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A snapshot of residence life at Dordt College: Developing good people

On January 29 over ninety students showed up at the Residence Life information meeting held in the Eckardt Lounge. There was a buzz in the room, and it wasn’t just the dessert pizza.

Students who attended were given a snapshot of the Residence Life program at Dordt College. Sandi Altena, director of residence life at Dordt explained to those gathered that the residence life program at Dordt is different from those at secular institutions and also different from those at many Christian colleges.

Resident Assistants get to know each other and the students who live in their buildings through a variety of planned activities.

Resident Assistants get to know each other and the students who live in their buildings through a variety of planned activities.

“Our program is based on sound developmental philosophy,” Altena says. “Our student leaders are trained to empower other students to grow in all aspects of their lives. Wisdom development is our overall goal. It originates in the fear of the Lord, is deepened into spiritual insight, and is expressed in loving service to others.”

“Our resident directors really care about their staffs and pour themselves into them through mentor relationships,” Altena continues. Resident directors also work with the Campus Ministries office and the International Program.

Students who apply for the thirty-three Resident Assistant positions at Dordt go through a rigorous interview process. Selection is made based on faith commitment, academic ability, integrity, communication skills, and healthy, balanced lifestyles and relationships. After the final selections are made, the new staff participates in several spring training sessions and returns early in the fall for an uninterrupted week of rigorous training.

The purpose of the training, according to Altena, is not primarily to develop ‘good RA’s,’ but to develop ‘good people.’ Altena requires the staff to read a book over the summer that challenges each of them to ask themselves the big questions of life—“Who owns your heart? And are you willing to be transformed by the King?” These questions, according to Altena, help student leaders understand their positions on staff as a calling and not just a job. It helps them understand their work as ministry. They are encouraged to pray in preparation for their residents’ arrival, and they, themselves, are prayed for earnestly by the professional staff.

Residence life staff at Dordt are committed to four primary tasks:

• helping the community have meaningful conversations with each other–conversations that are civil, that have consequence, that seek to understand, and that address all areas of the whole person, the kingdom, and Creation.

• focusing on healthy empowering relationships–understanding that people are enlarged through relationships with others and with God.

• living thoughtful and intentional lives, and asking themselves questions like “Who owns your heart? How are things connected? How did I get where I am today? What should I do now?" Both resident leaders and their fellow students are inevitably changed by these conversations.

• creating space for learning, space for worship, space for prayer, space for cultural impact, and space for relationships to happen.

The fourth emphasis is new this year. “Our crazy pace often blocks the very things we’re trying to accomplish,” Altena says. “This concept fits nicely with our developmental approach. Creating space for students begins by letting them ask questions, wrestle with their fears, and be unable to answer all of their questions. We want to help them in their process of becoming–and all of that requires space!”  

Altena and her staff have also begun recently to work more closely with the college’s Retention Council. Because the residence life staff sees the broad context of a student’s life, they can provide perspective to many academic concerns. At the same time they’re often able to provide care—and sometimes challenge—when a student begins to do poorly.

“The direction we’re going just seems to be good,” Altena concludes.

The residence life professionals at Dordt share a vision for the Dordt community. They acknowledge that very good things are happening here, but would like to see even more evidence of the Fruit of the Spirit on campus. Enhanced learning, civility, celebration, justice, accountability, wisdom, kingdom activism, and shalom are goals they all reach for and encourage.

“Fostering a wildly loving community that’s passionate about the Lord is where we want to go,” says Altena –“from North Hall (the all guys building) where RA Tim Kooiman visits the rooms of his residents on Tuesday nights to gather prayer requests, and share real—and often broken—moments; to East Hall where RAs have recreated a family tradition of thankful feathered turkeys; to Covenant Hall where the residents are rain-soaked from a Kickballooza Tournament (whatever that is!); to West Hall where the Box Fort building contest (judged by President Zylstra himself) is held annually in the fall—it’s obvious that something special is happening in this residential community.”