Dordt College News

Bidding goodbye

January 23, 2012

Bidding goodbye to people is always tinged with sadness.

It is also a time to celebrate what they’ve contributed and how they’ve shaped Dordt College and the people who study and work here.

The impact retiring faculty leave is both tangible and intangible. Sometimes it is what they’ve taught, sometimes it is change they’ve helped bring about, sometimes it is the spirit in which they’ve done their work.

These three profiles of retiring faculty members are more than their stories; they’re also the ongoing story of how education is shaped and done at Dordt College.


Embracing the stranger

Dr. Socorro Woodbury is referred to fondly as “Professora” by many of her Spanish students. She is a fierce advocate for excellent language programs and a caring mother/advisor for Hispanic students on Dordt’s campus.

Woodbury’s 10 years at Dordt College have been driven by her desire to have her students leave college with a special love for Spanish speakers. She’s modeled that by genuinely caring for her students.

“One reason to learn languages is to be able to embrace the stranger and be hospitable,” she says.

Born in Honduras, Woodbury first taught elementary school and then went to seminary. She married and moved to the United States. Woodbury helps her students understand what it is like to be from another country and culture, and she models how to interact with people from another culture. Her students quickly come to see that different skin color, languages, and culture were all created by the same loving God.

Interacting with Sioux Center’s growing Hispanic community has reinforced that message and given Woodbury’s students opportunities to use language in service of others. As Woodbury and her students tutor, translate, and participate in a local Spanish congregation’s worship, classroom learning is broadened through everyday experience.

Woodbury is always looking for ways to improve her teaching so that students graduating from Dordt’s program will be well-prepared. She stays informed about what is happening in the world of language education and keeps Dordt’s program competitive and up-to-date. 

“She wanted to be confident about the abilities of Dordt graduates so that they would serve well and make Dordt proud,” said Sanneke Kok, who teaches English as a Second Language and will miss Woodbury’s warmth and kindness. 

Woodbury has developed both semester-long and summer abroad programs. SPIN, Dordt’s Summer Program in Nicaragua, gives Spanish students an opportunity to learn the culture while speaking Spanish. She also began a Spanish-language news program that aired on the college radio station, KDCR.

Woodbury looks back fondly on her years teaching Dordt. She had been teaching at Wheaton College when her husband saw an ad for a Spanish professor at Dordt College.

“I said, I think it might be good to live in a small town,” she recalls. With two contracts in hand, she came to Dordt.

“I continue to appreciate the mission of Dordt College and the emphasis on holistic Christ-centered education,” she says. She’s made a special effort to keep service learning in front of her students.

“One of the best parts was teaching students from freshman through senior year. I got to know where my students were in their language study and could advise them individually,” she says.

“I don’t know what God’s plans are for my students, but I believe he will use them to serve wherever they go,” she says.


Dislodging convenient assumptions and driving students to historical thinking

If you ask Dr. Keith Sewell why he chose to study history, he’ll begin by giving you his history. He began studying history because he felt his poor high school education left him with no qualifications.

Sewell grew up poor in London in an educational system deeply shaped by England’s class system.

“I quickly realized that my education was useless,” he says. Growing up in the ruins of post-war London, he was conscious that there had been another kind of life before the war. This realization, combined with his parents’ reminiscences of life before Keith Sewellthe war, sparked his historical interest. An early memory was hearing Winston Churchill announce the death of King George VI in February of 1952.

Following high school Sewell took what little money he had and bought three books that remain important to him today: H.A.L. Fisher’s History of Europe, The Observer’s Book of Geology, and the Bible. He also became a Christian. Since then, being a Christian, a historian, and someone interested in science have been intertwined. He studied independently for several years, focusing on how to study and how to pass exams.

Still feeling trapped by the English educational system, he left for Australia. (He considered Canada but decided it was too cold.) By then in his mid-20s, he met and married his wife, Alida, and enrolled at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He discovered Reformed philosophy and read hundreds of history books—many of them still on his bookshelves. He earned his Ph.D. in 1991.

“I came quite naturally into teaching,” he says. It was a way to use his love of history and pass on its importance to others.

“History puts us in our place,” he says. “As you study history it becomes more clear that we don’t misuse the power God gives us with impunity,” he says. “God gives us lots of power and we can do much, but we can’t act counter to his law for creation. Judgment may not be immediate, but it will come.”

More than that, Sewell believes, “Without due recognition of past history making, we can’t understand ourselves—we can’t have adequate insight into how our personalities have been formed and shaped by culture. History becomes part of our words and actions.”

Sewell’s views have been embedded in his teaching. He has tried to help his students see how unspoken principles and assumptions shape the understanding of events and their relation to other events.

“Part of teaching is discerning where students are and finding culturally fitting ways to impact insight,” he says. That means he often challenges student assumptions about false continuity between the past and present.

“We can’t understand history backward,” he says. “Outcomes are never accurate indications of intentions.”

Sewell cites as an example that Protestant reformers never set out to create multiple denominations, and that they didn’t stand up for what we’d call religious liberty—in fact, they believed in a level of compulsion that most of us would find offensive.

Learning that the Reformation did not turn out as Calvin or Luther intended fascinates students and helps them see history differently. It also helps them see that one’s actions can produce effects far beyond what we might expect.

“I like to dislodge students from convenient assumptions and drive them to historical thinking,” Sewell says.

Sewell remains interested in British foreign policy in the years before World War I because, he says, one could argue that World War I was the most formative conflict of the 20th century—ending European centrality and colonialism, giving birth to communism, fascism, and, in the longer run, the Cold War. But he believes it is important for historians not to be so obsessed with one specialization that they only see one set of problems.

Sewell hopes to follow his own advice in the years ahead.

“I enjoyed teaching but it did not leave enough time for publishing,” he says. After he moves back to Australia this summer, he hopes the Lord gives him enough years to finish three books he currently has in various stages of completion. They address topics as diverse as the origins of the first world war, the character of evangelicalism, and the historical roots of divergent varieties of Calvinism.


Unwilling to play games in the ethical gray areas in accounting

Bob Hilbelink got into teaching by accident. He owned a small accounting business in Wisconsin when a nearby college asked him to teach an income tax course. He reluctantly let himself be talked into it. A week into the course he realized he Bob Hilbelinkloved it. Sometime later, his wife saw an ad for an accounting position at Dordt College. He inquired, but it was tax season and he was too busy to follow it up. A couple of years later, in 1979, the position came open again. He’s filled it for the past 33 years.

For 33 years, Hilbelink has enjoyed working with students.

“There really haven’t been any low points,” he says. “We get good kids here—capable, hard-working, respectful.” His students have not changed so much over the years, but other things have.

“I remember seeing a cartoon of students with the top of their heads tilted open so that knowledge could be poured in,” he recalls. “That’s more how teaching was done when I started teaching. I’d talk for 50 minutes while the students took notes.” Today his classroom couldn’t be more different. Students work in groups  and work problems together. Hilbelink interacts with them as they work.

“It’s more like the real workplace,” he says. Students develop people skills and learn how to work in groups. Those skills have become increasingly important.

“Companies used to look primarily at a student’s GPA—‘how well they knew their stuff,’ but today people skills are just as important,” says Hilbelink.  “In hiring, the attitude of employers seems to be ‘if I can talk to you, the client will be able to talk to you.’”

Because auditors and accountants spend a significant amount of time in a business, they need to be able to get along with people and treat them well—even when they find errors. If they don’t, their business will go to someone else.

High profile ethics scandals have also affected the field. “On that score, we haven’t changed anything in our curriculum—except maybe to use them as examples,” says Hilbelink. He admits, though, that it is easier to be 100% ethical in the classroom than it is when making entries that sometimes require judgment calls.

“Our students benefitted from these scandals, though,” he says. “Hard-working kids from colleges based on core values began having an easier time getting in the door at large accounting firms.”

Other things have changed, too. There are new standards and financial instruments and, of course, computerized record keeping. Hilbelink certainly doesn’t miss the old ledger sheets and still remembers how excited he was at getting his first “Xerox” machine. Now he barely touches paper. But accounting is still about the same things: balance sheets, income statements, cash flow amounts. Hilbelink prepares his students well.

As Hilbelink winds down his teaching, he’s also slowing down in another area that’s been a big part of his life—running. He began because of high blood pressure.

“The medication they gave me made me bounce off the walls,” he recalls. He started jogging to take off weight and get off pills. Since the early 90s, he’s run eight miles most mornings. He ran his first marathon in 1993 and since then has run a total of 25, many with his son Mike. The highlight was running the Boston marathon.

“I never thought I could qualify for Boston, but I followed a strict training program.” He did qualify and finished six minutes earlier than his goal. Hilbelink  ran his last marathon in 2008 at age 69. Today, he and his dog run about two miles a day.

Hilbelink will be remembered warmly for his dedication to his students, his high standards, and his “unwillingness to play games with what others might see as ethical gray areas,” says Dr. John Visser.

“Bob has kept us smiling as a department; he usually has a word to the wise, especially if we need an opinion on politics, baseball, or football,” says colleague Art Attema, whose office is directly next to Hilbelink’s. “We always knew that our accounting majors were going to be prepared and above average when it came time for them to take the CPA exam and look for employment. We’ll miss you, Mr. Hilbelink.”


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