It was the spring of 2012 and professor of engineering David Wunder was more than 1,000 miles away from Calvin when he received the call.

On sabbatical in Austin, Texas, Wunder listened as Calvin’s senior associate to the president, Bob Berkhof, shared a vision for a water institute at the college—an idea that had been stirring among a small group of alumni. The conversation piqued Wunder’s personal and professional interest, so he penciled in a summer meeting to explore Calvin’s role in this new endeavor.

Little did he know he was taking on an ambitious interdisciplinary project that would span multiple years and countless collaborators. All he knew was that it seemed to be an idea he couldn’t shake—and didn’t want to.

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If you are interested in being part of the Clean Water Institute of Calvin College’s work on issues of clean water and sanitation in developing countries, consider becoming involved in the following ways.


Join the Calvin community in praying for the everyday operations of the institute, furthering kingdom work worldwide. Pray for our partnering communities around the globe, as we participate in service learning together.


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Watch Colin Gesink's Kenya Interim 2014 video »

Read VERGE: Friends in search of water across the globe »

Contagious enthusiasm

A few months later, Wunder and Berkhof were sitting down with those alums at a cafe in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids to discuss their vision for “an institute at Calvin focused on water and sanitation in developing countries,” as Wunder puts it. There was no official name for the institute and no clear path forward, just a dedication to the hope of what it could be.

Joining the Calvin representatives around the table were geologist Jason Brink ’96, businessman Sid Jansma ’65 and professor emeritus of geology Tom Timmermans ’84. Soon after initial discussions, geology professor Gerry Van Kooten ’73 would join the vision committee for regular meetings, all preceded by, opened with and followed by prayer.

“Although the original conversation included a group of just five of us, the excitement and the fit at Calvin has been there for decades,” Wunder said. “There are tremendous complements across campus for this kind of work.”

The institute experienced exponential support as word spread across campus. For Matt Walhout, dean for research and scholarship, the support was not surprising because, he said, the idea aligns so closely with what Calvin is as an institution.

“This new institute promotes Calvin’s mission in so many ways,” said Walhout. “Its root motivation is found in a gospel-inspired vision of flourishing communities. Its work draws on the technical expertise of Calvin’s faculty, students and institutional partners.”

By late 2014, the basic idea behind the institute had resonated with many, gaining the force of a formal proposal, campuswide endorsements from a variety of departments and a trailblazing donor at the ready. In November, the concept passed through the approval process in the faculty senate. And on July 1, 2015, the doors of the Clean Water Institute of Calvin College (CWICC) are set to open.

An interdisciplinary approach

Though Wunder—who will serve as the institute’s first director—is an engineer, he sees the path to clean water extending far beyond his field. “Water and sanitation overseas is not just a technical issue,” he explains.

“It’s an issue that really links to watershed-based, community-based approaches and shifts in practice. So when you look at it with that kind of perspective, you need the technical aspects—engineering and geology—but you also need people that are experts with community development and education, and more broadly, policy.”

Wunder expects the institute to draw from the disciplines of international development, public health, social work and political science. He said that even with the various academic approaches, some guiding concepts will resound: “One thing that’s unique about this institute is that it’s very intentional about service, learning and teaching. We expect that the involvement of students and faculty with this work will be not just transformative for those we are serving overseas, but especially transformative for those that are involved with the work.”

Jeff Bouman, director of Calvin’s Service-Learning Center, is excited about the student opportunities and community partnerships the institute can offer. “This institute will provide many meaningful opportunities for Calvin students to participate in service learning in academic contexts,” he said. “Contexts that address real problems, real communities, real assets in indigenous communities and real partnerships around the world.”

Students at the center

Junior Colin Gesink has experienced this kind of service learning firsthand and can attest to the ongoing clean water work students are already involved in at Calvin.

A computer science and media production major, Gesink admits he is not pursuing any of the “typical majors” associated with clean water initiatives. But the description of the In Search of Water in Kenya interim course caught his eye and, in January 2014, he traveled to the rural Kenyan village of Sedai in a group of 20 students and two professors.

“It was not until actually arriving in Sedai that we knew what we would be doing for the next week,” Gesink recalls. “We found the borehole—or well—that supplied the village’s water had been dysfunctional for about five years. Because of that, the women and children of the village traveled anywhere from two to seven kilometers [one to four miles] into the hills or neighboring villages to find clean water.”

While others in the class worked with a mobile clinic, conducted a social survey of water needs or designed alternative water options for the village, Gesink both documented the trip through video and served on a team of students and local residents tasked with fixing the borehole, thereby restoring clean water for the village.

“That is a moment I will never forget,” Gesink said. “After tightening the last screw, we began to pump the well. With the whole village gathered, water began flowing from the borehole, a sight that had not been seen for five years.”

Senior engineering majors Julie Swierenga and Wendy Tabler also participated in the interim course and have since taken two other water-related trips overseas.

In May 2014, they traveled to Curahuasi, Peru, with Calvin’s student-led engineering club, Engineering Unlimited, to work with local experts and water supply consultant Bruce Rydbeck of Life Giving Water International (LGWI).

“We spent a week in Peru gathering information for a hydraulic model of the water distribution system,” Swierenga said. “Then we spent the summer and the first semester of the school year creating that model, testing it and writing a report with the recommended changes that needed to be made to the system to alleviate pressure concerns.”

It was also in Peru that Swierenga and Tabler connected with Rydbeck and gained an understanding of LGWI’s ongoing work with water and sanitation needs in developing countries. When it came time for the Swierenga and Tabler to choose their senior design project, the seniors formed a student team to partner with Rydbeck—and the local community—to improve the drinking water system in Apatug, Ecuador.

“While we were down there, our main goals were, first of all, to learn more about their system and what was going on and then, second of all, to take a topographic survey,” Tabler said. She and Swierenga later used the topographical information to construct a map of the community’s water system.

Swierenga said her world has been expanded through her experiences abroad, and she sees the value of a collegewide clean water initiative. “Water affects all aspects of life and is deeply engrained in politics, economy, culture and development,” she said. “That’s what makes the Clean Water Institute such an exciting concept. At Calvin, we have access to people who are gifted in all these areas.”

The next chapter

Wunder agrees, though he views the gifts held within the Calvin community as just the beginning of the center’s potential. “I would love for [the institute] to be a place that is drawing new people to campus,” he said, stressing the necessity of Calvin partnering with other experts in the field, some of whom, Wunder says, have already stepped forward to express interest in the institute.

Wunder is working on a team to vet possible partnerships in Ecuador, Ethiopia, Haiti and other countries, exploring project compatibility with the institute’s resources and expertise. Coming alongside work that is already being done in developing countries, and enhancing it through the institute’s resources, Wunder explains, will bring the greatest prospect for success.

And any success from Calvin and its partners, he said, comes only by God’s grace. It is grace that has seemingly made a way for this massive undertaking—from first phone call to grand opening—over the past three years. Wunder and his team pray that the same grace will guide years of solutions, long after he leaves his post as director.

“That we can solve problems is a reasonable expectation,” Wunder insists. “But it is presumptuous to think that we can do anything that God hasn’t already ordained.”

Amanda Greenhoe is a writer and Calvin’s social media manager.