Archived Voice Articles

Gen 100: Finding their story within God’s story

By Sally Jongsma

GEN 100 has shaped professors who teach it as much as it has shaped students who take it. The course, titled Kingdom, Identity, and Calling, is the entry-to-college seminar required of all first-year students.

It's an uneasy hybrid that introduces incoming students to the Reformed worldview and mentors them into the Dordt academic community," says Dr. Sydney Hielema, who has given leadership to the course since it was only a proposal to Lilly Endowment Inc. three years ago. Hielema uses the phrase "uneasy hybrid" because the course has so many goals that it is sometimes a challenge to achieve them all. Nevertheless, instructors combine the different prongs by challenging their students to focus on discerning God's calling for them as Christians in Christ's kingdom.

The faculty and staff members who serve as GEN 100 instructor/mentors for the 365 first-year students enrolled at Dordt College this year come from many departments.

The faculty and staff members who serve as GEN 100 instructor/mentors for the 365 first-year students enrolled at Dordt College this year come from many departments.

"Many of our students have had Christian training all of their lives, but when they get to college they need to begin making choices for themselves, not because a parent or pastor tells them they should," says Education Professor Cella Bosma, who teaches one of the twenty-six sections offered this past fall. "They need to understand what it means to be responsible disciples, kingdom workers right now and in the future." College gives new freedom and a time to explore and take risks, but it is not a time to spend in limbo with no responsibility, Bosma says.

Dr. Charles Veenstra, professor of communication and another GEN 100 instructor, finds that students can become paralyzed by trying to figure out what they are called to if they believe that God has a set plan, and they just need to put the pieces of the puzzle together to find out who they will marry or what they will do as a profession. He and the other instructors help their students understand that calling is not that cut and dried.

During a site visit in mid-November, a Lilly Endowment Inc. representative visiting campus to see how the grant-funded program was going, remarked to Humanities Dean Dr. John Kok that he didn't think there were ten schools in the United States that had the homogeneity of religious perspective that would allow them to do what GEN 100 is doing.

Kok, who administers the $2 million grant received three years ago, appreciated the visitor's encouragement and is grateful for the fact that faculty from across the disciplines can teach a course that introduces students to the heart of the biblical worldview that Dordt College holds dear.

GEN 100 uses the text Deepening the Colors: Life Inside the Story of God, a book Hielema wrote specifically for this course. It serves as the foundation for helping students "'get engaged'—in the classroom, on campus, in worship, in service," as the course syllabus says, adding, "This is not a sit, listen, and take notes type of course! You are expected to be an active participant in the learning process." Classes include a variety of activities, exercises, discussions, debates, role-plays, group problem solving, and reflection. Students write journals and reflection papers that help them reflect thoughtfully on who they are, issues that are important to them, and what they are called to do once they leave college.

In some ways this is the hardest course he has had to teach, says Hielema. It places highly unique demands on college professors. The instructors interact very personally with students. They meet one-on-one with each student five times during the semester, usually in response to a reflective written assignment. Because of that relationship, instructors also need to be flexible if they are to respond to and mentor each of the fourteen individuals in their group.

In many senses teaching is always like that, says Education Professor Lloyd Den Boer. "Most contemporary learning theory argues for the importance of a social and emotional context for learning, recognizing that students are whole people," he says. GEN 100 instructors consciously try to establish a safe learning community for new students. As they help them make the transition to a new stage in their lives, wrestle with old and new ideas, and reflect on who they are, instructors often get to know their GEN 100 students better than students in their other classes.

"You run into real 'stuff' that affects students' ability to function and learn," says Den Boer.

Dr. Tom Wolthuis from the theology department adds, "Because of teaching GEN 100, I now look at all of my students differently."

"Every instructor almost becomes a pastor," says Hielema. They aren't pastors but they act pastorally. They also share their ideas and support one another through weekly lunch meetings.

Because of their interaction, GEN 100 instructors quickly see when their students could benefit from a referral for counseling or other services, when they simply need a word of encouragement, or when they need a little push. Hielema believes that the course serves different students differently. For some, having a mentor close enough to see problems in their lives and direct them to help gives them the tools and the confidence to make the transition to college life. For others, GEN 100 simply provides an easy place to have questions asked and answered, making the adjustment to college easier. For others who come without a clear idea of a major, the readings and discussions provide a forum for wrestling with what they are called to do and offers a safe place to explore career possibilities.

But although most instructors are enthusiastic about what they're doing, they say it's been a growing process and the course has changed significantly since it was first offered three years ago. Individual instructors continue to look for ways to be more effective. And even though they all teach from the same general syllabus, each person must draw on his or her individual strengths to make it work.

"It was developed by trial and error," says Hielema, adding that it's not always fun to do that so publicly.

Bosma has also been teaching Gen 100 for three years. "I hated it the first year we offered it," she says. After two years of refining, she loves teaching the class.

"We've been able to develop a way for students to be able to learn to think and challenge one another's ideas in a safe environment," Bosma says. She hopes and expects it will help her students learn critical thinking skills.

Some have suggested that the course doesn't have enough content, that it may be too much hand-holding. Hielema, Bosma, Veenstra, and Den Boer disagree. There is genuine content to be learned and they all test their students on what they've learned in Deepening the Colors. Other instructors ask students to complete projects that demonstrate how they wrestled with the course themes through poetry, story, art work, music, or another medium.

"The course's uniqueness is that it teaches worldview engagement," says Hielema. Learning how to talk about worldview is not the same as trying to practice it. That's why he focuses on students' role in the kingdom. If they work out one aspect of that kingdom in their lives—like what it means to be in the image of God or understand calling or develop spiritual habits—they will eventually work out their response more fully, Hielema believes.

"We're trying to form a learning community within which they can better learn the 'content' in ways that will prepare them to tackle their other courses," says Den Boer. He tries to help his students understand the vision that drives Dordt's general education program by helping them understand and use the four coordinates upon which the curriculum is based: religious orientation (Who owns your heart?), creational structure (How do things hang together?), creational development (How did things get to this point?), and contemporary response (What do we do now?). As part of this process, Den Boer has his students watch and try to understand the world they live in by watching a film like Hotel Rwanda and as they do so ask and reflect on these questions.

Veenstra, too, pushes his students to think about justice for the poor as well as ethnic and religious groups.

"If you could read the journals, you would see how students are really struggling to deal with the challenges of life," he adds.

Veenstra finds it interesting and rewarding to see how much his students mature over the course of one semester.

"They come in bragging about their athletic prowess or their musical ability, but within two months that begins to fade as they confront bigger issues in life…. I think Dordt College is far better off for having instituted GEN 100. I don't know if you can prove it—how do you measure maturity?—but I feel its impact."

One of the major components of GEN 100 is a semester-long assignment called My Story Within God's Story. The syllabus describes it as follows:

Who am I? What am I about? Where have I been? Who do I want to become? What matters most to me? What am I good at? What are my hopes, fears, desires? Who really knows me? Tough questions with life-shaping consequences! Our identity is formed through our struggle to find unity, purpose, direction, and meaning in our life … piecing together our personal story. Coming up with a personally satisfying and publicly convincing answer to the question "Who am I?" has been widely accepted as one of the major developmental challenges and accomplishments of the college experience. One of the goals of GEN 100 is to assist new students to develop their own sense of identity, to understand and articulate their story. Throughout the semester term we will build on the theme "Jesus matures us" to focus more specifically on God's leading in each of our own lives to shape our unfolding story. To do this well, we need to understand two things: how God leads and who I am. Deepening will help us focus on the first issue; through written reflections we will focus on the second. Seeing ourselves "inside the story of God" will help us examine and understand who we are, what we are here for, and how we are called to be members of a faith community.

Students write five reflective papers throughout the semester that are compiled. Each student will reread the paper as part of GEN 300, the senior capstone course titled Calling, Task, and Culture. A confidential copy of each student's assignment will be kept on file for them to respond to by writing a brief response about how they have changed while at Dordt College.

GEN 100 was originally funded through the five-year $2 million Program in Christian Vocation grant from the Lilly Endowment. This year Dordt College can submit an application for a sustainability grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. that would help fund the program for an additional three years.

When Hielema and others were proposing the GEN 100 course several years ago, Hielema came across a Harvard study of predictors for success in college. One of the two predictors listed was a significant relationship with one professor.

Student Learning Outcomes for GEN 100

The first term seminar (FTS) will help you to: