a lot. I found the weekend excursions really stretched and challenged me too."

In fact, most of the students' evaluations from all of the international programs come back strongly positive. "A life-changing experience" is the most repeated phrase in the comments section.

Because the response has been so strong Calvin plans to offer a semester program in Ghana in the fall of 2000. A new addition of East Asia is also in the works.

"God's world is very diverse," said Roberts, "especially if you can see it from more than just a textbook."

Added Wells: "If people think that the real McCoy Calvin education goes on only at Calvin, then we are missing the point of liberal arts education. They little know of Knollcrest who only Knollcrest know."


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