Numbers come easily to Denise Van Houweling Dahl ’94—so easily, in fact, that she took calculus II as an elective.
She began her Calvin career as a pre-law student but soon understood that her strengths centered on accounting and math— hence the added elective.
“I chose Calvin because I felt as though I was just starting to dip my toe into a big adventure, and I wanted to begin that experience in a supportive, faith-based community,” said the Pella, Iowa native.
That adventure fueled in her a curiosity about language and culture that put a special mark on her life and career.
She was auditing another course—this time, German—when she expressed a concern to professor Jim Lamse about wanting to learn the language in such a short period of time.
As a final-semester senior, Dahl had already accepted a position at Arthur Andersen, an accounting firm, and was set to begin her work there in September.
“Herr Lamse knew I had already accepted an accounting position but had the summer free. So he told me, ‘Go to Germany!’ and helped me set that up,” she said. “I had an incredible time. That summer changed my life.”
The international adventure continued at Dahl’s second employer, Herman Miller. She worked as senior manager in international finance and traveled throughout Asia, Europe, Australia and Latin America.
“It was so important to me, professionally and personally, to have global experiences,” she said. “You begin to understand why people think differently; so much has to do with where they were born and raised. But at the end of the day, we’re all human and we all aspire to many of the same things.”
Dahl’s third major employer was the Chicago-based Mead Johnson—the “baby formula people”—and as finance director, another chance to live and work abroad presented itself.
She lived in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where she was often mistaken for a local. (“There was some disappointment when I couldn’t tell visitors where the post office was,” she recalled.) Travel throughout Europe and Russia was a part of the experience.
A couple years later, a third international assignment came her way. She moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to be the finance director of the company’s subsidiary in that South American country.
“Moving to a new country and a concrete jungle of 25 million people is not for everyone, but I loved it there,” she said. “The people of Sao Paulo are so loving, and the Brazilian energy and vibrancy toward life in unlike anywhere else.”
“I’ve also learned that when you think you are in control, God puts you on a different path.”Denise Van Houwelling Dahl '94
Dahl did everything in the financial division while in Brazil—controller, financial planning, treasurer, tax, audit, supply chain finance— all during a time of economic uncertainty.
She learned much from her Brazilian counterparts.
“The kindnesses I experienced was genuine,” she said. “There’s a refreshing attitude of not worrying about the minor things. You can focus on what’s bad, but it’s healthier to emphasize what’s good.”
She’s now back in Chicago and working as vice president for international finance at ConAgra Brands, again traveling throughout the world.
Grateful for Calvin’s preparation in accounting—she passed the CPA exam on the first try, as many Calvin grads do—Dahl is equally glad for the global nudge from Herr Lamse, sparking an interest she didn’t know that was in her at the time.
“Curiosity has led me to do what I’ve done,” she said. “I’ve also learned that when you think you are in control, God puts you on a different path. In my case, that path has been thousands of miles long.”