Prospective John M. Perkins Fellow students to visit this weekend

Photo+courtesy+John+M.+Perkins+Fellows

Photo courtesy John M. Perkins Fellows

In addition to the regularly scheduled Fridays At Calvin visitors this weekend, Calvin will be hosting a group of about 40 prospective students aiming to learn more about and apply for the John M. Perkins Fellows Program.

The program offers a unique scholarship opportunity designed primarily for first-generation college students, offering 25 total scholarships, two of which cover the full Calvin tuition.

In some ways, the program itself serves as an admissions tool, reaching out to a lesser-tapped cohort of high school seniors: those who have little or no family history of attending college.

But what makes the program noteworthy and harmonious with the reformed vision of the school is its emphasis on seeking out and cultivating Christian leadership.

“[First-generation] students have a much different perspective than students whose parents did complete a year of college,” said Paul Bylsma, manager of enrollment initiatives at Calvin College.

“For example, things like talking to your admissions counselor, meeting with your professors, filling out FAFSA forms and other things that might seem familiar for one group of students might not be for another… so these students are identified as servant leaders partly because of the difficult situation they are in.”

For students thinking about attending college for the first time in their family’s history, the mountainous barriers that come with the unfamiliarity of college can be difficult to overcome. So in order to reward those student leaders and help ease the process, the John M. Perkins Leadership Fellows Program at Calvin provides a bit of a boost for the 25 selected Fellows.

Though the program generally selects first-generations students, the main focus is on developing leadership. That means that each year, select students who do not qualify as first generation can still participate in the program by showing outstanding leadership in the fields of social justice, racial reconciliation or other areas of Christian development.

“We often talk about leadership in a way that is far too narrow or in a box that is far too corporate. We have an image of leadership that is, in my view, unfortunate. And John Perkins is a great example of a different kind of leadership,” said Jeffrey Bouman, director of the Service-Learning Center and contributor to the development of the program.

The program seeks to recruit not just any leader, but those who approach leadership with humility as servants, reflecting the mission of reconciliation paramount to the leadership of Dr. John Perkins, the internationally known civil rights advocate.

Choosing the John M. Perkins Fellows is no simple task; unlike the Honors Fellows program, GPA and standardized test scores hold less weight for this program, so students are evaluated on the quality of their character and the potential they show in Christian leadership.

To discern this, candidates undergo an interviewing process, develop a deeper understanding of Christian leadership and meet with faculty, staff and John Perkins himself while they are visiting Calvin.

“Being selected into the John M. Perkins Fellows program entails a $2,500 scholarship that’s renewable for two years,” said Bouman. “On top of that, students take a Perkins DCM course and their First Year Seminar course together in the fall.”

The program continues into the spring of their first year, when students take a weeklong trip to Jackson, Miss., to visit the Spencer Perkins Center for Reconciliation, where they witness John Perkins’ mission of reconciliation in Jackson first hand.

During their second year as John M. Perkins Fellows, students are challenged to exercise their developed sense of Christian leadership in a tangible way, either by serving as a leader in some form on campus or by seeing a need in the Grand Rapids community and addressing it.

“While developing our program, our hope was to make Calvin College a more diverse place, in obvious ways racially, but also in class and economic status, so the emphasis has been on first-generation students.

Given that, we think then that after two years now, the Perkins Program indeed meets those objectives; it is in fact very diverse, in terms of race but also in terms of backgrounds,” said Todd Cioffi, a professor in Congregational and Ministry Studies department who also teaches the Perkins DCM in the fall.

Already, many of the John M. Perkins Fellows have gone on to lead in diverse ways across Calvin College and in the greater community, which has made Nate Bradford, Todd Cioffi, Jeffrey Bouman and the many other contributors to the program excited.

From leading student groups and dorm Bible studies to establishing a campus-wide food recovery initiative, the positive influence of the John M. Perkins Fellows’ leadership is invaluable.

Currently, leadership of the program is still split up between multiple departments, and the program is looking for a central director and a home base.

Hopefully, in light of the success the program has already begun to see, greater investment will be the obvious next step the college takes in cultivating the program and increasing the diversity of the school and its leadership.