Ana Marisse Barahona was 9 years old when she first heard of Calvin College. At that time it was a faraway place where her fourth-grade teacher, Emily Geertsma Klooster ’02, came from.
“I had Calvin teachers my whole life,” said Barahona, now a recent graduate of International School (IST) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. “I started thinking, ‘I’m going to see where these teachers come from.’ I knew my teachers really liked it; then, I knew it was where I wanted to go.”
But Calvin College is nearly 2,000 miles from Tegucigalpa by air and more than 3,200 miles and several countries away by land. It’s a place most students at the Honduran school identify by putting up their hand in the shape of a mitten—to represent Michigan—and pointing to a spot somewhere below their pinky finger.
It was completely out of reach for Barahona, now 18, whose middle-class parents work hard just to keep her and her two sisters in the private, Christian International School. Still, she kept learning more about Calvin through her fifth-grade teacher, Teresa Woolworth ‘04, then through a long line of Calvin alumni teachers, including Anson Heyboer ’07, Alan Stob ’09, Daniel Engel ’09, Aaron Eding ’08, Meredith DeVries ’07 and most recently Daniel Tao ’10, Brittany Roode ’11 and Ben Faulkner ’11.
“The people I met from Calvin caught my attention,” she said. “They really inspired me. I always wondered why these people, having a pleasant life in their country, would leave their friends, family and comforts to … teach children in a Third World country that most of the world does not even know exists? When I asked them why they are here, they have different reasons, but it’s always focused on serving God.”
Klooster remembers Barahona and her concentrated study: “She always had her eyes on me, listening to what I was saying even when others were not. She was an exceptional student, and her English was almost perfect, even at age 10. She used words that most American adults do not use regularly.”
A far-fetched dream
Quietly Barahona observed her Calvin role models, but never told anyone of her dream to attend Calvin: “I thought they would laugh at me,” she said. Then last year she got past her fears and told Tao, her chemistry teacher. “He told me my dream was not ridiculous,” she said. “So I contacted an admissions counselor who said it was far-fetched; not impossible, but far-fetched.”
As for her classmates, “They were laughing at me,” she said with a smile.
But Barahona forged on. She achieved excellent grades and received a top scholarship from Calvin. “She is so driven,” said Roode, Barahona’s math teacher. “I’ve seen her work harder for what she wants than most students. She was one of the top students in my class. She’s motivated, she’s a great leader and she has a passion for Christ.”
Despite all of that, Barahona came up $6,000 shy of the necessary funds this spring. “Calvin sent me a T-shirt, and it made me cry,” she said. “I was trying to forget about Calvin because that dream had died. Where was I going to get $6,000, under a rock or something?”
That’s where Julienne Louters ’10, another teacher at the school, stepped up. “I had this dream in my heart that we could make this happen for her, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. She was only $6,000 short of her dream; to me she was so close. I thought, ‘I’m sure there are more people like me who have spent time teaching here, who would love to have their impact go beyond the one or two years they spent teaching here,’” she said.
Calvin’s international admissions counselor Nunana Nyomi, who had been drawn into the process, knew that the only way this was going to happen was if “someone stepped up to the plate and got behind the effort.”
“She was one of the strongest applicants we had in our pool this year,” said Nyomi. “We love to have students of this caliber apply to Calvin, but there was a time I thought, ‘no way this is happening.’ We offered everything we could, but there was still a gap.”
Louters pulled together colleagues Faulkner and Roode and shared her vision. “As teachers you grow to care about your students and their futures,” said Roode. “You have dreams for your students, too. So when it looked like this dream could fail, and there was something we could do about it, we jumped at it.”
The three young Calvin alums sent a letter to anyone associated with Calvin and IST (54 Calvin alums have taught at the school) asking for support for Ana. They needed the money by May 1 to satisfy Honduran visa restrictions—it was April 28.
“I was not as trusting as I should have been,” admitted Roode.
In two days, they had pledges for more than $10,000 for the first year and more than $6,000 for each of the next three years.
'Like a miracle'
“It was like a miracle,” said Barahona. “It was an answer to years of prayer.” In total, 29 sponsors pledged to help Barahona’s dream happen.
The support was a testimony to God’s plan, the alums said.
“It is tremendously exciting and mind-blowing,” said Faulkner, “but at the end of the day, yes, I absolutely can believe it. With the power of prayer and relying on God’s providence—which she did—this sort of thing is possible. [Ana] also played a part, too; she set this as her dream and she achieved it. This is, of course, a testament to God’s provision, but it is also a testament of her diligence to accomplishing her goals, as huge as they may be.”
“To see the impossible made possible brought me to tears,” added Roode. “To see God really working, to see this miracle made my faith grow.”
“The response was incredible,” said Louters. “We tapped into something so much bigger than just support for Ana. “I learned through this that God really does dream big, and He pulls us into it along the way.”
A bigger plan
That “something bigger” includes continued support for an IST student at Calvin in the form of a scholarship. “I would love to see us support one student every year or one every other year,” said Louters. “Ana is the exceptional case, but there are many other worthy students, too.”
Added Faulkner: “So many International School students have been educated by Calvin graduates. You could even say they are the meta-product of Calvin. That said, it makes sense to establish a scholarship for IST students due to the strong intellectual, moral and spiritual connection these students already have with Calvin.”
First the group will organize a Calvin alumni chapter in Honduras. Then they hope to raise money for an ongoing scholarship.
“It’s such a cool thing to hear that her Calvin teachers had an influence on her,” said Louters. “It’s so encouraging because that’s your goal, to instill values in your students. As teachers you plant seeds and sometimes you don’t get to see them grow, but when you do it makes you understand that what we are doing is so important.”
The entire process, from her first sharing her dream to seeing her attain it, is amazing, added Tao. “I’m definitely honored,” he said. “But the truth is that Ana and her class really influenced me way more. Those kids changed so much about my perception of teaching, of treatment of others and vocation in life. I’m honored that I can be a small part of her life because she and her classmates were a big part of mine.”
Louters believes that Barahona will be a blessing to Calvin and to the mission of Calvin, as well.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is influence the development of this country by growing good, Christian leaders,” said Louters. “We learned that at Calvin. What a blessing Ana can be in the future.”
Said Faulkner: “I have no reservations about her—nothing but excitement and positive anticipation. I cannot wait to see all that she is going to do.”
In the meantime, Barahona is making plans to attend Calvin (at the time of printing she will already be attending classes). Her friends, she said, are still laughing at her. “They can’t believe it,” she said. She knows a few things about Calvin already, including the Calvin-Hope rivalry; in fact, her sisters (ages 15 and 12) tease her by saying they are going to Hope! And the one thing she is looking forward to? “Snow.”