November 07, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

A drone view of the city of Grand Rapids.

Drive just a couple of miles from the Calvin University campus in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and you switch zip codes. It’s just a single digit shift, from 49506 to 49507, but there’s a gap that looms much larger. According to census data, 64.8% of the population of adults 25 years or older in the 06 zip code has at least a bachelor’s degree. In the neighboring 07 zip code, that number is just 23.5%.

So, why such a huge disparity? Kevin den Dulk, associate provost of Calvin University, says it really boils down to access. For starters, there’s no higher education institution located in the 49507 zip code. And while Calvin has had a long-standing presence and formed many partnerships within the zip code through initiatives like Community Based Nursing, the Plaster Creek Stewards, and the Service-Learning Center, “until now, all of these initiatives haven’t been interconnected through a broader vision,” said den Dulk.

More than words

That broader vision is the 49507 Initiative, which allows Calvin to lean into its vision of becoming a trusted partner for learning across religious and cultural differences and to be an institution that promotes the welfare of the city and the healing the world.

“We can, and we must be better neighbors,” said den Dulk. “We have made commitments toward this end, and the 49507 Initiative is us living wholeheartedly into them.”

Listening for answers

Den Dulk says the work starts by asking the question: “What does it look like to serve a mission like ours that talks not just about thinking, but acting and living out what it looks like to do that in a place that’s immediately proximate but feels like worlds apart to the residents themselves, in a place where they could never imagine access to a community like Calvin?”

Shaq Anthony, director of strategic partnerships at Calvin, says it’s not Calvin’s job to answer that question alone, but rather for that answer to be discovered together in community. Working with community partners like the Baxter Community Center, ICCF, NAACP, LINC UP, Hispanic Center of West Michigan, and Urban League, the group has hosted eight focus groups and administered dozens of surveys, learning from nearly 100 residents.

“We learn best when we have partners and residents speaking to us about their needs, their desires, their wants,” said Anthony “What we are learning is there are many barriers in place, and that most residents don’t see themselves attending a traditional undergraduate experience like Calvin offers, but they are interested in having higher education in their life in order to achieve their goals. We kept hearing that over and over again.”

Partnering on a pathway

So, beginning in the summer of 2024, Calvin and its community partners are launching the state of Michigan’s first Clemente Course in the Humanities, a transformative educational experience for adults facing economic hardship and adverse circumstances. They are calling it the Wayfinder Program.

“A humanities education gives you the tools in your toolbelt to access further growth for your own civic engagement and personal enrichment,” said Abbie Lipsker, director of continuing studies at Calvin. “This opportunity also is intentionally designed to create a pathway to future opportunities for adult learners who wish to complete a degree at a community college or at a place like Calvin University.”

Wayfinder is being offered free of charge and removes as many barriers as possible for adult learners to earn and achieve credits. Childcare, meals, and transportation are included on the nights of class and the classes take place in an ADA accessible location right in the heart of the 07 zip code. Books and laptops are also provided for the classes.

“The goal of this initiative is for Calvin to bridge the gap as it pertains to access to higher education in the local community, while living into our mission and vision,” said Lipsker. “We imagine this initiative as a vehicle to a better quality of life.”

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