Dordt College News

Where are they today?

May 22, 2012

A look at nearly 25 years of Distinguished Scholar graduates

Nearly 150 Distinguished Scholar Awards have been offered to academically gifted students since the scholarship program began in 1988.

What began as awards of $3,500 per year that first year have today become awards of $12,000 per year to students who maintain high academic honors.

“In 1988, we realized that our top academic scholarships didn’t compare with those of other institutions, so we created this new award,” says Michael Epema, director of financial aid. The number of recipients each year has also grown, beginning with three and now moving to 12.

“We’re looking for top academic students who are not just book-smart, but also leaders,” says Epema, “people who will benefit from Dordt College and who will benefit Dordt College.”

Distinguished Scholar candidates write an essay when they come to campus for a weekend each February. They meet with a variety of people on campus, familiarize themselves with the people, programs, and facilities, and meet each other. 

Today these students have become leaders, in their professions and in their communities and churches. They enjoy and take seriously their parenting responsibilities. They serve on school and other boards, church councils, and in community organizations. Some of their more common professions are law, medicine, engineering, research, and teaching. Others serve as business people, pastors, accountants, writers, physical therapists, IT specialists, social workers, public relations officers, and activists.

While we’d love to tell you about each of the 150 Distinguished Scholar recipients, in the interest of our space and your time restrictions we’ve had to choose a few to highlight in the pages that follow.  Interestingly, several of those who received the award ended up as couples.

In college to learn

Dan and Lisa (Koning) VosDan and Lisa (Koning) Vos

It wasn’t being distinguished scholars that brought Lisa Koning (’98) and Dan Vos (’99) together. Dan and Lisa weren’t a couple until after they graduated. In fact Lisa didn’t even know Dan was “Distinguished” until after Dordt.

Dan describes Dordt as his first foray into the real academic world.

“I loved that experience. I continue to draw on many elements of what I learned, although my further education has led me into areas of specialization that Dordt didn’t directly prepare me for.”

Lisa values her Dordt education for “the saturation of Reformed world-and-life view it provided.

“This concept was not new to me, but I had opportunities to examine issues, philosophies, and assumptions in a depth that has made a difference in how I think about things today.” Lisa says her education affected how she perceives all aspects of God’s world fitting together, and how she thinks about how Christians work with each other and in the world. 

Surprisingly to both Lisa and Dan, some of the most practical things they learned weren’t what they’d focused on in college. Lisa took organ lessons—for the first (and last) time, and she has used those skills regularly since graduating. Dan took Greek, which allowed him to eventually attend seminary and enter pastoral ministry. 

Both Dan and Lisa highly value their academic education. “I enjoyed myself at Dordt and grew as a person, but I was in school to learn,” says Dan.

“Worldview or not, if the academic program had not been excellent, I would not evaluate my educational experience positively,” says Lisa. “The professors I had were experts in their fields. The experience of learning, whether or not I remember a particular nugget of knowledge at any given time, was good for me.”  Lisa enjoys learning whether or not it is obviously practical in her daily life: “I don’t consider it a waste of time or money that I learned a lot of abstract mathematics that I do not use today.”

The Distinguished Scholar Award not only recognizes academic achievement, but it also offers a significant amount of financial assistance. While Dan didn’t choose Dordt for financial reasons, the scholarship made it possible to attend Dordt without accruing too much debt, a blessing for a seminarian.

“The award made my financial picture post-college much more manageable,” says Lisa.

After graduation, Dan attended Calvin Seminary and earned an M.Div. They married in 2001 and moved to Emo, Ontario, where Dan pastored the Emo Christian Reformed Church from 2004-2010.

“That was a delight—we loved being part of that congregation. Our oldest two sons were born there, I became an avid birder there, and Lisa and I were able to be part of a community orchestra,” Dan says.

Today they live in Grand Rapids again, this time with three sons: Justin (6), Nathanael (3), and Michael (1.5). Lisa’s primary occupation is playing with their sons.

“We especially enjoy LEGO and DUPLO right now. I am also involved in music at church, and I enjoy plants, birding, geocaching, crochet, and auditing biblical Hebrew courses at Calvin Seminary,” she says. Dan is attending Calvin Seminary—for the second time—finishing a Master of Theology (Th.M.) degree in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature.  He reads Ugaritic and Akkadian texts and compares them to the Old Testament. He hopes to enter a Ph.D. program.


Enjoying Life

Dawn (Bakker) BerkelaarDawn (Bakker) Berkelaar

Dawn (Bakker, ’96) Berkelaar’s typical day begins early, writing and editing for the publication ECHO Development Notes. When her four children wake up, they eat breakfast together. Then they all spend time at the dining room table as the two oldest kids work on math and other subjects while the younger two color or play with playdough. Days also include lots of time spent reading and exploring outdoors.

“Life is full, and I feel blessed to be doing meaningful work among people I love,” says Berkelaar.

The path took a few twists and turns. She began as a premed major, planning to attend medical school and eventually work overseas as a missionary doctor. Her plans changed after a semester in Costa Rica during her senior year.

“The semester included a tropical biology course that made me realize that biology could be used in many different ways to be of service in God’s kingdom,” Berkelaar explains.

After graduating, she pursued her interest and earned a master’s degree in environmental biology from the University of Guelph.

Berkelaar and her husband, Edward, worked for ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization) for three years after their marriage. ECHO aims to fight international hunger by providing ideas, information, and seeds to people involved in agricultural development.

Berkelaar and her family live in Hamilton, Ontario, where Edward teaches at Redeemer University College. Berkelaar continues to work part-time from home, editing the ECHO Development Notes, sent to people involved in agricultural development, mostly in the tropics. Her Dordt education gave her some preparation here, too. She was a student writer for the Voice for three years.

Berkelaar finds much joy balancing the responsibilities that come with being an editor, wife, and mother. She explains, “When Edward and I married, something fundamental changed. Suddenly home was less of a place and more of a person. The two of us do work that overlaps in many ways, and we have a common desire for simplicity and a concern for the poor and for God’s creation.”

Berkelaar’s current perspectives were greatly influenced by her experiences at Dordt, especially her semester in Costa Rica. “It helped to ignite a love of different cultures, a desire to work for justice in a world of glaring inequalities, and a wonder at the fabulous diversity God has placed in creation.”

She also is passionate about food issues. “I spend quite a bit of time planning and preparing meals,” says Berkelaar. She and her family garden together in the summer and keep a beehive that provides plenty of honey. She’s thankful to be able to spend time with her children while developing and using her passions for food, words, justice, and God’s creation.



Nelson awaits ruling by U.S. Supreme Court

Matt Nelson

As a freshman in high school, Matt Nelson (’99) felt called to help uphold justice in society, so he decided to become a lawyer.

That decision has given him joy and a sense of fulfillment. He’s also found an unexpected source of joy and fulfillment from another calling: husband and a father. He and his wife, Susan, have been married for eight years and have been blessed with three children.

“Getting married has been one of the highlights of my life since graduating from Dordt,” Nelson explains. “It is such a blessing to know that I have found the person who God intended me to spend the rest of my life with and to walk with through some of life’s struggles.”

Nelson and his wife were faced with a particularly challenging struggle when they discovered four months before her birth that their second child, Whitney, had spina bifida.

“It was devastating,” Nelson remembers.

In the following weeks, they not only had to grieve for their child’s health but also face repeated questions from doctors about whether or not they wanted to “change the outcome of the pregancy.” After the initial shock and through much prayer, Matt says they gained trust that the Lord knew what he was doing.

Whitney is now four years old and gets around with a lime green walker. “She has the most beautiful disposition,” says Nelson. “People at church seek her out every Sunday because her smile and personality are such a blessing. She has taught me about the reality of heaven because she says she can’t wait to run (for the first time) to Jesus.”

As much as Nelson delights in his role as husband and father, he’s also found meaning in his law career. Nelson is a partner with Warner, Norcross, and Judd, LLP, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In 2011, Nelson filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities in the  Hosanna-Tabor religious liberty case, which the New York Times called “the most significant religious liberty case in two decades.” The court ruling handed down in January of 2012 protected the right of church and religious schools to choose their ministers without government interference.

“It was very gratifying to participate in this case. I was even able to reference Dordt College in my brief,” says Nelson.

In April, he argued his first case in the Supreme Court, representing a person who is trying to prevent casino gambling in his rural West Michigan town. The court will issue its decision in that case by the end of June 2012.

Nelson says that his faith does more than just make him an ethical lawyer; it also affects his fundamental understanding of what law is and how it functions and should function in society. He explains, “Dordt emphasizes the development of a Reformed worldview in ways I didn’t understand at the time. As I’ve pursued a career in law, I’ve come to value how this worldview frames my response to client’s problems, how I approach legal issues, and what arguments I consider to be both appropriate and persuasive.”

Nelson’s faith is not abstract: It guides how he practices law, how he interacts with his neighbors, and what he teaches his children. Nelson explains, “My relationship to Christ is the central and defining characteristic of who I am—before being a lawyer, before being a dad, before being a husband.”



Inspired for living

Dave and Cara De Haan

I suppose you could say that the reasons we received the award—a commitment to academic excellence, strong work ethic, contributions to school and church life—attracted us to each other,” says Cara (Miedema, ’99) De Haan. “The values underpinning those experiences and attributes have also helped us as a married couple. For our first 10 years of marriage, at least one of us was a student, and it helped that we both understood the other person’s drive to do well in our studies.” 

Cara and Dave (’99) were in very different academic programs. Cara studied communication and philosophy with a smattering of theology and Greek, Dave engineering and computer science.

“We both deeply value the relationships we were able to forge with professors because of how they challenged and encouraged us,” says Cara. The De Haans say they “came into their own” as thoughtful and responsible adults at Dordt, and they’re grateful for how they were shaped theologically and philosophically.

“That God sent two Canadians to Northwest Iowa to learn values based upon social justice is emblematic of what I value most about my Dordt education,” says Dave.

After leaving Dordt, Dave and Cara attended the University of Waterloo, as graduate students and instructors.

“We received a strong education in our specific fields at Dordt,” says Cara, but adds that applying to graduate school in Canada without an “honours” degree (Dordt’s Kuyper Scholars program was not in existence then) made it more difficult. “We’re grateful for the liberal arts education Dordt required. I grumbled my way through BIO 101, but I don’t regret it now,” says Cara.

While Dave was required to take additional computer science courses before he was fully accepted into the very technical Ph.D. program at UW, he attributes much of his subsequent success as a graduate student to non-technical skills. “In my job, mastery of technical content is commonplace and assumed, whereas ‘softer’ skills such as creativity, inquisitiveness, and communication/writing proficiency are less common and therefore more valued,” says Dave. “It is Dordt’s broad-based approach to education that has benefited me the most within my technical discipline.”

“Graduate school was invigorating for us,” says Cara. They continued to excel academically and interact with people from different backgrounds. “Attending the University of Waterloo made us encounter difference more intensely, and we were forced to think differently about what we believed,” they say.

And as much as Cara and Dave enjoyed graduate school and enjoy their work today, they miss the way the Dordt community challenged and inspired them to live counter-culturally.

Dave says, “One of the hardest challenges for me post-Dordt has been the loss of idealism—and realizing the depth of support within our own communities for ideologies and policies that I find antithetical to my understanding of Christ’s teachings—that and my disappointment at my own failure to take meaningful action to address injustices in the world around me.”

“When I read stories of Dordt alumni changing the world, I sometimes wonder whether we’re still too swayed in our lifestyle choices by the surrounding culture!” adds Cara.

At present Cara is household manager and primary caregiver to their three children, Ian (8), Taryn (5), and Jamin (2). She has taken on a variety of leadership roles: in graduate school as president of the English graduate student association; in church as an administrative elder and chair of worship ministry. At their children’s school, she’s chaired a committee, served as board secretary, and expects to become board chair.

Dave is a software engineer at Sybase in Waterloo, Ontario, where he’s involved in research and development of database query processing technologies.



A deep passion

Joel Veldkamp

Joel Veldkamp (’10) grew to love the Middle East during a semester on the Middle East Studies Program. When he returned to Dordt, he knew that he wanted to return someday to study the Arabic language. And the Lord has led him to some exciting opportunities.

Soon after graduating from Dordt, where Veldkamp says he was “challenged to think more deeply about how my faith affects my thoughts about politics,” he volunteered as an English teacher in Damascus, Syria, and was also involved with Iraqi refugees at the Iraqi Student Project. He says, “One of the high points of my time in Damascus was helping my Syrian and Iraqi friends apply to universities and high schools in North America—a long and arduous process—and then seeing them get accepted!”

Veldkamp left Syria two months into the political uprising that continues today. “It was very difficult to leave without knowing how things would turn out.” He stays in contact with many friends and former students. Fortunately, they remain physically safe but are still affected by the country’s economic downturn and continued violence.

Although Veldkamp has not returned to Syria, he continues to be involved in international justice issues. He recently returned from a slave liberation mission in South Sudan, part of his work as the assistant to the CEO of Christian Solidarity International-USA (CSI), a Christian human rights group that campaigns for religious liberty and supports persecuted Christians in Sudan, Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere.

Veldkamp notes, “It was such a blessing to see 408 people liberated from slavery.” His experience with a 12-year-old named Mou illustrates the hope and joy that CSI helps to promote.

“Mou never knew his parents, and his slave master in north Sudan cut off his pinky as punishment for refusing to wash dishes. When I first talked to him, he wouldn’t meet my eyes and spoke very softly.” CSI offers each liberated person a “Sack of Hope” that contains a tarp, a blanket, a metal pot, grain, fishing hooks, and a sickle. “When Mou got his Sack of Hope, his entire demeanor transformed. He smiled and laughed and kept asking to get his picture taken with his gifts,” remembers Veldkamp.

Veldkamp takes joy in the opportunities he has been offered and is passionate about promoting justice. Still, he recognizes that “often there is no clear-cut solution to horrifying injustices.”

“My Christian faith doesn’t give me all the answers, but it does point me towards God’s righteousness, reminds me of where my one and only allegiance lies, and encourages me to offer my best effort, knowing that God will bring justice in the end,” he says.



A foundation for life

Matt and Lisa (Blankespoor) De Kam

Matt and Lisa (Blankespoor) De Kam (both ’98) recall going on one date together during their freshman year.

“But there wasn’t much chemistry at the time,” they say today. Lisa recalls reading an article in the Voice about the Distinguished Scholars that year and thinking about Matt as “the guy in chemistry who answers so many questions he might as well teach the course.” Matt barely remembers taking chemistry. 

Both Lisa and Matt attended graduate school after Dordt, Lisa in physical therapy and Matt in engineering and then for an MBA. Both felt “very well-prepared for the master’s level courses in our respective fields.” Matt says that the coursework at Dordt was often more challenging than that in his master’s programs.

“But what we most value is the worldview training that we received at Dordt, which permeated all of our courses,” Lisa says.

“Engineering 390, the philosophy of technology, is the type of course that you find at only a few schools and possibly even only one,” says Matt. “If you’re paying attention when you take that course it will fundamentally and permanently alter the way you approach engineering and business.” 

Today, the De Kams live in Minneapolis. Lisa spends most of her days at home with their two young boys (ages 6 and 3), but she keeps busy in her profession. She works one day per week as a physical therapist at an orthopedic clinic. She is also an on-call PT at another clinic that treats people with eating disorders. And she, along with other Dordt physical therapy graduates, is part of a team of health coaches with the company Take Shape for Life. The group is led by her older brother, Mark Blankespoor, who was a Distinguished Scholar Award recipient in 1988, the first year the awards were offered. 

Matt is a senior commodity manager at Ingersoll Rand. “You might see the heat exchangers I source behind the black panels of a Thermo King refer unit on the highway, in the condenser of a Trane AC unit that sits in your back yard, in an Ingersoll Rand air compressor in a factory, or on the roof or in the wall of a commercial building—perhaps even the new buildings on Dordt’s campus!” 

“I use my Dordt engineering degree to find, understand, and recognize opportunities to add value to our products,” he says. “I use my MBA to build the business case to drum up resources to work on them.”

Matt and Lisa say they’ve faced few challenges. Their high points have included dating, getting married, having kids, and living in Europe. Having both gone on Dordt’s SPICE Summer program (Study Program In Contemporary Europe), they were eager to accept the international assignment.

“Our Dordt education has helped guide us at decision points, both personally and professionally,” they say.


Finding her challenge

Lillian (Hamilton) Vogl

Lilian (Hamilton) VoglHeather Lillian (Hamilton, ’97) Vogl has always liked a challenge. As an English education major, she did an independent study that resulted in a dance production. When she wasn’t feeling challenged at an educational nonprofit organization, she decided to attend law school. She now works as a lobbyist, spending much of her time on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., working with others to create public policy.

Vogl had every intention of becoming a high school English teacher when she graduated from Dordt. However, after moving to Washington, D.C., after graduation, she decided to work at a nonprofit organization that provided  scholarships for low-income children.

“I had many wonderful experiences and a great job right out of college,” Vogl recalls, “but I got to the point where my job wasn’t challenging anymore.” She decided to go to law school.

At the University of Virginia School of Law, many of her peers had attended prestigious undergraduate schools, and most of them had never heard of Dordt College. Although she was not able to drop a name of an Ivy League university, she didn’t have trouble keeping up with her peers and graduated in the top 10 percent of her class.

Vogl attributes her success in law school to a solid undergraduate education. “Dordt has such great professors. Because I received individual attention in classes, I got a better education than many of my peers who were taught by teaching assistants or were lost in large classes,” she says today.

Today, Vogl finds that her career in law provides her with many challenges. She recognizes that in her work as a lawyer and a lobbyist there are temptations to make wrong decisions in order to get ahead financially or professionally.

“My faith gives me a sense of purpose and perspective as I analyze public policies,” she says. She works primarily with federal agencies that regulate retirement and insurance products, helping ensure that their policies do more good than harm. Her faith allows her to approach these issues with a unique perspective, forcing her to ask questions like, “How does this policy affect real human beings and families?”

Vogl also deals with the challenge of balancing family and professional life. She has learned to work efficiently so as to spend as much time as possible with her two children, husband, and nearby extended family. She strives to put her moral and family commitments ahead of convenience in both her professional and personal life.

Vogl explains, “Following Christ can be difficult at times, but every sacrifice will be worthwhile if I hear at the end of my life, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”



Learning with and from other cultures

Ruth Lynch

Ruth Lynch (’06) has always been interested in missions and learning about other cultures. At Dordt, this interest led to her get involved in Putting Love Into Action (PLIA) mission trips, Dordt’s cross-cultural club, and student-teaching at Zuni Christian Mission School in Zuni, New Mexico. These experiences helped her to learn the joy of interacting with people from different cultures and eventually convinced her that she wanted to stay in Zuni after graduating. Lynch is currently completing her fifth year of teaching at Zuni Christian Mission School.

Lynch explains that about 20 percent of the students who attend the mission school come from Christian families. “The others choose to come because of the good education and small, supportive school environment,” she notes.

Working at a Christian school and teaching students who are unfamiliar with the Christian faith puts Lynch in a unique and exciting position. “There’s nothing like seeing a student’s eyes get that far-away look as they hear the Christmas story for the first time, or reading an end-of-the-day journal beginning with ‘I like Jesus because…’ after discussing his forgiveness following a classroom squabble,” she says.

She also finds joy in learning about the Zuni culture. “I have learned a deep value for family, the elderly, food, and creation from the Zuni people. I’m also trying to learn the Zuni language and am at about a two-year-old level.”

During summer vacations, Lynch has had the opportunity to explore other cultures, as well. She has worked as a counselor at Camp Dunamis, a multicultural Christian camp in California, and has also spent a summer with the Yakama people of central Washington.

Lynch notes that her experiences at Dordt helped her appreciate people’s  uniqueness as she strives to serve God wholeheartedly. She explains, “If God is in my work, if I am serving Jesus and not myself, if it’s him working and ministering through me, then his plans will succeed.”

Dordt also provided her with relationships with both students and faculty that stretched and encouraged her. Lynch notes, “Dordt’s unique gift is the professors and staff who really care about their students.”

Lynch would have been unable to attend Dordt without the financial assistance that accompanied the honor of being designated a Distinguished Scholar. “My dad was laid off my junior year of high school,” Lynch explains. “We had no money, and I felt very small asking to go to a Christian college. After talking with Dr. DeMol about the goals of the music program and talking with several others about the mission of Dordt, I knew it was the place for me.” The academic scholarship came as a much-needed blessing.

Today, Lynch continues to be thankful for this assistance and for the Dordt education that led her to her challenging and rewarding life in Zuni.



Working for holistic health

Troy Vander Molen

At Dordt, Troy Vander Molen (’94) came to realize that he could combine his experience as an athlete, his study of anatomy and physiology, and his interest in serving others into a fulfilling career as a physical therapist. Today, he is part-owner and vice president of a physical therapy practice in central Iowa called Work Systems Rehab and Fitness.

The company’s vision is “Healthy people…body, mind, and spirit.” Vander Molen says that this holistic view of health has a strong impact on his work.

“People are vulnerable during therapy,” he explains. “There is a close relationship between physical, emotional, and spiritual health. As a therapist, I have the opportunity to meet with patients regularly, to form deep relationships with them, and to help them enhance all aspects of their health.”

Vander Molen says that his experiences at Dordt helped shape this perspective and deepen his appreciation for the uniqueness of God’s creation—including the human body. Dordt also prepared him well for the rigors of a physical therapy graduate program.

He received his master’s degree at the University of Iowa and began practicing in eastern Iowa. In 2001, he joined Dordt alumnus Mark Blankespoor (’92) at Works Systems Rehab in Pella, Iowa, and became part owner of the organization. Today, they have expanded their business to include four rehab clinics, a fitness center, and consulting services for work injury prevention.

When Vander Molen is not working with  clients, he is usually spending time with his wife Stephanie (Van Maanen, ’94), and their children, Kade (12), Ty (8), and Claire (7). Ty joined their family through adoption when he was an infant.

Vander Molen describes the adoption process as “a neat God-story.” After struggling with infertility, the Vander Molens decided to adopt through Bethany Christian Services, who led them to Ty’s birth-mother. After Ty was born with serious health problems, his birth-grandmother was afraid that the Vander Molens would no longer want to adopt him. However, she was surprised when the Vander Molens, their family, and their friends loved and prayed for Ty despite his illness.

Several months after the Vander Molens brought home a newly healthy Ty, they received a phone call from his birth-grandmother, who explained that the example of their faith and love had been one of the final links in the chain that brought her to faith. They shared her joy in her baptism. Soon after, despite their previous struggles with infertility, they also celebrated the birth of another child.

“I have been very blessed,” says Vander Molen.


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