November 26, 2013 | Connor Sterchi

Students on Calvin's semester program in Peru

Creation, fall, redemption. Don De Graaf, director of off-campus programs at Calvin, connected that common mantra of Reformed theology to international education.

“[International education] lets people see the wonder of our world,” De Graaf said. “There’s so much that is still so beautiful and to see different cultures, and different places, and the beauty of natural creation. The wonder is pretty cool. The heartbreak is to see all the social issues in the world, the problems of poverty, and our inability to cross culture well at times. So not only do we see the wonder, but we see the heartbreak. And then hopefully we see the hope, of how maybe God can use us as bridges.”

Celebrating study abroad

For the first time, Calvin College participated in International Education Week (IEW), a nationwide celebration (Nov. 18 - 25) that observes the importance of studying abroad. Mwenda Ntarangwi, associate director of off-campus programs at Calvin, believes that the benefits of international education are manifold.

“We are living in a very interconnected world,” Ntarangwi said. “We will need the skills and abilities that allow us to navigate that interconnection faithfully as Christians, and efficiently as people who are going to do work in all kinds of places. It [also] allows us to become more aware of ourselves, when you are confronted with difference, you become more aware of yourself.”

While this is Calvin’s first year participating in IEW, Ntarangwi hopes to make it an annual event for the college, collaborating with other programs and departments at Calvin to host events for IEW.

On Monday, Nov. 18, Calvin’s Student Activities Office sponsored Rwandese-Canadian hip-hop artist Shad, who performed at the Ladies Literary Club. The next day, off-campus programs showed “Crossing Borders,” a movie that looks at four Moroccan students and four American students who travel together.

“[We wanted to show] a documentary that allows us to see what other students have experienced,” Ntarangwi said. “The one we showed on Tuesday allowed us to see four American students travel together…getting to know each other, person-to-person…part of the joys of international education is that you get to hang out with people in ways that you cannot when you just view them from afar or read about them, so it’s a good thing to do that.”

Growing through experiences

Virginia Lodge, a senior religion major at Calvin who studied abroad in Spain for the spring semester of 2013, had mixed feelings regarding her experience and wrestled with challenging questions about faith, theology and worldview.

“It was definitely challenging,” said Lodge, who also studied in Costa Rica in a gap year between high school and college. “What’s interesting about my two experiences [studying abroad] is that my cynicism was deepened in some ways in Costa Rica, and healed a lot in Spain. I sort of went through a big season of doubt, personally in Spain, but I also saw the beauty and the deep necessity [of faith], but also felt the deep void of substantial, intelligent faith.”? 

The experience engendered both advantages and disadvantages and prompted her to ask tough questions.

“I think I would say [it was] overall positive, but [there were] definitely painful moments,” she said. “I think it was because I have so much of who I am invested in the church in this broad, theological, compellingly beautiful way, and that just seemed to not matter [there]. And so that was a very disillusioning experience.

“[On the other hand], I developed some really close friendships with the Calvin group that I went with which was a major gift that I did not really expect...Spain’s beautiful, the culture’s wonderful. It’s a very lively place; it’s a very relational place. Spaniards do not live to work, they work to live, which is the cliché, but so true in a really jarring way.”

Creating a global community

Liza Gunnink, a junior student who went to York last spring semester, also remarked on the benefits of meeting new people and forming relationships while studying abroad.

“[I gained] just a deep appreciation for a variety of people,” Gunnink said. “You go on this [trip] with a random group of people, and you meet all these random people from all over the world…[I learned] to appreciate diversity.”

According to De Graaf, Lodge’s challenging questions and experiences abroad are emblematic of off-campus program’s goal for students studying abroad.

“The benefits and the beauty [of international education] is when you see students wrestling with difficult questions,” De Graaf said. “It’s not a vacation and it’s not easy, but it’s very impactful because it’s hard. And students are confronted with so many different situations and questions; and the questions are different in Hungary than they are in Honduras, or in Britain to Ghana, but each of those questions have to be answered by individual students, and they are challenged in different ways.”

But the focus of IEW for Calvin is more about celebration than programming, Ntarangwi said.

“[We want] to reflect on some of the things we have done, to showcase, to celebrate…Sometimes it’s always moving, moving, moving, and not pausing, and saying, ‘what are we doing?’ We’re doing good things, we’re doing great things, let’s just highlight them, we are doing a lot of things here that are worth celebrating.”

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