February 15, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

Calvin ranks second nationally among baccalaureate institutions for the total number of students who study abroad.

Calving art major Beth Valentine spent the fall of her junior year studying in Grenoble, France, a 2,000-year-old city tucked into the French Alps. She hiked and skied in the mountains. She lived with a French family and played the French version of cops-and-robbers with their kids. “I couldn’t speak French fluently, so there was a language barrier. But as time went on I was able to talk with them and make jokes,” she said. She also took classes at the Université Stendhal de Grenoble.

France widened her world, Valentine said:

“I had never gone outside North America before,” she said. “It gave me a good time to reflect on my culture back home. Like, when you’re away from home, you can step back and see all of the things you do right and do wrong and see how you can change for the better. And I also reflect on fashion fads—because there were some weird ones in France.”

Valentine is among the 597 Calvin students who studied abroad in 2009–2010, the period surveyed for the 2011 Open Doors Report. This annual report from the Institute of International Education ranks the off-campus opportunities at U.S. institutions.

Calvin has moved up one place on this year’s list in two areas: The college ranks second nationally among baccalaureate institutions for the total number of students who study abroad, placing the college second only to Saint Olaf College. And Calvin ranks fifth in the baccalaureate category for the total number of international students studying on campus. “(We have) open doors both ways which I think is important,” said Don De Graaf, Calvin’s director of off-campus programs.

Calvin currently offers students the opportunity to study for a semester abroad in Britain, China, France, Ghana, Honduras, Hungary, The Netherlands, Spain and Peru or closer to home in New Mexico, Washington D.C. Students may also spend the month of January or May on one of the interim courses Calvin hosts in more than 30 different countries on six continents: everything from business in China to art history in Italy to nursing in Belize.

“We want to create a culture where off-campus study is valued and sought after,” De Graaf said. “That culture takes a long time to develop.”

One big benefit of the Calvin program is that it is homegrown, De Graaf said. The college doesn’t rely mainly on off-campus study options sponsored by other institutions. “They’re Calvin-led, and they’re tied into how we integrate faith and learning,” he said.

Off-campus study at Calvin is about more than adding stickers to a passport, De Graaf emphasized. All off-campus programs have three aims in addition to increased cross-cultural competencies: The first is that students should increase their academic knowledge. “If they’re going to Ghana, they’re learning about the country of Ghana,” De Graaf said, “and the individual faculty member who’s (leading the study) will be teaching something in their discipline.”

Students studying abroad should also grow socially and emotionally, De Graaf said. “In some ways, they’re becoming more dependent; in other ways they’re becoming more interdependent.” Valentine said she gained a new sense of independence during her France semester by planning side trips to Italy and Switzerland: “That was the first time I bought my tickets by myself.”

Finally, students studying abroad should grow spiritually, De Graaf said: “I use the analogy of a pilgrim on a pilgrimage. If you’re a tourist, you can go somewhere and check off that you’ve seen this, seen that. We think of a pilgrimage as helping us to grow closer to God.” He wants Calvin students—of business, nursing, engineering, speech pathology or any other major—to experience the “wonder, heartbreak and hope” of learning elsewhere in the U.S. or abroad. “I think we have a culture here where students come back and say, ‘Yeah, that was a valid experience. I learned a lot. You should try it too,’” he said.

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