Through Their Own Eyes

Students reflect on global experiences

by Lynn Bolt Rosendale ’85
Winter 2013

“It happened on the train ride home from a rainy weekend at Lake Balaton, a popular getaway spot about three hours outside Budapest. After two hours of seemingly endless plains dotted with occasional villages and glimpses of the lake, we started to see buildings. And I thought to myself, we must be almost home. That’s right—home. Exactly seven days after my departure from the Grand Rapids airport, I called Budapest home.

“The shift was gradual. On our first full day in Budapest, I felt like the quintessential tourist. We took a tram into the city and hit up many of Budapest’s most famous landmarks, taking a kazillion pictures along the way. And by the end of that day, I was in love with Budapest, but I was far from at home in it. I felt like I was just on a really good vacation.

“Yet little by little, I began mentally moving into the city. I bought groceries and cooked meals. I unpacked my suitcase and bought a new blanket for my bed. And then I packed my backpack and left for that rainy weekend at a small town on Lake Balaton. I spent most of that weekend sitting in cafes to get respite from the rain, and I found myself missing Budapest. By the time I got on that train back to Budapest, I was already dreaming of my comfortable dorm bed and the endless places to go and things to see in Budapest. I couldn’t wait to get back to the little life I had begun building there. I felt like I was going home.”

So began the journey for Calvin junior Grace Ruiter. With still much to learn and gain from her experience, Ruiter blogged about her adjustment just seven days in.

Ruiter was one of 20 Calvin students who spent the fall semester in Hungary; one of 155 students who spent the fall abroad and one of more than 800 who will spend time studying off-campus this year.

Understanding the philosophy

What those numbers mean to Don DeGraaf, Calvin’s director of off-campus programs, is that more than 60 percent of graduating students have had an off-campus experience while at Calvin. What Ruiter’s blog post means to DeGraaf is that those students are understanding the philosophy of Calvin’s off-campus programs.

That philosophy is to promote travel abroad as an opportunity to become a pilgrim and not just a tourist.

“It’s a challenge,” said DeGraaf. “We want it to be more than just, ‘What’s on your bucket list?’ We want it to be an opportunity to make this a deeper experience. How are you building your own story? How is God calling you to His story? It’s a different mindset than, ‘I want to see all of the capitals of Europe.’”

Opportunity for everyone

With 12 semester offerings and more than 30 off-campus interim choices, there is an opportunity for everyone, said DeGraaf. “A semester is not for everybody, but for some three weeks is too short,” he said. “We try to find the right fit for each student. Each experience opens their minds to a bigger world.”

Such was the case for junior Courtney Selvius, who spent the fall in Ghana:

“While sitting on my porch on the Cape Coast excursion, there were so many different things that my senses put together to make me realize how beautiful Ghana really is.

“I saw the waves crashing on the beach, the birds making their unique paths through the wind, the fine mist that separated me from the ocean.

“I heard laughter, the steady heartbeat of the waves pounding upon the shore, the chirping birds singing their sweet melody.

“I smelled the start of what seemed to be a bonfire, the saltiness of the ocean, the smell of Ghana…but not the smell of all of Ghana.

“After walking through the streets and market in downtown Accra, it is safe to say that there are parts of Ghana that are far away from being glamorous: the sludge in the gutters lining the streets, the smell of far too many people in the small areas of the markets, the children who should be in school but are instead taking part in selling products on the street (or “hawking” as it is called here) ranging from bagged water to toothpaste to plantain chips to fish to paintings. Ghana is a place that has so much beauty hidden among the dirtier things—sometimes all it takes to see the beautiful things is a little time, patience, and willingness to look past the sludge and grime.

“Looking past the sludge and grime is something that is not necessarily easy, but it is something that I’m working on. When I think back to my neighborhood, the streets, and Calvin’s campus back in the United States, everything in my mind seems so clean cut and crisp.

“Some people may think it’s an odd concept to want to move from such a clean country to one that has so many dirt roads and has a winter as warm as our summer. But I think that experiencing such a different way of life is something that will help all of the Calvin students here grow in ways that we would have never imagined.”

Ghana and Hungary are just two of the places Calvin students are living and learning this fall; the others include China, Peru, Honduras (development studies), France, Spain (core/intermediate language) and Rehoboth, N.M. Add to that the four semesters offered in the spring—Britain, Spain (advanced Spanish), Honduras (Spanish studies) and Washington, D.C.—and DeGraaf and his office staff have a lot to keep track of.

“I worry a lot,” he said. “To think we have 150 students out there and at any time something can happen and we have to be able to respond in a multifaceted way; that responsibility weighs heavy.

“It’s not always easy for us or our students. It’s not always what we wish for or what’s expected, but more times than not the experiences teach life lessons that are amazing.”

Wonders and injustices

That’s what makes it worthwhile, DeGraaf said. “Students gain a lot of confidence, and they often have to become reliant on the hospitality of others,” he said. “Off-campus experiences can create opportunities to see both the wonders and the injustices of this world.”

Those injustices can come to light by walking alongside people who are suffering, but also by experiencing the past, as junior Laura Sheppard did in Hungary:

“History has never felt so real.

“For our Eastern European culture class, we read a memoir called Castles Burning, written by Magda Denes, who was a Jewish child in occupied Budapest in 1944. Her family survived Nazi roundups by hiding in attics and safe havens, on streets that, today, are just a few metro stops from where I live. After four months hiding in a basement, Magda’s family emerged to find their city a smoldering ruin. The Budapest that I now call home barely existed after the war.

“Learning about the Holocaust in the past, I could always think about it having happened in Other Places. But here I am, and here it was. Last week on a tour of the city’s Jewish Quarter we visited a tiny courtyard, tucked behind a synagogue, where over 2,000 Jews are buried. Most remain unidentified. They are the casualties of Budapest ghetto, which was active during the last three months of the war. A mass grave, hidden in the middle of the city.

“In America, war is fought in distant lands, and the Holocaust filters in through books and imported museum artifacts. Here, the memories are real and tangible: in bullet holes on the sides of buildings; in the preserved stones of the ghetto wall; in long-lost names etched on memorial plaques.

“Across from the Parliament, near the river’s edge, sits a small memorial called Shoes on the Danube. Sixty pairs of iron shoes, cast in the style of the 1940’s, sit on the sidewalk, pointing toward the water. High-heeled shoes, children’s shoes, work shoes so real you feel you could step into them and walk away. The memorial is for the hundreds of people who were arrested in 1944 by the occupying Nazis and marched to the Danube. They were ordered to take off their shoes, and they were shot into the water. One of them was Magda Denes’ brother.”

History come to life; the Holocaust made very poignant for Sheppard. De Graaf would like to see these lessons continue once students return to Calvin. Thus, one of the new initiatives this fall included sessions for students upon returning from off-campus.

A welcome-back dinner kicked things off, followed by presentations on reverse culture shock, continuing civic engagement, leveraging the experience to future employers, sustainable living and faith implications.

“We want to offer resources for students when they return so that they can use lessons that they learned overseas in a positive way here, too,” said DeGraaf.

Students come to Calvin with higher expectations, according to DeGraaf. “They are more globally connected than ever before,” he said. “They recognize the depth provided by living someplace else. We want them to graduate with an even greater global perspective and a sense of how God wants them to use it.”

Junior Laurel Ackerman gained some of that perspective while studying in Peru this fall:

“In the past month, one truth has resonated: God has blessed me immensely and He is teaching me an incredible amount. He is giving me the strength to wake up in the morning, to take on a new culture and learn from it instead of battling it, to speak a foreign language, to have patience, to keep a positive attitude in everything, to continue even when I think it is too difficult … and I would do it all again, just to have His hand support me once more.”

Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark.