Majoring in community

Michael Kelly, a double major in writing and psychology, has gotten involved in Calvin's English department, attending Writers Retreats, volunteering with the Festival of Faith & Writing, and editing Calvin's Dialogue magazine.

There are plenty of ways to find your place at Calvin: on your residence hall floor, in athletics or student organizations, and in study-abroad trips. Another place to build community is in the academic department that hosts your major or program. There are few better examples of this at Calvin than in the English department, where senior Michael Kelly found his place.

The art of risk-taking

When Michael Kelly arrived at the English department's annual Writers Retreat as a sophomore, he didn't know a single person there. In fact, he wasn't even a writing major.

Michael decided to take a risk. He'd started doing some creative writing for Calvin's literary magazine, Dialogue, and wanted to find out if he should add a writing major to his major in psychology.

Stuck in the woods of northern Michigan with 40 writing students and professors, the Writers Retreat was a sink-or-swim scenario for Michael. For an entire weekend, he participated in haiku contests, group feedback sessions and the scariest thing of all: reading his writing in front of a small group of experienced writing majors.

The verdict: swim.

Two years later, Michael is a double major in writing and psychology, the editor in chief of Dialogue and a student volunteer for Calvin's Festival of Faith and Writing. But as a writer, Michael wouldn't want you to think the road from scared sophomore to thriving senior was an easy one. That would make for a boring story. Like any good hero in a story, he had to overcome some obstacles first.

Obstacle No. 1:

The intimidation factor

Take, for example, how he felt about joining an established group of English majors for classes and social activities: "I was a bit intimidated by my late start in English and the really smart community filled with analytical people who really think deeply about things."

His remedy for the intimidation factor? Dive right in and don't look back.

"People are people and we're all looking for community in college. I got beyond my initial intimidation by having classes with some of those [smart] people. For me it was time in my life to make a new set of friends."

So he started showing up at the English department's myriad activities: an Edgar Allen Poe-themed Halloween party, dinners at professors' homes and the Writers Retreat.

"At a department event, you've got to sit with somebody, so you just sort of sit down and start talking."

Obstacle No. 2:

Learning from mistakes

For Michael, the social events for English majors aren't just about having fun and hanging out with people who love words in ways most other majors don't understand. They're about using the power of community to become a sharper writer and a better person. "Oftentimes they'll ask us to do things we aren't comfortable with—like going out in front of people and reading what you wrote, even if it's personal to you, or you don't have a bunch of confidence yet."

Take, for example, the time when Michael had to read an essay aloud in his "Creative Non-Fiction" course. As a new writing major, he overestimated the rhetorical impact his reading was having on his audience. Caught up in the moment, he charged ahead to his closing statement—the "funniest joke" in the whole essay—and instead of nailing it, he stumbled over it.

Embarrassing as the experience may have been, it just meant that the next time Michael shared his work with others, he practiced and practiced until he was sure that he would nail it.

"Every time you step out of your comfort zone, you'll have a story to tell about it. Either it'll work out or it won't, but you'll learn from it and do better next time."

Get involved in any major

At Calvin, professors like their students so much, they create opportunities outside the classroom to enhance the major experience and build community. Here are a few fun activities from various departments on campus.

  • Soup Mondays (English): Professors provide homemade soup, bread and treats each Monday during the month of January. Come early to get in line!
  • Media Showcase (film and media): Part film festival, part award ceremony, this special night celebrates the hard work of film students.

  • Kaffeestunde (German): Join German students and professors for coffee, treats and informal conversation in German.
  • Abstraction (computer science): Use your computer skills in a service project each year. A recent project saw students refurbishing computers for students in Nicaragua.
  • Pizza and a Prof (physics): A physics professor is on the hot seat for student questions about his or her life, hobbies and opinions about...anything!
  • Chili Cookoff (chemistry): Professors use their chemical/culinary expertise to craft the perfect pot of chili, as judged by chemistry students. Students compete in the habanero-eating contest to earn a spot in the Habanero Club.

Attend the Festival of Faith and Writing

You can jumpstart your writing career at Calvin by attending the April 2014 Festival of Faith and Writing, sponsored by the Calvin English department.

  • Email us at and we can arrange for you to get a free registration to the FFW in conjunction with a Fridays at Calvin visit.

VERGE: spring 2014

First-Year Experience