GRAND RAPIDS — With a pair of new programs this academic year — the Asian Studies major and African and African Diaspora Studies minor — Calvin College continued to formalize its curriculum’s long-standing relationship with East Asia and Africa.
“Calvin is at the extreme end already in the number of foreign-born students and the number of students that study abroad,” explained Gaylen Byker, Calvin’s president. “We’ve had most of these courses before; we’re just putting them into a much more organized and coherent program.”
Through its relationship with the Christian Reformed Church, Calvin has developed eight semester programs and 30 interim programs abroad, and currently has alumni working in 60 countries.
The strength of its affiliated church in Asia and Africa — according to Byker, there are more members of the church in Nigeria alone than in North America — has translated into not just study opportunities, but a steady stream of students as well.
Nearly 60 students this past academic year were residents of the African continent with similar representation from East Asia.
“Calvin’s reputation in those countries and the network of alums in those countries continues to grow,” Byker said. “It is an interesting way to build a network in those specific countries.”
Ten years ago, two students from the African nation of Ghana came to Calvin at the recommendation of the U.S. Information Agency. This past year more than 25 students from Ghana attended Calvin, while a resident program has now been established there.
“It’s a virtual cycle,” Byker said. “Students that have a good experience here go back and help to recruit more students.”
The college’s ties with Africa provide valuable resources as the school works to globalize its curriculum.
Half of the African and African Diaspora Studies minor’s initial funding came through a two-year grant of just over $140,000 from the U.S. Department of Education. The minor will focus on both the African continent and its influence throughout the world.
Divided into two tracks, the first will be a study of Africa and people on the African continent with courses in African geography, history, literature, politics and economy.
The other track will examine the descendants of those dispersed from Africa, both through voluntary immigration and forced migrations such as slavery, with primary emphasis on the Americas.
Along with the new program, Calvin will expand its library and multimedia holdings on Africa, conduct faculty workshops, hold lectures in conjunction with the West Michigan World Affairs Council, and offer a film series to develop a course for area school teachers on Africa.
There will also be a new language offering, Kiswahilli, which is spoken in parts of Africa including Kenya, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Not enough is known about this huge continent,” African studies project director Randal Jelks said. “We want to, not just for our students, but I feel a great obligation to educate our community as a whole on this continent that is the least known.”
While most North American-born Calvin alumni choose to work in Africa as teachers or missionaries, many have looked to business ventures in the emerging economy, as well. Calvin alumna Jennie L.H. Nichols founded Grand Rapids-based Venture Imports through her study-abroad experience (GRBJ, May 17), importing tribal artwork from Zimbabwe.
When most people in the business world hear the term globalization, it isn’t necessarily Africa that comes to mind, however, but Asia.
In the last four years, 17 Calvin students have graduated with a customized Asian Studies major. This year, Calvin will expand the two-year-old Asian Studies minor into a formal major.
This change comes directly after Calvin — the only Christian school in the country offering four continuous years of either Chinese or Japanese — reached an all-time high of more than 100 students studying one or both of the languages.
Calvin first offered a Chinese language course in the 1980s, but the Tiananmen Square massacre caused many students to back away from it, and eventually the course was dropped.
Shortly afterward, a course in Japanese was offered, and over the next decade courses in Asian history began to appear.
When Daniel Bays, the Asian Studies program director, came to Calvin in 2000, part of his job description was to expand the program. Using an $800,000 grant from the Freeman Foundation and the same global exchange program that benefited the African studies program, he was able to establish a minor the next year.
“There has been an interesting combination of academic study and opportunity that has become available there in the past five years,” Bays said. “And with the study abroad programs, they can get over there and really get their juices flowing.”
Oddly enough, Asian American students have had little interest in the program, although Bays believes that is because the majority of them are of Korean descent and if Korean became a language option, those students might become attracted to the program.
Many Asian-born students have taken advantage of the Asian studies programs.
“I can think of one in particular, a girl from Taiwan,” Bays said. “She got interested in Japan, and for her, studying Japanese and Japan was as foreign as our studying Japanese and Japan.”
That student is currently interning with an automotive company in Japan.
Like the African Studies program, Calvin has traditionally seen its students’ Asian interests lie in teaching and missionary efforts, but an increasing number are turning to the business world.
Bays cited a recent trip he took to Beijing this past summer, where he met with nine Calvin alumni. Of those, equal numbers were involved in graduate work, teaching and business.
Through its affiliation with the Christian Reformed Church, Calvin has also become involved in developing Christian education across the globe.
“What I see is a wave of new Christian colleges around the world, particularly the Third World,” Byker said. “And Calvin’s connection is that, in almost every case, there is a Calvin alumni working in those situations.”
Calvin regularly sends faculty and alumni to assist in teaching and teacher training at partner Christian schools and colleges in Hungary, Honduras, China, Ghana, England, France, Spain, Kenya, Russia, Lithuania and Korea, among others.
Sixteen Calvin students are teaching in Honduras this year, and this winter Byker will lead a workshop for hundreds of Christian teachers in Korea.