Spark continues a six-part series of conversations with the leadership of Calvin College, bringing readers up to date with campus issues and examining future directions. Vice president for student life Shirley Vogelzang Hoogstra is a 1978 graduate of Calvin and holds a law degree from the University of Connecticut. Prior to accepting the appointment at Calvin in 1999, she practiced law as an associate and later as a member of Jacobs, Grudberg, Belt & Dow, a litigation firm, for 13 years. Before her law career, Shirley taught junior high school students. As part of her responsibilities at Calvin, she has been fortunate to host Inner Compass, Calvin’s weekly Sunday afternoon interview program carried on the local PBS station.
Q: What compelled you to leave your law career behind to be vice president for student life at Calvin College?
A: Quite simply, a vocational tug of heart, I believe, generated by the Holy Spirit.
I had been a volunteer for Calvin for nine years when this position opened up. Back in the early 1990s, I became reacquainted with the college and what it needed by being part of the Campaign for Calvin College — the first national endowment drive. I loved Calvin and was delighted to be raising money for different kinds of projects and scholarships.
Then I was asked to be on the Board of Trustees and got even more involved with the inner workings of the college — the kinds of programs we were doing; the way the college had become more academically excellent; the way in which the student life division was shaping and forming students. So when [former vice president for student life] Ginny DeJong indicated that she was going to take an opportunity elsewhere, I was interested in making sure the college’s cabinet team had some gender balance. I remember asking at the October 1998 board retreat how the search process was going and whether we were getting enough female candidates for the position. The answer was that we were getting good candidates, but few of them were women.
That’s when I felt a prompting from the Holy Spirit to consider working at Calvin: “What about you? You know all these people; you’ve been working with them on the campaign; you’ve been working with them on the Board of Trustees; you know what you’d be getting into, so why don’t you think about applying?” Out of obedience, I did. I left the rest up to the search committee. And here I am today.
Q: What are some of the major differences you see in student life from your student days to now?
A: We don’t take things for granted anymore. Twenty-five years ago we took for granted that people had a faith, that people were interested in pursuing their faith, and I don’t believe we were asking difficult, compelling questions like we do today. Students demand that we be authentic. They don’t want to spend their time being in a place that pretends or is fake. It enriches both their lives and our lives when we are authentic.
The other piece is that students are choosing Calvin College because they want a Christian college. They’re not just coming here as the next step in their Christian education; that makes a huge difference. When students who have a lot of choices between secular schools and Christian colleges choose a Christian college, it is because they are looking for excellence in the Christian formation aspects of their lives. We feel challenged in the student life division to provide students with mentoring relationships, Bible study and workshop opportunities, service opportunities and peer-to-peer opportunities in which they grow together.
Another difference is based on a college initiative that encourages the student life division and the academic division to produce a seamless education for our students. When we think about programming on the student life side, we are in contact and collaborating with academic faculty members so that we can make sure that what’s being taught in the classroom is echoed back into our student life programming; and likewise, the academic side of the college is in contact with us. For instance, the Service-Learning Center assists faculty in putting service-learning components into the class curriculum because we know that learning happens so well in “outside-the-classroom” experiences. We also make sure that on the student development side, our student activities office serves as a laboratory for the kinds of things that they’re learning in class. We partner with faculty to provide leadership training in Colorado. Faculty present two plenaries in the Prelude course. We work closely together with internship placements. The list goes on and on. It’s a hand-in-glove philosophy about education between student life and the academic division.
Q: Can you describe Calvin’s approach to faith development?
A: Here’s what we know about college students. Between the ages of 18 and 22 they come in at different stages of development. So at Calvin College we have people who are at very different places in terms of their faith formation. The majority are solidly committed; some are actively seeking; others are sincere but not wanting to seek right now; and still others are saying, “I’m going to put this on the shelf.” However, in the end, they have all picked a Christian college, which tells us that they have a heart for the things of the Lord, and that they are on a journey.
At Calvin we want to make sure that our programs meet people where they are at on that journey. We don’t have mandatory chapel because we want students to be intentional about choosing their faith-enhancing activities. It’s like this: The field is full of flowers. Pick the ones that will result in a beautiful bouquet. Use the variety that exists to shape and build your faith. They might attend jazz vespers or LOFT [the Sunday night on-campus worship service]; participate in a Bible study on their floor; find a church home on Sunday morning; or become part of the worship leadership team or a service-learning fellow. At Calvin, students go to chapel because they want to worship, not because they have to go. So when we have a chapel program, it is with other believers who are there because they want to sing, pray, listen and participate in that experience. We are very intentional about setting the expectation that students will deepen their faith inside and outside the classroom. It’s what being “distinctively Christian” means. For most it is a prime focus for their life at Calvin. They are establishing habits that will last a lifetime.
Q: Calvin students now come from 48 states, seven provinces, 35 different countries; that’s a different profile than it was decades ago. How has that influenced the student life programs?
A: Our programs are better because students are more diverse. They come with opinions and experiences to share. Harvard professor Richard Light wrote in Making the Most Out of College that diversity is essential to an excellent liberal arts education. Diversity is not just about skin color, although that is very important. Diversity is about geographic area, learning styles, political ideas, faith experiences, travel and extracurricular interests. Student life staff at Calvin want to challenge and support this incredible student body to plan programs for each other, to influence each other on world affairs, to learn each other’s stories, to pray together for a part of the world that is beset by violence and is the home to the family members of your prayer partner.
In the student life division we are committed to each student’s sense of home here at Calvin. Calvin College is his or her school, whether she is an alum’s daughter, or he is from Ghana, or she found us on the Web.
Q: The Knollcrest East Apartments are being renovated, and there is talk about renovating the Commons and centralizing the dining facility. What is behind some of these projects and plans?
A: We have a beautiful campus, but it’s 40-plus years old. Our physical plant does a great job repairing, painting and replacing. But some improvements require a major overhaul, and that’s where we are today.
The first thing that we’d like to do is make one dining hall where students would come together, socialize and exchange ideas. We still only have tables for eight or ten people. Well, tables of eight or ten were great when it was family style. The emphasis today has shifted to tables for four that can be put together in tables of eight or 12. Flexibility is key. We want to change the giant-size rooms where there is little sense of coziness and renovate to allow spaces for better conversation.
Some other challenges facing our food service operation is a dish room that’s in the middle of our dining room. The HVAC system is inadequate, so our students — and we have many of them who work in the dish room — are hot, and it’s hard to keep it cool. Creative Dining, our food service company, is helping us design a space to enhance food preparation and delivery. When students visit other schools and they look at the dining halls — and many students are very attuned to their health and choice of food — they come away and say, “When was Calvin’s facility built, and why do I have to eat like I’m back in the ’60s?” We have wonderful plans to renovate Knollcrest Dining Hall — and we certainly need everyone’s help in order to do that. We think it is going to make a difference in terms of recruitment and retention, along with the daily enjoyment of college life.
The second building that needs to be renovated is the Commons. We need a place for 1,600 junior and senior students to come and congregate with freshman and sophomore students. We also need a place for study rooms so that students who want to meet together in small groups have excellent places to do that, both for off-campus and on-campus students.
We also think that student organizations are one of the primary ways that students test whether or not they like a particular area and want to pursue it as a career. So, for instance, we hope to provide space for Chimes, Student Senate, Inter-varsity and international students to gather as a group and plan events for the entire campus. The vision for the Commons is a place where 55 student organizations can have adequate space to develop the area that they’re interested in, both in terms of leadership and programming.
We decided to call it a “campus commons” and not a “student union” because we hope it will be the heartbeat for the whole campus community. It would be the place where a faculty member could say, “Let’s grab some coffee, sit down by the fireplace and talk about a question from class.” It would be a place for book discussion. Ken Heffner [student activities director] could have artists come and give a small concert in the evening. It would be a place where faculty could hold meetings and alumni could gather. New students would visit, and their parents would say, “Let’s meet back at the Commons.”
Q: Speaking of campus buildings, the Calvin Fieldhouse once was the crown jewel of our athletic conference and is now one of our more dated facilities. What are the plans for this structure?
A: “Oh, my goodness” is all you can say about the present shape of the Fieldhouse. Our Fieldhouse is clean, sturdy and well maintained, but so inadequate for our needs and athletic demands that it is astonishing that we still produce the kind of high quality teams that we do. First of all, the students of today have started — back when they were in junior high and high school — lifting weights, being concerned about their athletic performance, taking dance classes and doing aerobics; these have become part of their year-round lifestyle. They get to Calvin, and they find out that there’s little intramural space because we don’t have enough basketball courts or volleyball courts. We find that we have to schedule our intercollegiate teams so tightly that it leaves very little room for pick-up games.
In terms of aerobics, dance or yoga, all of those things have to happen in one little room that is not air conditioned and is hot in the fall and spring and cold in the winter. This is a recruitment and retention issue. If we really want to educate the mind, soul and body, we need to enhance the facilities for the third component. And the plans that Calvin has are so reasonable. They are not opulent; they are not beyond what so many other schools find as just the basics. Our facilities should be better for our students. Healthy lives now translate into healthy lives later. We are already dreaming about what this new building will mean for the entire Calvin community: better facilities for all students, including terrific athletes, their coaches, the HPERDS [health, physical education, recreation, dance and sport] faculty, alumni and friends of the college.
Q: One of the well-known tenets of Calvin’s student life program is a philosophy of responsible freedom. How do you describe that philosophy, and does this approach really work?
A: Responsible freedom is the best approach. The definition of responsible freedom that we use at Calvin is “the cultivation of a Spirit-directed life guided by a godly conscience.” This is how religion professor David Crump helped student life define the term after decades of using the term at Calvin without a common understanding. All first-year students, through the Prelude course, hear Dr. Crump explain the two faces of freedom as outlined in Galatians 5. We are free from the tyranny that we must earn our salvation by rules and good behavior. God knows all our shortcomings and, because of Jesus Christ, loves us in spite of them. Since we are set free “from” earning our salvation, we are set free “to” keep “in step with the Spirit.” In college, many choices fall on the side of a “Spirit-directed life,” and some don’t. Some choices are not up for grabs: underage drinking, drunkenness, premarital sex, and stealing work that is not ours. But at Calvin we know that in other areas life does present choices for all of us that can help or hinder us, especially as we live in community. That’s where the responsible freedom test helps. We can develop or enhance a godly conscience by asking these questions about a choice in front of us: How will my choice affect my relationship with others? How will my choice affect my relationship with myself? And how does this choice affect my relationship with my Savior? Basically, the question is, does my decision draw me nearer to Jesus Christ or prove to be a distraction? For example, a student who is 21 and allowed to drink a beer or two might not if he is with underage students. He has the right to drink under Michigan law, but he chooses not to for the sake of his friends. When students are in a romantic relationship, the question of “how far is too far?” surfaces. If the physical relationship results in feelings of guilt or shame and inhibits or takes the place of an honest prayer life, then the Spirit-directed conscience is saying, “too far.”
By looking at this concept their first semester at Calvin, students develop a framework that they can practice at Calvin and take with them for a lifetime. This approach works because there is no list of “dos” and “don’ts” that is all encompassing. And, if that is true, then giving students a concept that is biblically based and rises to the challenge of living in a complex world is indeed helpful.
Q: Do Calvin students have fun?
A: Yes, they have a lot of fun. In fact, the reason that Calvin students form lifelong relationships is that they’ve connected with the people that they’ve met here. It starts with our Quest program, where they go as groups and do a variety of activities. Later, students organize other events like the cardboard canoe race, the Cold Knight Club (where they jump in the Sem Pond), dances, service auctions, ice skating, volleyball over at Knollcrest East, barbecuing, Chaos Day and the Mud Bowl. All of these things encourage relationships. Really, that’s what college is all about — building relationships that will last a lifetime. It’s through late-night conversations, ordering pizza, decorating your floor, living with four or five people off campus and getting to know each other really well, that sets up memories for a lifetime. Our students have fun when they’re in chapel and when they’re in their classroom. They have fun when they’re doing Streetfest; they have fun together when it’s actually unstructured time, when conversations come up that are very meaningful. So they are having a lot of fun on campus these days, and that’s what makes my job so enjoyable — to see students joking around, being at a concert, learning together, reporting for the Chimes, developing Christian friendships — all of those kinds of things. That’s what life is all about at Calvin College.
I still have my own wonderful memories of 25 years ago — being an RA, going to “parties with music,” late-night conversations with seven other women who lived on Auburn Street, Dr. Holstege’s class and Wayne Joosse giving me an A on a paper. The Beets-Veenstra RA staff from 1976, the Schultze-Eldersveld RA staff from 1977 and my housemates are still important people to me today. And now Wayne and I work together.
Q: What one thing do you want each alum, parent and supporter of Calvin to know about our students?
A: The students today are wonderful. They’re just the best. They’re better than we were. They are more intentional. They care deeply about Jesus. They want to make a difference in the world. They study so very hard. They care about each other. Sometimes when I am at LOFT and I see students streaming in and later hear them sing a cappella “When Peace Like a River,” tears slide down my cheeks. I am so grateful to God for this next generation. They are the hope of the church and the world right here at Calvin College.
Did I make the right choice coming to Calvin College six years ago? You bet.
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