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What Have Graduates Learned?

A Professor’s Thoughts

on Graduation Day

Graduation is always a time of mixed feelings. Students are excited, and so are we. We have grown close to many of them through their four years at Dordt College. We wrestled with them, we laughed with them, we worried with them, and we worked closely with them. To let them go means another chapter in our lives comes to a close—all too quickly.

We are excited to see them face new challenges in life as they leave and go across the United States and Canada and beyond. But we also worry about whether our training has been adequate. Have we prepared them enough for the challenges that we know they will face? Has our education been adequate so that they will be able to handle the responsibilities on the job? More than this, will they hold to the Covenant-Kingdom vision that we tried to instill in them? Will they be faithful to their spouses and children? Will they take a significant place in the church? Will they always follow the Lord? Or, will they fall into the trap of materialism? Will they get sucked into the vortex of corporations putting so many demands on them that they lose their families? Will they forget what we tried to teach? You can be sure that we pray for the graduates as they leave, and we pray hard.

We also know that God cleans up our training of these students and equips them for the calling he gives them. So, as these children of God graduate, what exactly do we professors say to them?

Go now. Do the work of the Lord. Never forget his Covenant promises. Work in his kingdom with the hope, the courage, and the strength you found here at Dordt College as together we studied God’s Holy Word and world. And as you go, go with God’s blessing. In the words of the Lutheran Vespers benediction:

May the Lord go before you to show you the way;

May He go beside you to encourage you;

May He go behind you to give you strength;

May He go above you to watch over you;

And may He be within you to give you peace.

Charles Veenstra

The Effect We Intend

How do we know that what we do has the effect we intend? The simple answer is that we can’t—not completely anyway. Yet we try—partly to keep improving what we do.

Within educational circles, assessing the effect of our teaching and curriculum has become a mandated necessity by most funding and accrediting organizations. People want to know that what they are supporting is what they think they are supporting.

How do we know what our graduates have learned during their four years at Dordt College? If you talk to five different people, you’ll likely get five different perspectives. Put them all together and you may have the best picture you’re going to get—assessment instruments, student feedback, academic exams, personal stories, faculty experiences.

And yet, in the end, it will still be hard to know exactly what students leave college knowing—partly because some things need to ripen and won’t even show up until years and other life experiences are added on. Still, learning what we can about what we’re doing helps us do a better job next time.

Social Challenges Essays

Among folks in higher education assessment, Dordt College has gained a reputation for one piece of its academic assessment package. Each spring seniors write what is called a Social Challenges Essay. It is an attempt by the college to assess how seniors have developed in their ability to be discerning about their culture.

Seniors are asked to identify one challenge in our culture that they believe is particularly significant and write an essay that illustrates why they believe it is important. In the process they must discuss significant historical, social, and technological factors that have helped them understand how this challenge has developed. Students are asked to draw on coursework, readings, and life experiences as they discuss how Christians can respond to the challenge personally and collectively and also help others understand its significance.

The essay topics are almost as diverse as the number of students who write them, but several themes recur and specific issues surface in several contexts:

• Social justice issues such as child abuse and child labor, health issues, availability of social services, prejudice, incivility, individualism, and family breakdown

• Technology and the Christian’s responsibility toward it, with many focusing on bio-technology.

• The economy including such themes as globalization, capitalism, affluence, economic justice, and poverty and world hunger.

• Environmental issues, including energy use, climate change, and stewardly care of the land as a significant challenge for their generation

• Worldview and faith issues, with some noting a decrease in biblical obedience, a failure to connect belief with action, and the need to live faithfully, be servants, and be mission-minded, the dangers of comfortable Christianity, and the possible implications of current religious conflicts.

Many students found it easiest to address individual steps they can take to try to bring change or right wrongs. Some (and the college hopes this will happen for all, eventually) have begun to understand that changing structures is likely the most effective way to bring sustained change. The hope is that writing the essay not only provides faculty with information about what students are learning, but that it also helps them see concretely how to continue thinking about the social challenges they will face after they graduate.

An excerpt from one student’s essay on the injustice toward children in our world:

I think Christians have a high calling to make sure that justice is happening in the world, it may be simpler to see the pain and just get overwhelmed, to see the overflowing orphanages and get depressed, but that is not where our actions should end.

Christians must seek to live out the hope that we have been given, perhaps deciding to research the products we buy and steer clear of places that use unjust means of economic gain or sponsor a child or adopt children. We must ultimately recognize this challenge as a significant one. No, we do not abuse children ourselves but the choices we make today may have an impact on children’s lives in other parts of the world tomorrow.

We are not individuals separately living our lives. We are part of a greater picture that demands our attention, respect, caution, care, and love. Let’s work toward that higher calling in caring for “the least of these.”