Nana Owusu-Achau first heard about Calvin while working as a college counselor at the American Embassy in his hometown of Accra, Ghana, when a girl he was advising told him about the small Christian school in the Midwest. At the time, Owusu-Achau had envisioned a future as an engineering major at an Ivy League school. Something about Calvin, though, caught his eye: “I saw a Calvin brochure that had some worship information on it …,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is really unique.’”
This September, Owusu-Achau, now a senior, welcomed students, faculty and staff from the podium at Opening Convocation as the college’s first African student body president.
The post is not Owusu-Achau’s first experience with leadership. He was a prefect in his all-boys school in Kumasi, Ghana, where he also competed in debate and captained the basketball team. At Calvin, he has served as a resident assistant and an orientation leader, but that was the extent of his student leadership ambitions. “But it was one of those things where I felt—I don’t like using that word—I strongly felt that I had to occupy this role,” he said.
After spending spring break in prayer over the issue, Owusu-Achau made his decision with a sense of peace, but then he reached a new uncertainty: Who would be his running mate?
John Britton, associate dean of student development, gave him a list of recommendations. His first candidate was Becky Kim, a junior studying social work and business. He never met with a second.
Kim, the daughter of Christian Reformed Church ministers, spent much of her life between California and South Korea. She served on student senate last year but, like Owusu-Achau, didn’t seriously consider trying for an executive post. But their interview went well, and the idea of running for office together began to feel natural for both of them.
In past years, executive teams have parlayed their Grand Rapids connections into free food for their potential supporters. “Moon (Jung) and Kyle’s (Rodriguez) campaign, in terms of giving out food, blew us out of the water,” Kim said. “We had no connections.”
Armed with two bags of popcorn and a pair of $50 gift certificates, Owusu-Achau and Kim went to door-to-door in the residence halls to talk to students, thinking that what they lacked in swag, they could make up for by being accessible. This strategy proved effective, but they would only realize this later.
As the conclusion of the race drew closer, Owusu-Achau and Kim were certain they would lose extravagantly. “We got pretty discouraged by the end, I remember,” Kim said.
“Do you remember telling me that if we won, you’d be surprised?” Owusu-Achau asked Kim. “I remember that very well. Brave words in Johnny’s.”
Students cast their votes the week before Easter. The candidates left Grand Rapids for spring break, exhausted and not particularly hopeful. At home with her family, Kim got a message from her opponent: “Moon texted me first and was, like, ‘Congrats!’” They had won by only 40 votes.
Jung, now a representative on student senate, attributes the outcome to providence and to the support of Owusu-Achau’s highly involved friends. “Students saw I had involvement,” Owusu-Achau demurred. “I’m just being real with people.”
Strengthening the bond between senate and students is one of the executive team’s primary goals. Through Facebook, the Student News listserv, a regular column in the Chimes and online surveys, the team is striving to make their process more transparent. They have also taken their weekly senate meetings on the road, into dorm basements and other common areas where students can participate in discussions.
Another of their goals, spearheaded by Kim, is to increase the number of student representatives on Calvin’s governance committees. Of the many concerns senate hears from students, some come up every year: tuition, financial aid, meal plan structure and open house hours. Governance committees offer a way for students to voice these concerns directly to faculty and administration.
According to tradition, student senate picks one cause to promote each year. In the past, they have focused their efforts on issues of social justice. “We thought it was about time to look a little bit more inward,” Owusu-Achau said.
Senate plans to hold monthly worship services from October through April and facilitate prayer groups between students, faculty and staff. The campaign, called ReigKnight (“reignite”), is meant to remind the community that their primary goal at Calvin is to be conformed to the image of Christ.
“It’s more and more important to realize how to worship God and not just have this personal connection with God,” Kim emphasized, “but worship together as a body of believers—and soon—as a world.”
“The basic idea is us getting back to what matters most — our walk with Christ,” Owusu-Achau said.
Owusu-Achau came to Calvin certain that he would be an engineer, but after a few site visits, that future no longer appealed to him. Instead, he has gone into information technology, a field he believes needs to be cultivated in Ghana.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be right after graduation, but I know I’m going back home,” he said. “God had a reason for birthing me there.”