Off-campus programs: Making the world a smaller place

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The plane was set to board in 15 minutes. An airplane stewardess came on the speakers in the small terminal of the Chicago O’Hare airport, making an announcement first in English, and then Chinese. After three long summer months working full-time and preparing to leave, this was it — in eighteen hours, we would be in China. Four months later I was back in the airport, full of happy memories and good Chinese food. The trip was part of Calvin College’s Off-Campus Programs (OCP), and it was life changing, as studying abroad is for many Calvin students.

With more than 40 programs on 5 different continents, OCP offers Calvin students many opportunities to study off-campus, for either an interim or a semester. These programs push students a bit out of their comfort zone, encouraging them to grow.

Donald De Graaf is the director of off-campus programs and has been for the last nine years. Before taking the role of director, De Graaf worked as a professor in the kinesiology department.

“We’ve been at it a long time,” De Graaf said. OCP first started the interim programs in the late 1970s, and the Spain Semester was started in 1984 as the first semester abroad program. OCP has now grown to 11 semester programs and 36 interim programs.

For the semester programs, De Graaf works as the continuous contact for the partners abroad, and OCP tries to send a faculty member to meet with the partners at least once every four years. For the interim programs, however, De Graaf said “we are just more of a facilitator,” as they walk alongside “faculty as they develop the courses they offer during interim.”

Because of the many opportunities OCP offers, students of all majors can find a program. Language students studying Chinese, French and Spanish can find semester programs focused on their studies. Interdisciplinary students are required to do a semester program as part of their major requirements. Many departments offer their own interim programs, such as the English department’s New England Saints interim trip.

All programs fulfill the CCE requirement, and many of the programs can help fulfill other core requirements. A geology May interim course to Montana fulfills the physical world core, and the Semester in Britain, through which students take classes at York St. John University, fulfills both the literature core credit as well as the global and historical studies core course.

Besides these two core-fulfilling classes taught by a Calvin faculty member, students on the Semester in Britain also choose two other classes to take; according to the program’s Calvin webpage, “No matter what major you’re pursuing … you’ll find classes to take at York St. John University.”

Through the many programs OCP offers, students have opportunities to grow and broaden their worldview.

“Each unique program enters its location with a purpose,” OCP’s Calvin webpage says. “Whether you’re studying medicine or global development, art or engineering, you will gain a new perspective that can only be reached through being there.”

“Being there by myself made me more confident and more willing to put myself in new situations,” said Cassidy Wolff, a junior who went on the Semester in Britain last spring. She said the trip gave her perspective, and helped her become “more independent and responsible for myself.”

“From a research standpoint or theoretical standpoint … we often grow when we are put into new environments,” De Graaf said. However, he also commented on how research has shown that students can become so overwhelmed that they freeze, rather than thrive while abroad. OCP aims to create programs that push students out of their comfort zones enough to facilitate growth, but not so much that students freeze up.

“We can do that by providing experiences with faculty there,” De Graaf said. This is partially why each semester is run by a Calvin faculty member. The Calvin faculty members leading the semester trips teach classes to the students, live in the country with the students and offer support for the students.

While the programs OCP offers are rewarding, they also come with many challenges — challenges anyone living in another country will experience.

While Wolff was on her OCP program, tragedy hit at home: “[a close friend’s] brother died while I was over there, and I couldn’t be there for her. That really impacted my whole trip, and coming back and having to deal with that … I’m still getting used to it.”

“We say that study abroad is not easy, to be in a different place, away from family and friends, it can be hard for four or five months,” De Graaf said. Most, if not all, of students on the trips experience culture shock and homesickness, and being away from family and friends can be challenging.

With both the rewards and challenges, many students still choose to go on one of the programs OCP has to offer; according to their Calvin webpage, 807 students studied off campus in 2013.

“The culture we have at Calvin encourages people to think about staying off campus, whether it be an interim or a semester,” De Graaf said. “We have a culture where it’s encouraged: by faculty, by staff, by students themselves.”

Many students coming back from the programs encourage their friends and classmates to consider the programs OCP offers.

“I loved it so much. I think about it everyday; I’d recommend any study abroad trip to any student,” said Wolff. “I can’t even say how much I recommend this to students; it was the time of my life.”

Barbara Chang, a senior who did the Semester in China program this past fall, agrees.

“I would definitely recommend the trip to others. Being in the country and learning cannot be imitated in just a classroom through lecture and theory,” Chang said.

OCP offers life-changing experiences to Calvin students; for many students, the opportunities OCP offers are the highlight of their Calvin experience. Calvin College encourages students to think deeply about the world, and from this stems a culture that highly values the services OCP has to offer.