The Voice: Spring 2003

The Voice

Just Be Who You Are

By: Dr. Carl E. Zylstra

Sometimes you just have to be who you are.” I don’t remember quite saying it that way but if the student wanted to commend me for having said it, that was fine with me.

Our trustees were having one of their periodic luncheons with representatives of student government. One member of Student Forum was relating an earlier conversation I had had with a committee of students who wanted to discuss a college policy. They wanted to know why Dordt College insisted on maintaining what they thought was a strange policy that, as far as they knew, no other Christian college had.

Apparently, I had talked about how the history and heritage of Dordt College has made this a unique place. I pointed out that the policy they were questioning was, for good or ill, designed to help maintain Dordt College as a particular sort of college, whether that meant others thought us odd or not. And it must have been at that point that I said, “So no matter what others think about you or even whether you would do everything the same if you had to do it all over again, that is the kind of place Dordt College has become—and sometimes you just have to be who you are.”

“Being who you are” presents a particularly intriguing challenge for an institution of Dordt College’s vintage. We’ve only been around for about fifty years so we have many opportunities to grow and mature in ways yet to be determined. As such it’s easy to get carried away and decide to toss out the old baggage of our youth, envisioning ourselves, like a blossoming adolescent, proudly striding onto center stage in American higher education.

Yet it seems to me that whatever Dordt College does become in the days ahead, it cannot and need not escape its past, even if it would want to do so. What Dordt is today is the result of prayers, dreams, hopes, and efforts of founders and builders who have, again for good or ill, shaped Dordt College into an identity of quality, Reformed, biblical education carried out in a residential community of Christian camaraderie. That does limit our possibilities for the future.

Of course, like a teenager who wishes he or she had eaten more vegetables, lifted more weights, run laps more faithfully, studied harder, or been blessed with different genetics, we might wish that our future choices were limitless. But in fact, our choices are always limited by the choices of the past and by the characteristics we have developed up to the present. I don’t think that’s bad. I’m convinced that problems arise only when, either out of embarrassment or self-consciousness, we set out to become something for which our past has not prepared us.

As Dordt College moves forward, there are options left open before us. For instance, we could polish our heritage, put it in our trophy case, and revere it as a sign of our respect for our past even while we move on to a quite different future. In this instance, Dordt College could be known as a traditionally Reformed college but one that has discovered a different course to follow for the future.

Or, we could keep our heritage prominent in our campus life while also broadening our campus to include faculty who promote other points of view and students who profess religions other than Christianity. We could be known, in that case, as a predominantly Reformed college but one that now looks to mix its traditional understanding with a variety of other perspectives.

Or, as I suggested to our students, in the future Dordt College can continue simply to be who we are. That is, we can consciously recommit ourselves to being a pervasively Reformed college, determined to strengthen our own identity as a learning community that lives together and carries out its academic work within a Reformed biblical perspective.

Another student put it this way as he talked with me about the frustrations he sometimes felt on our campus as an evangelical protestant who was not from the Reformed tradition. He really hoped that Dordt College could become more sensitive to those who, like him, came from other experiences and Christian traditions. “But,” he said, “whatever you do, don’t make Dordt any less Reformed than it is today. That’s who you are. That’s why I came here in the first place. And that’s why I love it here enough to add another major and stay an extra year.”

I think that’s a good lesson to keep in mind as Dordt College nears the half-century mark. Our past does point us to our future. We don’t have to be embarrassed about that. Quite the contrary, it’s the uniqueness of our past that guarantees our future will be truly special too. It’s probably true: “Sometimes you do just have to be who you are.”