Initial Publication Date: February 10, 2014

Supporting Minority Students at Calvin College

Information for this profile was provided by Deanna van Dijk, Calvin College. Information is also available on the program website.

Jump Down To: Context | Keys to Success | Attracting New Students | Supporting Our Majors | Preparing Students for Careers | Additional Information

Calvin College


Calvin College is a comprehensive liberal arts college in the Reformed tradition of historic Christianity. Located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the college has 4000+ undergraduate students from Michigan (52%) and other states and countries (48%). 10% of the student population are international students and 13% are AHANA (African-, Hispanic-, Asian-, and Native- American) students. Roughly 55% of the students are female.

The Department of Geology, Geography and Environmental Studies (GEO Department) offers 8 different majors including education and group majors. Environmental studies, geology, and geography majors are the most popular majors, enrolling 81 students in Fall 2013. The number of student majors has quadrupled since 2009, indicating a growing interest in the geoscience majors. Faculty numbers have remained the same through that time period; in 2013 there are six male and one female faculty with disciplinary expertise and active scholarship programs.

Keys to Success

  • A few students are attracted to the program by their own interests, but many students "discover" geoscience majors in a traditional or innovative-format general education science course.
  • Calvin College provides formal support structures, but strong faculty mentoring and a comfortable department atmosphere support students through their decisions, challenges and successes.
  • Comprehensive programs and courses provide content knowledge to prepare students for their careers, but additional experiences in research, employment and fieldwork are very important.

Attracting New Students

A small number of students are looking for geoscience programs before they enter college/university. Students who find the Calvin College GEO Department (usually through our web-site or word-of-mouth) are often looking for the combination of a Christian college and their chosen major.

Most geoscience students discover their major after they come to college. Geoscience courses that are part of the college general education requirements are made inviting by the content, course activities and faculty. Because upper-level students were filling the introductory courses, the GEO Department made an arrangement with the Registrar's Office to reserve half the seats in each course for first or second year students. This way, if students are attracted to a geoscience major by the course content, they do not feel that it is "too late" to switch majors.

The GEO Department developed two hands-on courses to make it possible for more students to discover geoscience majors. The unusual formats for general education science credit courses particularly attract students who are interested in the outdoors and the environment. Geology 153 Big Sky Geology: Montana Field Experience is a field-based introductory geology course taught in southwest Montana for two weeks at the end of May. Geography 181 First-Year Research in Earth Sciences (FYRES) is a course only available to first-semester college students. The FYRES course brings students to the Lake Michigan dunes, an hour's drive from campus, for authentic research experiences so that students learn about science by doing science. Both courses introduce students to the content and practices of geoscience disciplines.

Broader curricular changes also make geoscience majors or minors more attractive to students. A new environmental studies major has attracted 30 new majors in just 3 years. Other curricular changes have made programs more "user-friendly" by giving students more elective options so they can combine a minor or second major with their other interests. Within the curriculum, the GIS courses have been drawing students from many different departments.

Supporting Our Majors

Formal support structures are available at Calvin College, including a caring and attentive Residential Life department, on-campus counseling and health centers, a Disability office, academic support programs such as tutoring or writing support. Retention rates are high across campus, with an 87% retention rate from first to second year (compared to a 70% national rate) and a 73% six-year graduation rate (compared to a national rate of 57%).

Strong faculty mentoring of students contribute to their retention and completion of their degree program. At Calvin College, every student meets with a faculty advisor at least once a semester for guidance on educational and vocational choices. GEO faculty use the advising relationships to mentor students through their decision-making, challenges and successes as they make vocational choices and move towards completing their degrees. Considerable informal mentoring takes place in shared department spaces, on field trips, and during other shared experiences such as student research, or laboratory assisting.

Students feel "at home" in the GEO Department, a feeling promoted by department spaces, low faculty-to-major ratios, and community-building activities. A department Common Room with kitchen facilities and dedicated space for puzzles with disciplinary themes serves as a gathering place for students and faculty to take breaks or have informal meetings. Faculty get to know most of the student majors by name and activities, thereby promoting opportunities for informal mentoring.

Preparing Students for Careers

Geoscience majors at Calvin College are being prepared for post-graduation activities that might include graduate studies, employment in their discipline, mission/development work at distant locations, and a variety of other possibilities. Strong courses in comprehensive majors provide the content knowledge that students need. Faculty advising guides students towards the most appropriate courses and sequencing for their post-graduation goals. Faculty often recommend activities, such as jobs, field trips, and student research, to supplement the formal education and make students more competitive towards their post-graduation goals. In fact, faculty often create such opportunities both in and outside of courses.

Addition Information

The Department of Geology, Geography and Environmental Studies recognizes that it faces challenges in recruiting students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the geosciences. Female students are well-represented but students with disabilities and students from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups have lower rates of participation. Contributing to the challenge is a combination of institutional context (13% of the population is AHANA students) and the low diversity numbers in the geosciences across the United States. Although numbers of minority students entering the Calvin geoscience majors are low, the GEO Department is strong in mentoring minority students to graduation and preparing them for their activities after graduation.

Information for this profile comes from the Calvin College website ( and the Calvin College Department of Geology, Geography and Environmental Studies.