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Student Profile: Dena Nicolai finds love in politics

By Sally Jongsma

Dena Nicolai used to think politics sounded boring. That was when her stereotype about involvement in politics was sitting in the legislature all day. Now, as a political studies major, she sees politics as anything but boring. Although Nicolai, who is from Alberta, Canada, came to college as a possible English major—a subject she still loves—the introductory political studies course interested her so much that she continued to take courses in the major and get more actively involved in justice issues.

“I’m really interested in working with people, in how they interact and in how that interaction can be better,” says Nicolai. Understanding different cultures, working for social justice, and interacting with people in other languages have all become exciting avenues of service and made her decide to minor in psychology.

Dena Nicolai

Dena Nicolai

“I feel that studying politics gives content to my desire to work with people,” Nicolai says. Her semester on the Middle East Studies program last spring confirmed that choice. Her political studies courses have helped her understand the importance of public policy, the strengths and weaknesses of political systems, and the interconnectedness of the global community. She’s seen that poverty, trade, foreign policy, and public health have far-reaching implications for almost everyone in the world.

But her semester living in Cairo helped move her awareness from head knowledge to daily experience. Seeing the world from an Egyptian perspective—including North America—was eye-opening. Experiencing the warmth and openness of the people she met each day was deeply satisfying and almost overwhelming. Breaking through stereotypes helped her see people and issues differently. And talking with Sudanese refugees gave her some ideas and dreams for what North Americans could do in other countries.

“I want to get involved instead of watching television and saying ‘Oh, that’s horrible,’” she says.

Back on campus Nicolai is putting her activism to work. Earlier this semester she helped coordinate an awareness walk to raise money for victims of Katrina. Nicolai is also busy with Justice Matters, a new social justice club that combines the former campus Bread for the World club and the environmental awareness club Shamar. And she is serving on the PLIA planning committee, a group of students that organizes the annual spring break service trips to nearly ten different locations across the United States.

Nicolai says she’s being shaped by what she’s learning.

“I didn’t know enough to have strong opinions before.” Since she’s come to college she’s learned “so much from professors who really care about my growth and from fellow students who really wrestle with what it means to have a Reformed Christian worldview.” And she’s forming strong opinions now.

“You hear people laugh about hearing the same old worldview jargon. But even though I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, I didn’t really know what that meant before.” Now she feels like she’s developing the tools to embark on a political career.

“I always loved social studies in school,” she says. “I guess in political studies I’ve found a way to further develop that interest.”