In the fall of 1990, while in a state of rebellion against the Soviet Union, the new, self-declared government of Lithuania approached a handful of Mennonites in the country about starting a college. Just two years later, Lithuania Christian College (LCC) welcomed students to the first Protestant liberal arts college in all of Eastern Europe. Within seven years, Calvin alumni began joining the college's vision to "create a generation of leaders for Eastern Europe who think critically, promote democratic ideals, develop a market economy and rebuild the network of civil society within the context of a Christian worldview."
A very big vision. But all the Calvin alums who have traveled to LCC say it's coming to pass little by little, life by life.
Twin brothers Dan '58 and Dave '60 Vellenga were the first to go. They'd heard at the Christian Business Faculty Association's annual meeting about the opportunity to teach a summer course at the school in Klaipeda, a city on the Baltic Sea and Lithuania's third-largest. Since June 1998, both have been back to LCC seven summers to teach business courses, and they say the progress over that time has been "amazing." The school has built state-of-the-art facilities and has grown from 30 to 600 full-time students representing 19 countries.
The Lithuanian government has licensed LCC to grant bachelor's degrees in three majors. The largest by far, with 80 percent of the full-time students enrolled, is the business major.
Dave Vellenga explains that in the early days of independence for the former Soviet-bloc countries, LCC offered Eastern Europe's only business education from a Western perspective. This, in countries shifting to a market economy, plus the fluency in English students gain from classes taught entirely in English, gives them, Vellenga said, "the ticket to a good job."
The promise of prosperity and the fact that LCC students are some of the best students in their home countries make them, according to Ray Vander Weele '59, especially eager and hard-working, with "all the motivation of Calvin students and few of the distractions."
Vander Weele, who has taught accounting and finance for five June terms at LCC, and Dave Radius '63, who has taught a management class for three, both note that it's not only the content, but also the specifically American style of teaching-one that encourages reflection, discussion and questions-that attract students. John Primus '54, who taught "Critical Thinking about Contemporary Issues" in LCC's theology department during the winter semester of 2003, added that Eastern European students are stunned by the respect and warmth with which they and their questions are greeted. "It draws even non-Christians to come," he said.
Gaining accreditation for LCC's theology major required Steve Van Zanen '82, head of that department from 1999-2002, to give a painstaking explanation and defense of liberal arts education to Lithuania's education officials. They had, he said, no model for education that emphasizes critical thinking. "So LCC's impact extends beyond individual students to the whole system of education emerging in Lithuania."
But, Van Zanen added, individual students, too, upon graduation, are having an effect beyond their years on this society in transition. "Grads with this kind of education get amazing access to leadership positions at a very young age."
In June 1999, Bob DeVries '61 taught a course to a select group of seniors on building a democratic and civil society; among them was the present secretary of the Baptist Church in Lithuania and a top military officer. "They had a hunger for the subject," DeVries said, "and they wanted it from a Christian perspective."
Though she is quick to say an accurate count is nearly impossible, Chris Hamstra Van Zanen '84 guesses that only about 20 percent of students entering LCC are committed Christians. It is the "living faith," she said, that they see in college staff that moves and changes many who "have no experience of Christianity outside their grandmothers' Roman Catholicism." The Van Zanens welcomed students to eat with them and their children, the first time many had seen Christian family life.
Reuben Stob '99 and Janneke Van Hofwegen Stob '00 have been modeling a Christian marriage-and, since October, family life-at LCC for six years now. While both are primarily teachers-Reuben in business, Janneke in English, also an accredited major at the college-they involve themselves heavily in student life. Initially committed to the school for one year, the couple said it has been "the transforming effect of LCC on so many of its students that has kept us interested and involved."
That transforming effect also extends to those who are not full-time students. LCC's English Language Institute offers English classes to working professionals and high school students. In the fall, the institute partnered for the first time with Lithuania's Maritime Academy to teach English to merchant mariners; Nelvin Jager '60 and Lucille Likkel Jager '59 were two of their teachers.
Other alums have been involved at LCC, too, and there are opportunities for more still-opportunities not only to be part of a country's transformation, but to be personally transformed as well.
To learn more about LCC, including how to serve there, visit www.lcc.lt.
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