Dordt College News

Learning as she teaches

January 19, 2011

Karen (Wiersma, ’77) Van Niejenhuis has spent the past thirty-four years married to Cec Van Niejenhuis (’76), parenting, studying, and moving back and forth across the country as a pastor’s wife.

The Van Niejenhuises now live in Edmonton, Alberta, and have “three great adult kids, a wonderful daughter-in-law and son-in-law, and three precious grandchildren!”

Karen had always wanted to go into nursing, but thirty-seven years ago the choices were going to nursing school or going to a Christian college for a liberal arts education. Both were important to her and she chose to get her liberal arts education first. Having worked as a nurse’s aide since she was 16, she promised herself that she would go back to school for nursing after completing her B.A. in sociology and theology. She did so when their youngest daughter entered kindergarten, and she completed her R.N. three years later. After graduating in 1990, she worked in geriatric nursing and found it both interesting and satisfying. “It always seemed that I received more from the seniors than I actually gave them.”

The Voice asked Karen the following questions in an e-mail interview.

What do you do now?

In 2002 I joined the faculty of NorQuest College as a classroom and clinical instructor in the largest Practical Nurse and Health Care Aide programme in Canada.

For the past two years I have been primarily a distance instructor, teaching students on First Nations reserves across the province. This has enabled me to travel to First Nations communities and meet many wonderful caregivers. The First Nations people have so much to teach us about dignity and respect in the care of their elders and about the value of team work.

Two years ago I also became an instructor in the Hope Studies Certificate Program at NorQuest College

What is the Hope Studies Certificate Program?

It is a three-course, 45-hour program taught primarily in a classroom setting (the first course is available online). It combines personal reflection, practical strategies, and a review of research on hope. The programme is primarily offered to people working in health-related, caregiving professions. 

To become a Hope Studies Instructor you must take the programme yourself.  It was exciting (and scary!) to be part of a process that could make hope more intentional and visible in my life. The anxiety was gone almost instantly, as the excitement and encouragement of being with a hope-focused group took over! Although we represented a variety of care- giving professions, our personal stories of loss and challenge brought us together.

Students in the class represented a variety of faith and cultural backgrounds. Together, we worked at answering questions such as: What does hope look like to you? What does it feel like? How do you define it? What increases your hope? What challenges or wounds your hope?  How can you use hopeful language to increase your hope and the hope of those you care for? How do you regularly practice hope? Can hope live side by side with sadness and grief? The program concludes with a personal inquiry assignment to explore concretely how to make hope more visible in your own life.

What did you learn?

I discovered that free-form knitting and crocheting, as well as developing a collection of hope-filled quotations, helped me keep my personal hope alive. Lewis Smedes wrote a wonderful book titled, Keeping Hope Alive. In it he writes, “I do not hope because I am a Christian any more that a Jew hopes because she is a Jew. I hope because I am an anxious, struggling, suffering, longing, unfulfilled creature on the way to a future over which I have no control. My faith gives me God as my special reason to keep hoping when fear gets a grip on my soul…. All people hunger for hope because our Maker made us to live by hope. God has given us the gift of hope to keep us going on our uncertain journey.” I found his book offered and continues to offer much encouragement and insight for those who want to be intentional about hope in their personal and professional lives. I’ve come to think that hope is a common starting point that can bring us together for further discussion.

What makes your work energizing and exciting?

The exciting part about working at NorQuest is its terrific cultural and ethnic diversity! Sixty percent of our students were born outside of Canada and represent about 125 different countries. Over twenty percent of our students are of Aboriginal ancestry. I am thoroughly energized by and thankful for being able to work with such a mix of mature students and to learn so much about their diverse cultural backgrounds and the often difficult life experiences that have already been part of their lives. I enjoy helping new immigrants navigate our Canadian customs and systems and find opportunities that best suit them. Many students are also recent immigrants from war-torn African or eastern European countries and have much to share with us about determination, loss, hopefulness, and thankfulness! It creates a tremendously rich learning environment as we learn to understand how to work with and appreciate a variety of strengths and experiences.

We are indeed a global village and my multicultural experience inspires me and allows me to be open both to seeing the weaknesses in my North American culture and to value its strengths. Our multicultural students do not understand why we place our seniors and disabled in homes or group living situations. They often find our culture indifferent to the needs of our seniors and think we focus too much on independence. Many wonder why single adult children would not want to live with the family and why we are often so intent on having them move out. They wonder why we are always eating on the run and not sitting down and sharing our meal with whoever comes along.

My work continues to reinforce for me that we all have the same basic hopes and dreams for ourselves, our families and our communities. I often feel a deep sadness for what has occurred in our First Nations communities, much of it the far-reaching effects of sinful and racist colonization by our Christian ancestors. I believe that I must acknowledge that when I am with my students, but also clearly demonstrate that I am a Christian who wants to represent a new way of respecting their culture and heritage and live together as equals in every way.

How does your faith shape who you are and how you do your work?

My faith reminds me that how I treat my students on a daily basis must be a reflection of the fruits of the Spirit…patience, kindness, self-control, and so on.  I hope that my students see that their needs, both academic and personal, are very important to me. Student success for adult learners is the key! I want them to know that flexibility is always possible when they experience illness or unexpected family demands.   

How has your Dordt education shaped you?

At Dordt I learned the value of community and the bond that like-mindedness brings with it. I also appreciated the encouragement to keep on learning. I find that the more I learn, the less I really I know!  I hope I can inspire my students to sense that as well. And of course, Dordt reinforced that all of life belongs to God. I hope that my excitement for learning and the sharing of new insights that students have taught me, allows students to feel the freedom to share their questions and insights as well.

What gets you up and ready to go every morning?

I continue to be excited about going to work every day because I learn so much from my students and gain a new appreciation for my own life. Sometimes I wonder whether and perhaps hope that learning in this multicultural milieu may be a small step toward a more peaceable world as we as Sudanese, Congolese, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Chilean,  Nigerian, Sierra Leonean, Zimbabwean, Brazilian,  Filipino, Taiwanese, Chinese, Afghan Peruvian, Iranian, First Nation, Métis, Pakistani, Nepalese, Tamil, and North American, sit together in one classroom and learn to work as a team to overcome language and cultural barriers to provide care to someone in need.

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