January 30, 2015 | Lori Dykstra

Diego Galvan, a member of The Plaster Creek Stewards' "Green Team," explains the importance of watershed restoration at a press conference this past summer where the group received $60,000 from the EPA.

In January 2015 the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced the list of colleges and universities selected to receive the 2015 Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement. Calvin College is one of 361 campuses across the country to receive this important designation.  

To receive the classification, each institution voluntarily submits an application that provides compelling evidence of community engagement through meaningful collaboration with local, regional, national and global communities.

Renewal through community engagement

Gail Heffner, director of community engagement at Calvin College, said that whether Calvin's community engagement occurs in a research lab on campus or an urban neighborhood across town; on a spring break trip to Louisiana or a semester abroad in Peru, the focus is on justice, service, love and renewal.

“Right from the beginning we talk about transformation,” said Heffner. “We want to see flourishing for all people and for creation. Community engagement is about trying to embody our mission as a Reformed Christian college.”

John Saltmarsh, the administrator of the Carnegie Foundation Community Engagement Classification said, "These are campuses that are improving teaching and learning, producing research that makes a difference in communities, and revitalizing their civic and academic missions."

Living as agents of renewal in the world is at the core of Calvin’s mission. With a long history of community engagement as its foundation, Calvin continues to demonstrate commitment to this mission.

“We have systems of community engagement in place because we value it. It’s so significant for who we are as an institution,” said Heffner.

Unexpected partnerships

Through the work of the provost’s office, the Service-Learning Center and many academic departments, Calvin’s community partnerships reach locally and worldwide. Throughout the years, this involvement has deepened, creating unpredictable avenues of local, national and global engagement.

“For example,” Heffner said, “we started the Calvin Environmental Assessment Program (CEAP) in the late ‘90s. But that has just blossomed. Now we’re doing this big watershed project with the Plaster Creek Stewards that really grew out of CEAP.”

Research found that Calvin is situated on a watershed that drains into Plaster Creek, the most polluted creek in West Michigan. Calvin faculty, staff and students collaborated with local schools, churches and community partners to form Plaster Creek Stewards, which works to restore the health and beauty of the watershed.

The Summer Green Team, an initiative within Plaster Creek Stewards, is a program that trains youth in watershed restoration. It has been recognized in Washington D.C. as a program that can be replicated in other parts of the country. “That shows how things deepen over time,” said Heffner. “It evolves. It emerges.”

Recognizing local needs

Another partnership is the nursing department’s engagement with four urban neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Through extensive research, door-to-door surveys, partnership with local health organizations and the strong presence of the residents’ voice, the department developed strategic plans geared toward the specific needs of each neighborhood.

Heffner said, “It’s not just driven by the college saying, ‘This is what we want our students to learn.’ We do want our students to learn, but it’s based on the issues that are particular health needs in this city.”

Engaging across the globe

On the global level, Calvin students and faculty partner with organizations all over the world through numerous interim and semester programs abroad.

Don De Graaf, director of off-campus programs at Calvin, said students don’t go in simply thinking they are there to solve every problem. Rather, it is an opportunity to engage people while learning from their lives and from how their society functions.

De Graaf hopes to enable students to connect these experiences serving abroad with community engagement back at home. “It becomes more seamless,” said De Graaf. “You learn about the world and you learn about how to be involved wherever you might end up living.”

Recent stories