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Grey Matters
By Gayle Boss

<< Spark Online
 
Stu Greydanus
Stu Greydanus '72

When Stuart and Mary Greydanus come to Grand Rapids from West Palm Beach, Fla., for Alumni Board meetings they look forward to seeing their kids. Their two daughters know that doesn’t mean them—or only them.

“I hardly ever see my parents when they’re up here,” said Jeanine Greydanus ’02, now an engineer with URS in Grand Rapids.

Besides Jeanine and Leah, a senior at Calvin, the Greydanuses count as their own: Moise, a political exile from Haiti; Sergei, an immigrant from the Ukraine; and Jona, Maxine and Jermey, immigrants from Haiti, Nicaragua and Trinidad, respectively. Moise graduated last May and still lives in town. The others, thanks in large measure to Stu and Mary Greydanus, are enrolled at Calvin.

“Long ago I stopped seeing Mr. Grey as just a teacher. He and Mrs. Grey I consider to be my parents in the States,” said Moise. In 1990, a time of political and social turbulence in Haiti, Moise Derosier left his family and boarded a small boat for the United States. He was 17 and spoke almost no English. Three years later an uncle enrolled Moise at Forest Hill High School in Boyton Beach, Fla., where he was introduced to math and physics teacher Stu Greydanus, and to his future.

Greydanus coached Moise on which classes to take and followed his progress, making sure the Haitian understood his studies. He asked how things were going outside school—at work and at the house where Moise lived with other young Haitian men. He invited Moise to his home and church. And he coaxed and prodded the refugee into applying to a small Christian college 1,400 miles north of tropical Florida that cost almost $20,000 a year.

The stories of Sergei, Jona, Maxine and Jermey read differently in detail but alike in theme: Each is determined and resilient, working hard against the odds in a school given an “F” by the Florida Department of Education. There, under the encouragement and care of Stu and Mary Greydanus, each bloomed and stepped into a future she or he could not have foreseen before meeting the couple.

“This is my biggest leap,” said Jermey Gajadhar, who arrived on campus as a freshman in September; Michigan is the first state he’s seen outside Florida. “It didn’t hit me until the plane was taking off in Miami—‘Hey, I’m leaving!’ I had nothing to lose except myself not going anywhere. So I went for it.” Jermey came to the United States four years ago from Trinidad to join his mother, who’d come ahead and settled in West Palm Beach. At the end of his freshman year at Forest Hill High another teacher introduced him to Greydanus. Jermey soon found himself enrolled in honors and advanced placement classes, then, concurrently, in courses at Palm Beach Community College. Last May he graduated first in his senior class of 237. In spite of his grades, his residency status put most scholarships out of Jermey’s reach, and there were no resources at home to fund a college education.

Stu Greydanus got on the phone. “They know me up there in financial aid,” Greydanus said. “I’ll call up and say, ‘I’ve got two students for you and they’re both dirt poor.’ They know that’s what I’m going to say, because that’s who I teach.” If the aid package he gets for one of his kids isn’t enough, Greydanus works on other sources.

"Another major help to the students has been the faithful financial support of the South Florida Alumni Chapter," said Stu. "Most of these kids have received generous assistance from local alumni through the chapter's scholarship fund. The money's important, but also the awareness that people who went to Calvin want these students to experience a Calvin education, too. That speaks volumes to them."

With a supporting cast, Stu found a way to get Jermey to Calvin, though on top of his 20-hour course load as an engineering major Jermey is working twelve hours a week in the dining hall and confesses to feeling “stressed out” about making his quarterly payments.

“Dale Kuiper (director of admissions) and the people in financial aid are working 110 percent of their resources,” Greydanus is quick to add. “But they don’t have enough. It would be nice if some Calvin alumni out there would endow scholarships—like alumni do at Princeton and Cornell—so tuition wouldn’t be a factor for kids like these.” Greydanus winces at the memory of losing one of his star kids to Cornell. “They gave him a better aid package, that’s all.”

Sometimes the aid the Greydanus’ kids need can’t be supplied by the office of scholarships and financial aid. Like a place to live when the college isn’t in session and the home back in Florida isn’t stable or healthy. Or transportation. Or a winter coat. The Greydanuses know they can call on their network of friends in the Grand Rapids area, including the immigrant communities here, when their kids need help. To the students it’s an extension of the Greydanus family embrace.

Jeanine and Leah Greydanus remember growing up with students from Forest Hill High School regularly in their living room and kitchen and family car. Stu gives out his home phone number on the first day of class and encourages students to come to him for help.

“He sees it as a mission,” said daughter Leah. “He sees that he’s on earth to inspire and encourage and help students be all they can be. It’s like what he has to do.”

Stu Greydanus remembers the October day in 1969 when, sitting in Stanley Wiersma’s 17th century English literature class, “life began to make sense.” Stu said, “Stan and I became good friends. I read his poems, and we discussed such a range of things—from parenthood to universal salvation.”

Wiersma’s instructor/mentor/friend model is one Stu has wanted for his kids—a model he’s tried to emulate. There have been others, too—Calvin-connected people the Greydanuses encountered as they lived and taught in Guam, Nigeria and Japan.

“He wasn’t only my teacher; he was my mentor,” said Ukrainian-born engineering sophomore Sergei Vitrenko. Sergei was 14 when he came to West Palm Beach with his mother; he, too, spoke very little English. “Since I came to America, if I had a problem I would go to Mr. Grey and he would help me out.”

That help doesn’t end when the Greydanus kids leave Forest Hill High School. Besides visiting when they’re in town, Stu and Mary e-mail and phone their encouragement, even if a student hasn’t chosen Calvin, or, for the time being, any college. It’s just what you do when they’re your kids.

Omar Guzman is back in West Palm Beach. Puerto Rican by birth and one of the Greydanus kids, he was a student at Calvin for three years. Of his time at Calvin Omar said, “Each year something big happened that distracted my mind.” Like the death of his mother when he was a freshman. After that blow Omar never quite got his academic feet under him again. Last May he was academically dismissed from the college. “I was terrified to call Mr.Grey and tell him,” Omar remembered. “I mean, this guy’s helped me out so much, and I basically got booted out of school.” So Omar didn’t call. Stu Greydanus did. “I thought he was going to be upset,” said Omar. “It was just the opposite. He called me to find out what I was going to do next and how he could help.”

Though Stu is the one daily at the high school, students know Mary is his teammate. He sees the big picture of students’ lives, she the personal details. That’s how older daughter Jeanine describes her parents’ partnership. Her sister Leah agrees: “Without my mom it wouldn’t work. My dad wants to know how the academics are going. My mom wants to know how your life is going.”

Given that history of care, Maxine Bent listened when Stu Greydanus encouraged her to apply to Calvin College. “That made me trust him more and more,” she said, though her mother, like most recently-immigrated mothers, was reluctant to let Maxine leave Florida. Maxine set her mind to coming to a school where she knew professors would be both challenging and available, though she adds, “It still took a lot of prayer for me to feel safe and at peace about coming here.”

Jona Francisque and Maxine Bent

Maxine, now a sophomore engineering major, and Forest Hill classmate Jona Francisque visited Calvin during their senior year—in January. “We were freezing,” laughed Jona, a nursing major. After the winter visit she filled out an application form but didn’t mail it. “I was afraid—going all the way to Michigan. But Mr. Grey told me, ‘If I knew you weren’t the right person for Calvin I wouldn’t have recommended it to you.’”

Though they still dread winter, Jona and Maxine have found their place at Calvin. Sergei, too, though he’s found it harder to feel at home. “The first year is really hard, but the second year is better—you’re not so afraid anymore,” said Jona.

Some of the difficulty Forest Hill High students experience at Calvin is academic, but that’s a small piece of a larger cultural adjustment. Seventy percent of the students at Forest Hill High School are ethnic minorities, representing 60 countries; many are recent immigrants. (Half of the school’s population speaks a language other than English as their primary language.) At Calvin, where more than 90 percent of the students are Caucasian, students from Forest Hill High sense both stares and averted eyes; sometimes they feel avoided. Thank God, they all say, for the International Student Association on campus.

And though, coming from a large public school, they are enthusiastic about being able to talk out loud in class about their faith and to hear professors do the same, the Christian Reformed expression of faith has been, to quote Maxine, “an eye-opener.” On the one hand they appreciate the encouragement to fully engage their minds on all questions, even questions of faith. Moise remembers meeting physics professor emeritus Howard Van Till at the Greydanus home. “A lot of my Christian (Pentecostal) background has to do with the heart rather than the mind. What I heard from Professor Van Till was important to me—to be a Christian with both the heart and the mind.”

On the other hand, these same students wonder whether the logical approach to faith isn’t carried too far, disallowing the emotional and mystical experiences they’ve grown up with.

Stu and Mary know their kids are going to feel the clash of cultures at Calvin. For them it’s another good reason to keep recommending Calvin at Forest Hill High School—and much of it for Calvin’s sake. “I would like Calvin to be an even better school than the school I went to,” Stu said. “I want it to include the influences that came to us as we broadened our horizons. I would like to bring those horizons to the place where I began.”

That’s why Stu tells his kids, “You want to find a college where not only is the college giving to you, but you’re giving to the college. As a minority kid you’re going to a school that needs you and the view of the world you bring.”

— Gayle Boss is a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids.


'Dear Mr. Grey...'
“I felt like Mr. Grey was always thinking, ‘Amy, you’re an intelligent person, you can do it, so just do it.’” Amy Packwood ’00 was the first Greydanus kid to come to Calvin. In the fall of her senior year at Forest Hill, Greydanus devised for the students in his physics class a “college lab”—an exercise in scientific thinking applied to real life. Each student had to select 15 colleges and investigate them, based on 15 criteria important to him or her. As one of her schools Amy selected Calvin—as a lark, a joke, with Greydanus because she knew it was his alma mater.

But the joke turned on Amy. When all the data were in, Calvin ranked highest on Amy’s list of key criteria for choosing a college. “Mr. Grey, what am I going to do?” she asked. “Usually you apply,” he answered. With some coaxing, she did.

In late August of 1995, from her room in Noordewier Hall, Amy wrote to Greydanus: “THANK YOU!! 10 million times thank you for recommending this college to me and vice versa. Even this early I can’t imagine going or (more importantly) belonging to any other school.”

Never having met any Reformed Christians other than the Greydanuses, Amy found the culture at Calvin quite different from anything she knew. “The orderliness was so different—there was a little nook for everything!”

Amy’s appreciation for Calvinism has grown such that she’s now enrolled at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. The distance from West Palm Beach isn‘t lost on her: “Mr. Grey changed my entire life by encouraging me to go to Calvin. My faith journey especially would be very different. This is a dramatic shift from the direction I was headed.”

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