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Clean Water Institute Opens at Calvin College

August 4, 2015

Calvin College

It was the spring of 2012 and Calvin College professor of engineering David Wunder was more than 1,000 miles away from Calvin when he received the call.

This call eventually led to the formation of the Clean Water Institute of Calvin College (CWICC) which opened in early July.

 On sabbatical in Austin, Texas when he got that initial call, Wunder listened as Calvin’s senior associate to the president, Bob Berkhof, shared a vision for a water institute at the college—an idea that had been stirring among a small group of alumni. The conversation piqued Wunder’s personal and professional interest, so he penciled in a summer meeting to explore Calvin’s role in this new endeavor.

Little did he know he was taking on an ambitious interdisciplinary project that would span multiple years and countless collaborators. All he knew was that it seemed to be an idea he couldn’t shake—and didn’t want to.

Contagious Enthusiasm

A few months later, Wunder and Berkhof were sitting down with those alums at a cafe in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids to discuss their vision for “an institute at Calvin focused on water and sanitation in developing countries,” as Wunder puts it. There was no official name for the institute and no clear path forward, just a dedication to the hope of what it could be.

“Although the original conversation included a group of just five of us, the excitement and the fit at Calvin has been there for decades,” Wunder said. “There are tremendous complements across campus for this kind of work.”

The institute experienced exponential support as word spread across campus. For Matt Walhout, dean for research and scholarship, the support was not surprising because, he said, the idea aligns so closely with what Calvin is as an institution.

“This new institute promotes Calvin’s mission in so many ways,” said Walhout. “Its root motivation is found in a gospel-inspired vision of flourishing communities. Its work draws on the technical expertise of Calvin’s faculty, students and institutional partners.”

By late 2014, the basic idea behind the institute had resonated with many, gaining the force of a formal proposal, campuswide endorsements from a variety of departments and a trailblazing donor at the ready. In November, the concept passed through the approval process in the faculty senate. And on July 1, 2015, the doors of the CWICC opened.

An Interdisciplinary Approach

Though Wunder—who will serve as the institute’s first director—is an engineer, he sees the path to clean water extending far beyond his field. “Water and sanitation overseas is not just a technical issue,” he explains.

“It’s an issue that really links to watershed-based, community-based approaches and shifts in practice.”

Wunder expects the institute to draw from the disciplines of international development, public health, social work and political science. He said that even with the various academic approaches, some guiding concepts will resound: “One thing that’s unique about this institute is that it’s very intentional about service, learning and teaching. We expect that the involvement of students and faculty with this work will be not just transformative for those we are serving overseas, but especially transformative for those that are involved with the work.”

Jeff Bouman, director of Calvin’s Service-Learning Center, is excited about the student opportunities and community partnerships the institute can offer. “This institute will provide many meaningful opportunities for Calvin students to participate in service learning in academic contexts,” he said. “Contexts that address real problems, real communities, real assets in indigenous communities and real partnerships around the world.”

The Next Chapter

Wunder says the many Calvin students and faculty members who have already shown interest and expertise in clean-water issues and have participated in various project overseas, will play an important role as the center grows and shows its potential.

He also says he hopes the institute will draw new people to campus, stressing the necessity of Calvin partnering with other experts in the field, some of whom have already stepped forward to express interest in the institute.

Wunder is working on a team to vet possible partnerships in Ecuador, Ethiopia, Haiti and other countries, exploring project compatibility with the institute’s resources and expertise.

Coming alongside work that is already being done in developing countries, and enhancing it through the institute’s resources, Wunder explains, will bring the greatest prospect for success.

And any success from Calvin and its partners, he said, comes only by God’s grace. It is grace that has seemingly made a way for this massive undertaking—from first phone call to grand opening—over the past three years. Wunder and his team pray that the same grace will guide years of solutions, long after he leaves his post as director.

“That we can solve problems is a reasonable expectation,” Wunder insists. “But it is presumptuous to think that we can do anything that God hasn’t already ordained.”