Honduras semester seeks to impart a 'lasting influence'

By Myrna De Vries Anderson '00

Honduras

It used to happen a lot: a Calvin student majoring in music or history or biology would spend a development semester in Honduras, directed since 1996 by Calvin sociology professor Kurt Ver Beek ’86 and his wife, Jo Ann Van Engen ’86. That student would then change her or his major. Now, in part because of Calvin’s international development studies (IDS) major, its student-run social justice coalition and simply a growing sense of global awareness, students are more aware of development issues, Ver Beek said: “It’s not all brand new to them when they come. We’re getting less changes of majors. They know what they want when they’re coming to us.”

What students get is a thorough acquaintance with the issues—economics, environment, religion, gender, culture—that work to produce global poverty and hunger. Students interact with Ver Beek and Van Engen, who live in a poor and violent neighborhood. “It used to be the most violent neighborhood in Neuva Suyapa,” he said. They also live part of the semester with poor urban and rural families. They tour garment factories and non-governmental organizations. And they study and discuss what it means to live a Christian lifestyle.

HondurasMarie Scheffers ’01 said that her 2000 Honduras semester taught her “how to ask questions in a respectful way so that you end up with a partnership instead of coming on like a person with the wisdom and knowledge.” Scheffers, now a lawyer, said that one of her law school professors praised her interview techniques. “I absolutely credit all of the time spent on mountainsides in Honduras,” she said.

Ver Beek and Van Engen have been good mentors, said IDS director Roland Hoksbergen. “Students respond to their integrity, their honesty. They also know that they care. And students respond to that. They model it.”

The development semester in Honduras began as a proposal authored by Ver Beek in 1995, as he was finishing graduate school at Cornell University. He sent it to four schools, and Calvin responded. The birth of the semester coincided roughly with that of the IDS program. “They kind of grew together,” Ver Beek said.

He hopes the Honduras semester has a lasting influence on the students who have experienced it: “We would hope that every student, when they would come back from Honduras, in some way would put into action God’s love for the poor,” Ver Beek said. “That some of them would do full-time social justice work in the inner city—and that all of them would do something.”