When the subject of the conversation is Phil Brondsema, Calvin engineering professor Wayne Wentzheimer has to pause before speaking. “I just don’t know where to start,” Wentzheimer said. “I wish we had more alumni like Phil. He was with us — even before our chemical engineering program was approved. I can’t imagine anyone doing more to nurture a new program.”
Brondsema shrugs off the accolades and says he was always directed toward a life of service, inspired by his father’s example. “It’s all part of using your talents to the best of your ability for God,” he said. “For me, it’s a personal expectation that I apply my skills everywhere — work, home, church, community.”
Brondsema began using his skills for service at Calvin after earning a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and joining the Dow Chemical Company in Midland, Mich. Starting as a “bench chemist” — doing research in Dow’s labs — he later became a business development leader for performance chemicals.
Since the early 1980s, Dow has provided scholarships to 25 colleges and universities which the company considers “feeder schools,” good places to encourage the excellent chemists of the future. Calvin is one of those schools, and Dow appointed Brondsema to be its scholarship liaison, which requires visiting and mentoring the scholarship holders. “I enjoy my visits back to campus,” he said. “I meet with the Dow scholars and also confer with the chemistry and engineering faculty and the development staff.”
The scholarship-liaison position put Brondsema in the right seat at the right time for the next opportunity: helping to develop a chemical engineering program. “I remember the first named scholarship dinner at Calvin — it sure has grown since then — and, sitting next to (director of foundation relations) Lois Konyndyk, I learned of other opportunities and was drawn more deeply into Calvin’s program. I was hooked.”
Brondsema was asked by Professor Lambert Van Poolen to explore the possibility and need for chemical engineering at Calvin and subsequently played a leadership role on the new chemical engineering industrial advisory council. There was great rejoicing when the chemical engineering major was officially introduced in 1999. “Phil helped lead the charge for chemical engineering,” said Wentzheimer.
Brondsema’s engagement with the Calvin science division goes even deeper. He partners with Konyndyk on writing letters for scientific grants and recruits senior executives at Dow to do the same. Every other year or so, he’s also worked into Dow budgets the ability to hire a Calvin student as a summer intern. Sophomore Lindsey Polyock (Walworth, Wis.) has a placement this summer in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. “I’m excited for Lindsey about this experience,” said Brondsema. “It is a quality placement — good for Dow and a solid, practical experience for Lindsey.”
To top all of these endeavors off, the latest Brondsema project is to assist in the redesign of the engineering department’s website. He and a web designer from an engineering alum’s company are consulting with Calvin faculty and the college’s web manager to reshape the site for the benefit of prospective students.
He is convinced that Calvin’s excellent and accredited engineering courses, packaged with the distinctively Christian liberal arts core, is the perfect preparation for a successful career in the field.
“I advise students not to get tunnel vision,” he said. “You need many skills to be a successful scientist and team leader — business, writing, oral presentation. You need both technical and professional tools in a multi-disciplinary work environment.”
For Brondsema, the memorable experiences he had as a chemistry student in the 1970s inspired him to develop a lifelong relationship with Calvin. The family’s educational legacy is made even richer as wife Carol Nanninga Brondsema ’79, son David (junior), daughter Emily (first-year) and Chloe (class of 2011) can share Calvin stories.
“The parable of the talents is a good guide,” he said. “We’re called to use the skills we’re given, and as they grow with time, how we use them for God’s Kingdom will also grow.”
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