March 17, 2011 | Megan Swierenga

Some of Calvin's first female students (left to right): Anna Steenstra, Kate Fryling, Anna Groendyk and Helen Poelstra.

In June of 1905, Anna Groendyk became the first woman to graduate from Calvin College. However, as noted in the 2002 summer issue of The Spark, several archival sources initially thought Helen Poelstra was the first woman to graduate. It was later discovered that, due to illness, Helen did not graduate in 1904 as previously believed; giving Anna the title.

Anna was the third of five children born to Jacob and Clara Groendyk, who immigrated in 1881 to Grand Rapids from Uithuizermeeden; a small village in the Netherlands.

In 1901 Anna, at age 14, was one of the first five women to enroll in what would later be called Calvin College. All of the women were from Grand Rapids.

Due to Anna’s lack of schooling beyond the primary level, she was required to take one introductory year before being admitted to Calvin’s three-year teacher preparatory course.

“Completion of the course allowed students to take the Michigan test for teacher certification,” wrote Dick Harms in a 2002 issue of The Spark. “In districts that offered secondary education, students could take the test after completing one year beyond high school graduation.”

Of the three students who took classes at Calvin in 1901, only Anna returned after the first year. Once she graduated, she continued living with her family, who owned a local grocery store.

Though Anna’s immediate occupation is unknown, Harms notes, “the opening of several Christian schools in [Grand Rapids] in 1907 created the need for teachers and Groendyk was hired by the Baldwin Street Christian School; about 2 ½ miles from her home … probably [earning] $20 per month.”

In 1910, Anna resigned from Baldwin Street Christian to work in the family grocery store with her mother. At some point Anna’s sister Lucy (who also attended Calvin in 1905) suffered a brain injury and required constant care thereafter.

Harms says Lucy’s injury may have been cause for Anna’s resignation. In 1920, at age 63, Anna’s mother Clara Groendyk died leaving Anna to support Lucy.

Anna continued to operate the grocery store until she married Peter Houtman in 1930. The two had no children of their own, but raised three orphaned siblings who were related to Houtman. In 1953, at age 67, Houtman died.

Late in her life, Anna moved to Paradise, California. She died near Chico in 1977.

Additional Student Firsts:

First six women students: Anna Groendyk, Helen Poelstra, Kate Fryling, Dena Fryling, Dena Preissens, Jemima Strabbing.

First woman to earn a PhD: Nelly Bosma who earned her doctorate from the University of Michigan after receiving her bachelor’s degree from Calvin in 1928.

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