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This fall, dozens of residents of the 49507 ZIP code in Grand Rapids, Mich., attended several focus groups sponsored by Calvin University to help researchers understand what people living in that area felt were their biggest needs. What they found was that several attendees had not finished high school or a GED program. Still, several wanted to achieve college degrees, but they faced barriers to that goal, including childcare and funding.

In 2024, Calvin will respond to this need by launching the 49507 Initiative, a program to help make post-secondary education accessible to adult learners living in this part of the city with services such as free childcare, bus passes, meals, and scholarships.

“Until now, higher education opportunities were difficult to come by in this area,” explained Abbie Lipsker, director of continuing studies at Calvin and one of the program’s creators. “But for years Calvin has prioritized and been impassioned by serving the greater Grand Rapids community by actively and humbly listening, taking initiative where needed.”

Beginning in the summer of 2024, Calvin will pilot a free academic transition program called Wayfinder in the 49507 area. Partnering with local organizations and Calvin faculty and staff, the program will prepare adult learners who may have stepped away from the classroom due to circumstances such as the birth of a child or lack of resources. Wayfinder’s courses will be geared toward students who never completed high school or a GED program and will provide a pathway to eventually completing a bachelor’s degree from Calvin.

“The goal of this initiative is for Calvin to bridge the gap as it pertains to access to higher education in the local community while living into our mission and vision of being a trusted partner with a commitment to lifelong learning and the welfare of the city,” explained Shaq Anthony, Calvin’s director of strategic partnerships. “We imagine this initiative as a vehicle to a better quality of life.”

Currently, less than a quarter of people living in the 49507 area have a bachelor’s degree, compared to about 39% in Grand Rapids as a whole.

Calvin University’s mission statement is to equip students “to think deeply, to act justly, and to live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” The 49507 Initiative “embodies those words and gives us the opportunity to create systemic change in our community,” Anthony said.

The new program is just one of many Calvin has created to contribute to the welfare of its city. “From community nursing students offering health care to the Plaster Creek Stewards restoring the Plaster Creek Watershed, Calvin has had a long-standing presence in the city of Grand Rapids,” Associate Provost Kevin den Dulk said, “but until now, it hasn’t all been connected to a broader vision. The 49507 Initiative brings all these programs together under one umbrella and allows us to have a bigger footprint and more focused presence in the city.”

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