June 26, 2024 | Matt Kucinski

Geography major Jacob Foll '24 presents his research on the impacts of industrial pollution on redlined urban neighborhoods at the East Lakes regional meeting of the Association of American Geographers.

During the summer, Calvin’s campus turns into a research hub. While that isn’t necessarily unique to higher ed, what is fairly uncommon is where you’ll find that research happening.

“Most liberal arts colleges have research in the sciences, it’s less common to have research covering the humanities, arts, and social sciences, and most summers we have a full range of research in those areas,” said Mark Bjelland, chair of the geology, geography, & environment department and co-administrator of the McGregor Research Program at Calvin.

A long-held commitment

Calvin’s commitment to research in these areas began in earnest in 1999 when the McGregor Fund established the McGregor Undergraduate Research Fellows program at Calvin—opening up a new frontier of research opportunities for students outside STEM.

This fund was established during a time when Christian colleges were growing more interested in doing scholarship based upon a Christian worldview and when George Marsden, a former Calvin professor wrote The Soul of the American University and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.

“His books focused on this idea that it’s really important for Christian scholars to operate from a Christian perspective and join the voices in the academy,” said Bjelland. “So the McGregor has always been about more than just funding research, but also about developing the next generation of Christian scholars, adding Christian voices to the conversations in the academy.”

Now, 25 years after the program started, it is still running strong thanks to funding from the university, various Calvin centers and institutes, and external funding sources.

Making major contributions

This year students from seven different disciplines are working one-on-one with professors trying to understand everything from the writing practices of third culture kids to the cultural history of white Christian womanhood, from exploring the role of faith communities in supporting informal caregivers to studying the effects of economic growth on the subjective wellbeing of the poor.

The professors and students work closely on projects and many say they couldn’t have advanced their scholarship in their field without the help of their partners.

“Students make major contributions for the faculty’s research,” said Bjelland, who has worked with a number of students over the years. “This work from students is absolutely essential. In the intro of Kristin Du Mez’s book, she acknowledges a number of her student research assistants. The App that was created to help returning citizens acclimate back to society was built by McGregor students. So, students are either creating tangible products or helping a prof make important progress on their scholarship.”

Advancing scholarship and careers

Bjelland says these projects are not only important in advancing the scholars’ work, but also the students’ careers.

“This is a boost for their career having done this research experience,” said Bjelland. For Kristin Du Mez, her books make a big impact because they are trade books, so students get to work on something that’s going to make an impact, that’s going to be part of public scholarship.”

“Most of my students have presented their work at a regional geography conference, and a few have won cash prizes,” said Bjelland.

Ultimately, they want the experience to be ones that launch their students into careers that they love. For Bjelland, he’s seen many of his students go onto graduate school at prestigious places like the University of Brussels and find jobs across the country as city and transportation planners.

And Bjelland has heard similar success stories from his colleagues.

“While other schools are often more limited to scientific research that happens in a lab setting with beakers and pipettes, I’m grateful that we have a greater depth of diversity of the disciplines supported with research opportunities,” said Bjelland.

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