Walking the paths of presidents: A semester in D.C.


Photo courtesy Christian Rodriguez.

On any given Monday, most Calvin students find themselves sitting in classes, catching up in the Fish House or bonding over breadsticks in Commons. But a cohort of 20 Calvin students studying on the Henry Semester in Washington D.C. might find themselves at places like the Holocaust Museum, Ford’s Theatre or the Supreme Court.

Since 2000, the Henry Semester has allowed Calvin students to explore their interests through internship placements, classes and visits to major landmarks in the nation’s capital. Though many of the participating students study social work, political science or international relations, the semester is open to students of all majors. This year’s group of students includes history, information systems, English and public health majors.

Senior Blair Coats is a theatre and English literature major interning at the Folger Theatre this spring.

“Not only is the Folger Theatre spectacular and a great opportunity to see the daily function of a professional theatre company, but it is also a hub for most of D.C. theatre,” said Coats.

“Other performing art companies use the Folger for resources and inspiration, especially as Folger has relics from almost every Shakespeare performance in the D.C. area. Thus, while I’m learning about how to run a theatre, I’m also making great networking connections, and while making great networking connections, I’m surrounded by an amazing cabaret of inspiring theatre.”

Other students come to D.C. to pursue their interest in politics or government. Junior Christian Rodrigues, a double major in international relations and strategic communications, knew he wanted to do the D.C. semester before his first year at Calvin. He is currently interning in the criminal division of the Department of Justice, where he works on legal cases involving persons who have fled to other countries after being accused or convicted of a crime. Rodrigues says he enjoys the challenging work he does at his internship, and appreciates being able to work on cases instead of doing typical “intern” tasks.

This year, students are also interning at places such as the Washington D.C. Police Department, the Library of Congress or in a senator’s office. There are a wide variety of internship opportunities throughout the city, and students are responsible for finding and applying to internships during the prior fall semester.

In addition to the internships, Calvin students participate in two classes: a traditional class and a class that visits sites around D.C. Both classes take place on Mondays.

Several of Calvin’s social work students participate in the D.C. semester each spring to fulfill their department’s internship requirement. Because of this, there are two options offered for the traditional class: a social work class or a class about Congress and the presidency for non-social work majors. The social work class is taught by Calvin alumna Rachel Jacobs Gainor and the political science class is taught by Professor Doug Koopman, who is this semester’s professor in residence.

During the day on Mondays, all 20 students gather to visit organizations or landmarks. Some visit locations include the Baptist Joint Committee, Sojourners, the Center for Public Justice and the International Justice Mission.

Junior Jesse Brink said his favorite site visit so far was the U.S. Capitol Building tour, which was personally guided by Michigan representative and Calvin alumnus Bill Huizenga. On the tour, Huizenga told students personal anecdotes, let students view the ceiling of the rotunda from the floor and gave them access to the floors of the Senate and House of Representatives.

Brink said, “It was so fascinating to see the rotunda and the view from the speaker’s balcony, as well as tour one of our nation’s most important buildings!”

Students also attend cultural events while in D.C. This semester, some of these cultural events include a production of Hamlet by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, a Washington Nationals baseball game and a semi-staged production of In The Heights. Such events allow students to explore beyond the political and historical aspects of the U.S. capital.

One reason the D.C. semester continues to be successful is because of partnerships with Calvin alumni such as Huizenga. According to Koopman, Calvin has at least 100 alumni residing in the D.C. metropolitan area. Some of them work at places such as CNN, Deloitte or the House of Representatives.

Nate Maring, ’16, is a Calvin alumnus currently working for the Washington Metropolitan Police Department. He said that going on the D.C. semester during his time at Calvin helped prepare him for his current career.

“Interning with the Metropolitan Police Department provided me with chances to experience working in law enforcement as well as experience D.C. I had opportunities to visit units and teams with a wide variety of specialties and see a police investigation first hand,” Maring said. “Seeing these things not only provided me with experience working in law enforcement, but also helped guide me into a career in law enforcement, and prepared me to enter the career field by providing me with first hand experiences of policing.”

Many of the Calvin alumni in the area partner with students on the D.C. semester as mentors, giving their mentees advice about living in D.C. and helping them network.

The housing provided through the D.C. semester also eases students’ transition to the city. Students live together in Greystone, a stone house conveniently located about a mile from the Capitol building and a 10-minute walk from the nearest metro stop. Though things like sharing a kitchen can be challenging, the convenient location gives students ready access to much of what D.C. has to offer.

Junior Sevi Bunce said that community was both the greatest challenge and greatest benefit of living at Greystone.

“There is no other time in your life where you will get to live, learn and work with such incredible people … So while one of the greatest benefits is gaining a community of great people to live with, the key challenge for me is making time for myself while still participating in the community.”

Next year’s semester in D.C. will be led by philosophy professor James K. A. Smith. Students can learn more about next year’s program through Calvin’s website or by emailing D.C. Program Coordinator Ellen Hekman at [email protected].

Senior Araceli Jaimes said, “Even if you’ve never seen yourself studying and working in D.C., you should apply. It’s such a unique experience because you get to live in a city with brilliant people, free museums and gorgeous architecture. Plus, you get to live 1.5 miles away from the White House.”