Dordt College News

Young alumni give back

May 22, 2012

Jonathan and Amy Vander Vliet (’06) fund the Daniel Challenge

What motivated you to set up a scholarship for Dordt College students?

Both of us were political studies majors (paired with mechanical engineering for Jonathan and history for Amy), and after living in the D.C. area for a few years we realized that we hadn’t truly wrestled with issues of faith, vocation, and life in a religiously plural environment. Dordt had given us some good tools, but we wanted to encourage even more thinking on these things before students leave campus. That’s one of the reasons we named it the “Daniel Challenge”: in the Bible, Daniel is an effective witness for God in a sometimes hostile environment, but he’s not a prophet or a preacher who’s proselytizing all the time. He’s doing his job well and being intentional about his personal faith so that all may flourish; he never hides his faith, but he also doesn’t shy away from working with others who can help him accomplish shalom. We think that model of Christian engagement is a powerful one, indicating the power of patient public service at a time when so much Christian engagement in the public sphere can be explicitly antagonistic and paranoid.

Also, our parents valued Christian education enough to support us through school and we each received numerous scholarships, so funding a scholarship seemed the best way to recognize how we’d been blessed and to “pay it forward.”

What made you decide to tie the scholarship to essays by the applicants?

We didn’t want the scholarship tied to a particular major, since we believe it’s important for Christians in all vocations to think about integrating their work and faith. An open essay contest allows any interested student to apply.

We wanted to encourage Dordt students to think more deeply and intentionally about what it means for Christians to act out of their faith while still working with others for the common good. Where are the lines, and how do you draw them? How do you talk about profoundly important issues without denying your faith, and still remain open to cooperating with others whose principles are different but have similar goals? It quickly became obvious to us that an essay format was the only way to accomplish this.

How do you choose the topic each year?

We choose a topic that is inspired by current events but also speaks to larger questions about how Christians engage in the world. While we try not to choose topics that are strictly political, we do want applicants to focus on what Christian witness looks like to individuals of a variety of faiths, ideologies, and circumstances.

What you are doing today?

Jonathan is a systems engineer with Lockheed Martin, and Amy works as a web editor and database manager at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. We live in Alexandria, Virginia, and attend  Washington, D.C., CRC, where Amy is a deacon and chair of the Search Committee. (No children, only plants.)

Both of us have earned master’s degrees (Amy in Security Studies [Georgetown], Jonathan in Military History [Norwich University] and Systems Engineering [University of Virginia]), and we’ve found that our Dordt education has given us a good foundation for graduate work.

In particular, in my (Amy’s) work at the Berkley Center, I’ve found that Dordt’s Kuyperian understanding of faith in the world has inspired me and helped me engage in discussions about the role of faith in public life that others might find more difficult. In my church life, the intellectual basis for faith-inspired public action has been a major motivator behind my work in addressing the young adult exodus from the CRC and churches in general; I think it’s a theological heritage with much to offer contemporary society, and educational institutions are key incubators of theory passed on to students for application.

About the Daniel Challenge Scholarship

The $2,000 Daniel Challenge Scholarship is for students who will be going into their junior or senior years. Applicants must write an essay of 1,000-1,500 words that reflects a Reformed perspective on cultural engagement. For the past three years Jon’s employer has matched the contribution, allowing Dordt College to offer two Daniel Challenge scholarships.

Each year, Jon and Amy choose a topic, introducing it with: Dordt College’s Reformed perspective offers substantial guidance concerning cultural engagement, but what does it really mean to use “Christian insight” to develop a “contemporary response” to a pluralistic society and culture? 

Last year’s question was: Winston Churchill once famously noted that “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government—except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Churchill’s observation points to a larger question: Is government normative? In a fallen world we accept the necessity of government as an entity charged with restraining evil and promoting public justice, but in a fully redeemed, perfected world, would a purpose for government still exist?

The recipients for 2011-12 were Hannah Ponstein and Jennifer Van Der Hoek.

This year’s question was focused on social media and democracy: Some credit social media as a major catalyst in recent populist democratic movements, from grassroots gatherings to the Arab Spring. These proponents theorize that the ability of any individual with some modicum of web access to spread his or her message without the machinery of mass media radically changes the behavior of governments, since every individual now possesses the means to highlight issues on a global scale. In the summer of 2011, a Brookings Institution panel discussion debated whether using social media can reinvigorate democracy by re-engaging citizens in civic participation.

However, others such as Dana Radcliffe, a Cornell University lecturer, have posited that if social media gives viability to narrowly-focused, single-issue candidates, the result will be more partisan, dysfunctional governments. In his view, social media may represent a force that undermines democracy. What is your perspective on social media’s impact on democracy? Does this technology truly empower individuals? Does it assist us all in achieving a more just society?

The recipients for 2012-13 are Steve Olson and Ward Matthias.

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