Dordt College News

New community development major

March 14, 2014

Both rural towns and large metropolitan areas have needs that can best be solved by a broad understanding of community development.

Faculty members in Dordt’s new community development major understand that people want to connect with those they are helping. Growing numbers of individual churches and organizations are funding and staffing programs that reach out to people in need in ways that put volunteers directly in touch with the people they are helping. But new ventures have the potential to hurt as well as help.

“These programs need to be carefully thought out so they have a positive impact on both the host community and the visitors, and so that they don’t unintentionally create dependency, remove markets, eliminate jobs, damage the social structure of either community, or undermine the natural resources upon which they depend,” says Dr. Robb De Haan, one of the faculty members in the interdisciplinary program.

Dordt’s new community development major addresses all of these issues. The program is based on the conviction that sustainable, healthy communities develop by caring for and about everything that God created.

“Community development is for people who like complex challenges,” says Dr. Jeff Ploegstra. “Communities are deep, multifaceted, dynamic systems, embedded in unique physical, economic, political, and social environments.” 

"The community development major responds to life as it really is, rather than to a fragmented version of life. It recognizes that the more a community’s leaders understand business, job creation, infrastructure and building design, the natural environment, and politics, as well as human beliefs, communication patterns, needs, and relationships, the healthier a community will be," says Business Professor Dr. John Visser.

The interdisciplinary faculty team that will teach in the new major reflects that breadth. They come from agriculture, biology, business, environmental studies, social work, and campus ministries departments, and they agree that alleviating hunger and providing housing are urgent needs that need to be met. They also agree that addressing these needs happens best by creating an environment in which people can grow and thrive.

“What makes our community development major different from most is the broad interdisciplinary perspective that focuses on systems, an ecological approach, if you will,” says Ploegstra, who teaches biology. “Our world needs people who can integrate insight from multiple disciplines as they approach complex challenges.” 

“This program will help students prepare to engage with communities to bring about positive change,” says Social Work Professor Abby Foreman. “We see real and useful connections between this program and social work, theology, and other majors. Many students are motivated by their faith to make the world a better place; the community development major will help prepare them for this work.”

Ploegstra compares the issues to something he faced while teaching “at-risk” high school students for five years.

“As I became involved in the lives of students, saw the multi-layered dysfunction of their lives, and experienced their incredible resilience, I was frequently overwhelmed. Anyone who works in such a context recognizes the futility of trying to fix things alone. Only by tying into support networks, seeking to understand the social, economic, and physical factors involved, and helping to build the capacity of individuals to improve their situation, do you make effective progress,” he says, adding, “I know there are many students who want to effect change. I want to help prepare those students in ways that I was not prepared.”

“It can take a while to see the impact efforts made with very good intentions can have on others,” De Haan says, adding that it is also easy to be unaware, at first, of the consequences of cultural and power differences. In general, he believes it is best to support and work with groups that have learned from experience how to most effectively enable people to build their own communities.

Students in Dordt’s new major will learn from such people and organizations. They’ll study and participate in programs that are successfully providing opportunities for people to be independent, helping them create jobs, find new markets, and strengthen their social interactions.

Few colleges offer this kind of multi-disciplinary community development major, say De Haan and Ploegstra. Many programs require a smattering of courses in a variety of departments without tying them together. Dordt’s program of foundational courses complemented by required areas of specialization will allow students to graduate with contextual knowledge and with skills they can put to work immediately after graduating.

Preparing students to serve others is not what is unique about the community development major—every major at Dordt is aimed at preparing students for kingdom service. “This major will equip people to be agents of reconciliation in a broken world,” says Dr. Ron Vos who helped set up the agricultural missions emphasis in Dordt’s agriculture program. “I’m extremely excited about the program based on experiences I’ve had in development in the United States and around the world.”

The new community development major can serve more than traditional students. Community members involved in volunteer efforts are invited to enroll in courses, sharing their experiences while learning from what others have learned. Some courses for the new major will be available next fall, with the full program expected to be in place in the fall of 2015.


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