A Laboratory for Living
Calvin’s student life division seeks to enhance discipleship, service and leadership
By Myrna DeVries Anderson '00


“When you first meet the incoming 18-year-old, you can just see the potential, but it’s pretty untested. Then you watch them get involved with some sort of small group on campus, and they test their wings. When they’re juniors, they are more intentional about their classwork and their life choices. When I see those graduating seniors who have made the most of their education through purposeful choices and service back to the Calvin community and outwardly to the larger community, I hate to see them go. I walk around on graduation day, wondering if we’ll ever get another group as good as this group, and every year we do.” — Shirley Hoogstra

They number 81 professionals from eight distinct departments, and among them they share the job of supporting Calvin students in the many realities — academic, social, spiritual, vocational, athletic and even silly — that make up their lives. Calvin students number 4,189 individuals from 55 countries, and the many ways they intersect with student life — the people who plan cookouts, teach orientation, book concerts, train leaders, foster diversity, share pizza, offer career advice, give shots and supervise residence halls — takes them in some interesting directions.

“We have high-intensity caring at Calvin College,” said Shirley Hoogstra, Calvin’s vice president for student life, about the division and the students it tends. “Not done perfectly by any means, but done intentionally. What gets the student life staff up in the morning is their deep commitment to invest in the lives of the students God brings into their pathway.”

When Hoogstra arrived at Calvin in 1999, forgoing a law career in Connecticut to head up student life, she found herself in an already thriving division. “There was a very solid program with a mature group of professionals at the helm,” she said, “and I wanted to make sure that the good work of the division was understood.”

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Hoogstra also wanted to ensure that the various entities within student life understood each others’ work and that they worked collaboratively. “We like to think of student life as a honeycomb, in which all our efforts are interconnected,” Hoogstra said. Because of this integrated approach, the staffs of residence life, student development, the Broene Center, the chaplain’s office, career services, health services, judicial affairs and campus safety all undergo leadership training together. And when one student life department conceives a project, another student life department lends a hand.

Each department, for example, takes a role in student orientation and in teaching Prelude, an introduction to the Reformed worldview for first-year students. Dean of student development Bob Crow’s work with Calvin’s off-campus student population (work that involves everything from planning activities for commuter students to handling landlord woes) is aided by spiritual development coordinators from the office of spiritual formation. Health services and the Broene Counseling Center work in tandem when both a student’s physical and emotional health needs tending.

And perhaps no student life department represents the honeycomb concept as well as residence life, whose residence directors, for example, share residence halls with an array of colleagues representing the student life universe. The older students who make up the Barnabas Team, a program from the office of spiritual formation, form spiritual mentoring relationships with younger students. Community partnership coordinators from the service-learning center maintain the residence halls’ service partnership with community organizations. Student leaders from the office of multicultural student development and the student activities office also live in the halls and train students in their areas of expertise.

“If student life stands for anything at Calvin College, it stands for enhancing discipleship, service and leadership within the student body,” — Shirley Hoogstra

“It’s hard to be all things for all people,” said John Witte, Calvin dean for residence life, about the multilayered Calvin living experience, “but this is a kind of life and a kind of experience that you’re getting that teaches you about community, about other people living together, about your faith.”

The busyness within the divisional honeycomb has a purpose. “If student life stands for anything at Calvin College, it stands for enhancing discipleship, service and leadership within the student body,” Hoogstra said. “We do this by partnering with the classroom content and giving students a laboratory to live it out.”

The division offers students discipleship opportunities through Bible studies, chapel, other worship and prayer opportunities, and mentoring. “Discipleship takes hard work, and it often comes because of struggle,” Hoogstra said, “so if students are having a hard time at school or in classes, or in personal relationships, that oftentimes leads to a closer relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Calvin students learn service through myriad student life efforts: They tutor and plan activities with community organizations through the residence hall community partnerships. “The work of these partnerships is ongoing and under the radar,” said Jeff Bouman, director of the service-learning center. “It’s one student, for instance, who has committed herself to one kid at Camelot Woods (an after-school program) and sees him every week.” Students also work in inner-city Grand Rapids organizations, including the local public schools, and much farther afield at nonprofits in Mexico, Louisiana, Tennessee and other places through service-learning spring break trips.

“To do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God is the mark of a Christian,” Hoogstra said. “And Calvin students should carry the mark of a Christian in their service opportunities.”

There are also abundant student opportunities to serve as a leader within the student life honeycomb: Students lead many programs of the service-learning center. Students lead the multicultural book club Readers for Reconciliation. Students lead a host of student organizations, from Equestrian Club to the Social Justice Coalition and from the Asia Club to the Visual Arts Guild. Students also lead their fellow students in worship and discipleship through several student leadership programs of the Lilly Vocation Project, among them the Barnabas Teams and worship apprentices, who plan on-campus worship.

“The key to developing students will never simply be professional staff. The key will always be peer-to-peer development,” Hoogstra said of the range of student leadership at Calvin. Student leadership has a lasting influence, not only on the organizations and functions of the college, she added, but on the leaders themselves. “Leadership takes courage,” she said, “and courage is like a muscle: If you never use it, it’s not very strong. But if you exercise courage in everyday life, you become better at it and more equipped to stand up when it counts or to make tough decisions when they’re unpopular or to speak truth into a peer’s life.”

The remodeled Johnny'sAs the student life vision unfolds in actual student lives, the division has worked to expand existing facilities to accommodate both staff and students’ needs. Two years ago and 35 years after they were built, the student life offices were renovated. Last year, the campus store and Johnny’s, an on-campus café, also received a (student-designed) makeover. “We have tripled our sales in Johnny’s, and the desire to be in that space has grown exponentially because it is an inviting, warm space for conversation and repose,” Hoogstra said.

She is hopeful that the next building project will be the transformation of the campus commons, which houses both student development offices and a busy cluster of student organizations. “We need the new building to provide far better space for students,” Hoogstra said. “Student organizations such as the newspaper, the student senate and the other 53 student organizations will hopefully have their own common space to work and plan together.”

The visionaries behind the new commons, including student life staff, see the facility as a hub of information, activity and conversation, a place where students can meet, organize and create. “But it should also be the antidote to the overscheduled life,” Hoogstra said. “And that’s why we want to have quiet spaces by a fireplace, a place for students to talk face-to-face, rooms for group study and places to plan events for the community.”

The new campus commons will ultimately allow the students to build their own version of the honeycomb, she said: “You need to have space to be creative.”

— Myrna Anderson is Calvin's staff writer

Jeanna AbbasJeanna Abbas
Student Intern
Career Development Office

“It doesn’t feel like it’s a job really. Going to work there every day, it’s always something different. You’re around beautiful plants, beautiful sculpture, beautiful food,” said senior Jeanna Abbas about her internship at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mich. Abbas has worked in several internships arranged through Calvin’s career development office. “Before my first internship, I really knew nothing about what it was like to work in a business environment. I’ve always had teenager-type jobs: greenhouses, restaurant work, waitressing, that type of thing. You have a lot more responsibility in an internship. You’re not going in there as cheap teenage labor. They’re trying to expose you to other parts of the business. They want to educate you.

“An internship is different even in terms of how you present yourself: how you dress, how you speak. You learn to correspond with people in a professional way, which is not like writing an e-mail to your friends back home. It was a great learning experience. I feel a little more confident now going into a business environment. I have a ton of business cards now. I have a Rolodex.”

In 2004-2005, the career development office, a department of student life, placed 416 students in internships.

Ben HammerBen Hammer
Captain, Cross Country Team
Gainey Retreat Participant
Office of Christian Formation

“A team is there to hold each other accountable to developing the whole person, not just developing the athlete. It really starts with the coaches. And it becomes clear from day one at practice that the coaches are interested in more than athletic success. They’re interested in us having integrity and being a Christ-like example,” said Ben Hammer, a junior education math major and chemistry minor, about his experience as one captain of the Calvin cross country team. “That forms very strong bonds among the teammates. You value the relationships almost more than you value the success. That’s my experience at Calvin. The success has meant far less than just getting to be with the other athletes and experience things with some guys I really care a lot about.

“I think it also helps you appreciate what the other Calvin teams are going through. It helps you appreciate their struggles and achievements. It makes you want to support them. That was one of the benefits of the Gainey Retreat, is that it formed a united group of student athletes instead of just separate teams at Calvin.”

The student life office of Christian formation and the college athletic directors sponsor the Gainey Retreat, which develops athletic student leaders.

Cleaster SnerlingCleaster Snerling
Faith in Action Conference Participant

“I wanted to learn more about our ancestors who fought for civil rights at that time. Plus, I’ve never been to Alabama, and I really wanted to go,” said first-year biology major Cleaster Snerling about her participation in a recent Faith in Action conference and civil rights history tour in Birmingham, Ala., during the weekend preceding Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “I’ve actually learned more in those four days about black history than I’ve learned all my years of going to school. We went to the Rosa Parks Museum, and we went to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.

“It sort of opened my eyes up to things that were happening in the world, like poverty and suffering and how racism occurs still today. And it really made me compare our times to those times. For instance, the children who were riding with the adult Freedom Riders went to jail. They just did it because they wanted freedom. I don’t think young people today would do that. I just wondered what happened between King’s time and our time. This trip really made me think I could change the world.”

Two student life departments — the multicultural student development office and the service-learning center — sponsored the Birmingham bus trip.

Colin Finch and Ben SchaeferColin Finch
First-year Student

Ben Schaefer
Barnabas Team Member

“The transition from high school to college was hard. My first semester, I played soccer, so I was busy a lot. But he kind of helped me to balance everything,” said Colin Finch, a first-year engineering major, about Ben Schaefer, the Barnabas Team member in his dorm. “I felt stressed out, so I’d go over to have a cup of tea with him and talk about stuff, and I felt better. He’s got a whole shelf of tea. He’s just really, really fun, and he loves people so much. You just feel more relaxed when he’s around.

“I feel like he became my friend first before he became someone I looked up to. In the beginning, half of us were freshmen, and we were kind of unsure of what we were doing. Because he’s a relational person, he just brought us out. A lot of us felt more comfortable right away than if he hadn’t been here. I can walk into any room on my floor, and we’re all friends. Maybe a month after I met him and learned what a Barnabas was, I realized, ‘Oh! That’s right up my alley.’ So, in two years I’d kind of like to be one.”

The Barnabas Teams comprise juniors and seniors who choose to reside in the residence halls to foster Christian community.