Q&A: Dr. Erik Hoekstra

Marjorie Malpiede / January 11, 2019

The President of Dordt College, the number one school in the country for student engagement, talks about God, purpose, and football.

In September, the Student Success Forum at New York University began with the unveiling of the Wall Street Journal’s 2019 rankings of colleges and universities. While the usual suspects dominated the overall category, there were some outliers found within the cross tabs—one being Dordt College as first in the country for student engagement for the second year in a row.

Dordt’s president, Erik Hoekstra, was among the panelists who shared best practices in this area. In addition to its WSJ ranking, Dordt was ranked number six in the country for “best regional colleges – Midwest” by the US News and World Report, which also named Dordt an “A-plus schools for B students.” Asked how a little-known Christian college in Sioux City, Iowa gained such high-profile superlatives, Hoekstra credits the Founder’s Vision. He told the audience at NYU, and later the Mary Christie Foundation, that what differentiates Dordt from other schools, even other religious schools, is that it infuses the spirit and teaching of Christianity into all that it does.

Hearing Hoekstra speak so openly about religion within so secular an arena seemed unusual at first, but it soon became clear that God is a key ingredient in Dordt’s “secret sauce.” Hoekstra says Dordt is transparent in its message to prospective students that Christianity plays a significant role in the culture and teachings of the school. Hoekstra believes this philosophical consistency allows everyone on campus to “pull in the same direction,” though he is quick to point out that not everyone is the same. He also believes having a higher purpose has an impact on students’ emotional and behavioral health.

The WSJ ranking editors define student engagement as “the likelihood that students will recommend the college to others, the level of interaction that students have with faculty and other students while on campus, and the number of subjects and accredited programs available”—Dordt appears to have it nailed, as reported by the students themselves.

Here is what Hoekstra says are some of the reasons.

Mary Christie Quarterly: Congratulations on your recent distinctions. In terms of student engagement, to what do you attribute your success?

Erik Hoekstra: There is something special going on at Dordt and I believe it starts with the Founder’s Vision. Our first year of operation was 1955 and the founders set out a vision that is on all of our materials. I paraphrase it as, “Don’t be a Christian college that looks like a regular college with a little bit of bible study and a chapel thrown on top. Be a Christian college in that all of the students’ intellectual, imaginative and creative activities are permeated with the spirit and teaching of Christianity.”

People always say to me, “So you’re a religious school, you must teach a lot of religion courses,” but actually, there is only one religion class that’s required here, Core 150. In this course, our faculty consider the whole of scripture in context and show students the Bible is a single book, telling one story, written together in a fascinating way.

The other way of answering that question is that every course at Dordt is a religion class. We have a document called the Educational Framework of Dordt College. It is guided by a framework of four questions which make their way into all of our syllabi.

The first question uncovers our religious orientation and asks, “Who owns your heart?” The second question looks at the created world and asks, “How does this world hang together?” At Dordt, we understand that no matter what aspect of God’s good creation we’re studying, be it atoms in chemistry or family relationships in psychology, it all hangs together in and through Christ.

The third question focuses on creational development— that is, “How did we get from God’s good original creation to the present? In this, we delve into the story and structures of civilizations and politics, commerce and health care. Here, we must pause to account for the brokenness of our world through human sin —the brokenness of our climate, of disease, of our family structure. The last question we call, ‘contemporary response’ and guides our response to the previous three questions. It confronts students with the question, “What are we supposed to do about it?”

The entire curriculum of Dordt College hangs on these four questions.

We use the power of biblical storytelling in everything we do. If students turn in a paper that is really well done, we encourage them to say “May the glory of that great paper go to God.” It is as much of a worshipful activity as singing your heart out or listening intently to a sermon at church. Our Defender athletic teams talk about how to play football, run, dance, shoot, or step up to the plate to the glory of God.

These four questions find interesting answers in violent and beautiful competitions alike, but our coaches talk about it all the time and our athletes really pick up on it—we call it ‘the Defender Way.’

MCQ: “Student engagement” is, in some ways, code for how well your students enjoy their campus experience and how connected they feel to their community. What are some examples of those experiences at Dordt?

EH: Every freshman takes a common first-year, first-semester experience course in groups of 20. It’s called “Kingdom, Identity and Calling.” For students leaving home for the first time, kingdom is really about showing them the breadth of God’s kingdom and the needs of the world. We use Gallup’s Strength Finder tool to explore who God created them to be by using a shared language around their strengths and ask them to reflect on what they’ve found out about themselves through their high school experience.

This points them to the story that God has crafted for them up to this point—their identity is only found in Christ. Then we talk about “what your calling is,” which is very different from “getting a job.” This rich difference pulls in the idea of vocation or the collision of their skills and the needs of the world, and a bit of how they might address this through their education at Dordt.

This comes together in the first semester of the student experience and has helped our retention and graduation rates as well as what I see as the joy that students find in being here on campus.

These same groups of 20 students participate in freshmen dinners that my wife and I host at our house every fall. We bring them in in groups of 40 and set tables of eight. We tell them to leave one chair empty at every table. This way, my wife and I start at one table for salad course, switch for entrées, and again for dessert and coffee, so by the end of the dinner, we’ve had pretty substantive conversations with 40 students. Afterwards, we offer 40 minutes of “ask the President anything.” To be able to do that in a fall semester with every freshman student is pretty remarkable and could never be done at places like Ohio State due to scalability.

Size is definitely an advantage here. We have 1,350 full time undergraduate students and one of my goals is that by the time they graduate and I sign their diplomas, I will know their names. There’s only 180 engineering students, so those professors will have a pretty good sense of and mentoring relationships with those 180 students. In our nursing program, there are 130 students and four professors. By the time they are sophomores, they will know those students—they will know their stories and they will know their hardships and dreams. Relationship is one of the largest ingredients of the secret sauce.

We spend a lot of time supporting our students’ academic success, particularly students such as those in our Aspire program. These are wonderful students who would not have gotten into any other school, yet we deliberately choose to work with them offering special tutoring and extra classes. You know, it’s easy to achieve strong graduation rates if you’re highly selective, yet while Dordt is not highly selective, we do a great job with our students who come here. One of the distinctions we received from the US News & World Report was an “A-plus schools for B students” and this is the one I think I’m most proud of.

The other part of our student engagement story involves the relationship with our professors. Again, we’re very fortunate that most of our professors live in our college town of 7,500 people. They see their students as whole people and we hire them for their relational capabilities and emotional intelligence.

There was one professor who I hired who told me he’d had a tough time making it to the next level in academia because he didn’t have a PhD. He was a journalist who had gotten a Masters in journalism and had been a junior high school teacher. He said he felt he always got passed over because he hadn’t gone right into a doctorate program. I told him, “The reason I want to hire you is because you were a junior high school teacher—you know how to teach, you love students, and you are driven by your curiosity.” We have more NIH funding than any small college in Iowa, and yet our brilliant professors are relational and desire to invest in our students—unfortunately, their combination of talent and passion is all-too-rare in higher education.

Finally, I’d say religious colleges have an advantage at student engagement because we see the student not just as an evolved set of cells that is human, but within the context of a religiosity that has a God, a creation, a story—and there’s a direction to that story. We know the answer to the question, “Why are we educating these students?”

MCQ: How do you think your culture here at Dordt impacts your students’ emotional and behavioral health?

EH: Let me tell you a story. I got a call from our dining service director one day this fall who said one of our students was looking really despondent at his table. The dining director had gone over and checked in with him and it was clear he was struggling with a variety of things, academics in particular, so he called me and I called the dean of students. The dean of students walked over to the dining hall and sat with the student and began diagnosing the problem. He then walked the student over to the registrar’s office and resolved the student’s scheduling issues, just one of the problems that had emerged. The student needed tutoring, so they went downstairs (just two floors to the academic skills center) and scheduled tutoring sessions, but it was clear the student was still struggling, so they went across the hallway one more time to the counseling center and set up an appointment for the next week. All of this happened in less than two hours.

So sure, size is part of it. Another factor that really helps students emotionally is that everyone lives on campus all four years. Think about freshmen and sophomores who are going through the hardest times amidst a rapid course to adulthood, yet they have upperclassmen (role models and peers) walking around with them. They can look at them and think “Hey, they navigated all of this, maybe there’s hope for me, too.” And there is.

Our Christian faith is significant. You have to understand, it’s not that Christians don’t have behavioral or psychological problems, we do. But I do believe that part of the crisis in our country is built around the fact that in post-modernism, we not only lack but shy away from objective truth. When our students believe there is objective truth, when they can look at the world through a creational lens where there’s something behind this thing, that sets a foundation for better emotional health. And, if your emotional health is off, you’ve got a place to stand to build it back up.

The other thing is that, because we view our students as whole people, whether they are emotionally healthy or emotionally unhealthy, we are not in shock if they begin to struggle. The difference between healthy and emotionally unstable is a factor of degrees for all of us, so perhaps it’s just that we don’t put such a stigma on it. And if you believe in a purposeful world created by a loving God, we are able to work on those problems and challenges when we see them to the glory of a good God who loves us and calls us His own.