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Schuttinga takes helm in Student Services

By Sally Jongsma

Bethany (Baker, ’97) Schuttinga has known about community all of her life. Growing up in the small rural town of Rock Valley, Iowa, it was part of the air she breathed. It has only been in the last ten years, though, that she says she came to understand and appreciate what makes community possible.

“Living as a student at Dordt College, I didn’t see the boundaries of community as anything more than rules, regulations, and policies,” she says. It took working in a large state university, with people who did not have a shared understanding of what to base their actions and decisions, rules, and policies upon, to made her ask in a concrete way, “How does God want us to live?” and “How do we decide what is healthy and helpful and right?”

Those questions and her understanding of Scripture convicted her that God expects much of us, she says. Drawing on the Galatians 5 reference to living in the Spirit and avoiding gratification of “sinful desires” ranging from debauchery to hatred, discontent, self ambition, envy, and drunkenness, she believes that setting boundaries for communities creates an opportunity for healthy community living. Schuttinga knows that students usually have a hard time seeing it that way, but she hopes to find ways to help them see that the boundaries Dordt sets in place are more than just rules.

“There will always be problems to work through in any community,” Schuttinga says. No one is perfect, she says, but by trying to discern and live within the guidelines God sets, a community has a better chance of functioning in ways that allow both individuals and the group to live in healthy tension.

As vice president for student services, Schuttinga wants to focus on why Dordt has certain expectations.

“We have a different foundation,” she says, adding that rules exist not simply to prohibit whatever state criminal law forbids, but to encourage what will help us live as disciples of Christ.

Schuttinga brings much more than a background in a relatively healthy community to her new position as vice president for student services at Dordt College. Graduating from Dordt a decade ago, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in higher education. She earned a master’s degree in counseling and student personnel at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and is currently in a Ph.D. program at Iowa State University in educational leadership and policy studies.

Schuttinga also worked at Iowa State University, serving as hall director in the Department of Residence, moving to Assistant Director of Judicial Affairs and eventually to Assistant Dean of Students/Director of Judicial Affairs in the Dean of Students Office.

“I knew it was important for a career in student services to start by living with students in a large institution,” she says. Iowa State was very different from her college experience at Dordt. In fact, she describes some things as shocking, initially. But she felt firmly rooted in her faith and looked for a mentor who was a believer. She found two or three over the next years, even though, she says, they are not plentiful in student life departments at most large universities. Believers are often seen as unable to provide a “safe” (unbiased, non-judgmental) contact for students who may not share their moral values, she adds. Her mentors made it possible for her to grow and thrive, providing a layer of protection at times from those who didn’t share her perspective.

She cites as an example attempts to get her to remove a Bible from her bookshelf so that it wouldn’t make a student feel unsafe and judged. But, Schuttinga learned early that even though the Bible only sat among other books on the shelf, it served as a small encouragement to students who wanted to initiate a conversation relating to faith. She declined to remove it, choosing instead not to have her office designated a safe area. And she was not forced to remove it.

Despite differences in perspective, Schuttinga expresses deep appreciation for how working with a rich diversity of people helped her learn and understand things about herself and her background—things she believes will be valuable in her role at Dordt College. She knows that the strengths of a community can also be its weaknesses.

Before coming to Dordt, she also learned much more. Barriers to success are common on college campuses—depression, learning disabilities, eating disorders, and other mental health issues create social and academic hardship. She’s learned about many resources that are available to help people deal with mental illness. “People on large state university campuses are often more open to being diagnosed than on small campuses,” she says. Lack of diagnosis can leave students without help that could greatly help them, she believes.

Schuttinga says she came to see the range of factors that affect retention and gained a better understanding of how community affects students’ decisions to return to campus. She’s also gained from her opportunity to work with people from diverse backgrounds and worldviews. And she came to better understand how to relate what experts know about student development with how people in an institution set policies, live, and relate.

Schuttinga is returning to Dordt a different person from the one who left, yet strongly shaped by her background. She’s also enthusiastically learning in her first months on the job.

“I’ve developed a greater understanding for and appreciation of Dordt’s CORE curriculum,” she says following her participation in the New Faculty Orientation Seminar.

“As a student consumer of education I didn’t see the complexity and depth of how it works out the college vision.” She believes that the depth of commitment and longevity of service to the college on the part of many faculty and staff lie at the heart of its strength, and she hopes to learn from them.

In fact, one of the deciding factors in her coming to Dordt was the recently adopted AART report which creates an administrative structure in which student services and academic administration work more closely together under a Provost who will replace current Vice President for Academic Affairs Rockne McCarthy when he retires at the end of this academic year.

“Many in student services dream about that level of cooperation,” Schuttinga says. “Sometimes there is tension in this cooperation because institutionally, departments and offices serve in different roles and tell their stories differently. It is important for all of us to remember that we are working toward the same goals and can learn much from each other to support the foundational mission.”

“I hope that the skill set God has helped me develop has prepared me for the needs of this community,” Schuttinga says. She is excited about how Dordt’s CORE program also sets a foundation for the work she will supervise in student services. And she is excited about having a part in preparing Dordt College students for lives of service following graduation.

“Sometimes being in an administrative position puts a person at distance from those they work for,” she says. She doesn’t want that to happen, though, and she pledges to make time to communicate with students, using skills she’s learned in counseling training to help her connect with students in meaningful conversations, even when the press of administrative duties limits her time. That too, she believes, is an important part of building and maintaining community.