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Kuyper Scholars thrive on academic challenge

By Sally Jongsma

Lively discussions happen on college campuses, and they happen regularly in KSP 151, the introductory course titled Rhetoric and Christian Scholarship that is part of Dordt’s Kuyper Scholars Program (KSP). KSP is an honors program that can lead to an academic minor on a student’s transcript. Having students take the lead in this class is common, and Dengler assured her student that such in depth discussions are just what she hopes will happen.

A major part of the Kuyper Scholars Program involves presenting papers to each other, written in response to campus lectures and events. Katiegrace Youngsma has participated in these seminars for three years.

A major part of the Kuyper Scholars Program involves presenting papers to each other, written in response to campus lectures and events. Katiegrace Youngsma has participated in these seminars for three years.

“The program offers a unique opportunity for students to challenge themselves in several areas while applying their Christian worldview to these studies,” says Sarah Roth, an English major from Escondido, California, who is taking KSP 151 and considering applying to the program. “This program is driven by self-motivation. Although the directors give friendly reminders to stay actively involved, individual students must put forth the effort to make the program beneficial to them,” she adds.

Dengler describes KSP students as highly-motivated thinkers—often with strong opinions—who like to talk and read. She believes that the program enriches a student’s undergraduate experience by providing a theoretically-based interdisciplinary course of study. The program begins with a focused study of a Kuyperian worldview and then applies that to the disciplines and interests of individual students. A major goal is to help students develop leadership skills. In the class, students make regular presentations and engage in lively debate and critique.

“At first I was hesitant to take the class,” says Roth, “because I thought it was meant to create an elitist atmosphere. Even after speaking with Dr. Dengler and one of my professors, I was not fully convinced, but I decided to enroll anyway,” she continued. “I guess the bottom-line reason for joining the class was the promised academic challenge. The class has exceeded my expectations. The concept of ‘Kuyperian worldview’ as taught in this class has prompted me to a more careful study of the ideas around me.” She also has learned writing, public speaking, critical analysis, and attentive listening skills, she says.

“The program takes you above and beyond your normal studies and contributes to an understanding of topics of interest as well as some philosophy and theology behind what it means to be a Christian scholar,” says Steve Mangold, a freshman engineering major from Linn Grove, Iowa. “The program has definitely shown me how rigorous college work can be…. Although overwhelming at times, the workload has helped me develop some time management skills that will benefit me throughout my college career.”

Freshman Robert Minto, a philosophy major from Mesa, Arizona, describes the program as basically “an honors program taken by a group of intellectually-fevered individuals who want an opportunity to be advised and instructed in a more individual and accelerated manner.”

Although he had considered a scholarship to the pre-law program at Yale, he says he was convicted that he is being called to be a minister and so decided to go to a Christian college. He had read and greatly appreciated Kuyper’s lectures on Calvinism and was eager to participate in the Kuyper Scholars Program at Dordt.

All students accepted into the Kuyper Scholars Program take the first-year course in Rhetoric and Christian Scholarship, a four-credit course that substitutes for English 101 and Communication 110. In the first month, the eighteen students in the course read from the writings of Abraham Kuyper and other Christian thinkers to develop a Christian philosophical framework for their academic work, focusing on the importance of worldview. They write about their worldview and its implications for their profession, the first of five ten- to twenty-page papers they write for the course.

Because students in the course substitute it for English and Communication courses, they focus on what used to be a common subject course title: rhetoric—using language effectively and persuasively. Their second paper is based on readings students do on topics relating to government and faith. They write a paper that uses the comparison and contrast technique to explore an issue they find important. Economics, science, and psychology are the broad focus of the third section, and its paper requires the use of cause and effect reasoning. The fourth unit on justice issues uses a persuasive approach to pose a problem, discuss its causes and effects, and give a solution. The final paper is a film evaluation—or in some cases, a book—that gives an analytic and evaluative interpretation of the work.

Students choose their own topics for their papers, following up on readings they’ve done as a class or focusing on topics in which they have a particular interest. Their papers are turned into speeches that are then given to either the whole class or to small groups that meet to discuss and critique each other’s work.

“Students really push each other,” says Dengler, who is impressed with the lengthy bibliographies they compile in preparation for their work and with the impassioned discussions that follow presentations.

Once KSP scholars have completed KSP 151 they must fulfill several other requirements for their minor. Over their four years, they set up at least two contracts with a professor in a core or major course in which they do an independent project connected to the class. They also do another independent or group project in which they pursue a project not connected to a class. And they must earn at least three credits by writing response papers and participating in seminars in which they meet with fellow students to discuss such things as campus lectures, films, art events, conferences, and political debates.

Many students who apply to the Kuyper Scholars do not know quite what to expect because it is not a typical honors program. Some of them are drawn by the $1000 scholarship that is awarded to those accepted into the program. Others have been part of honors programs in high school and figure they’ll try this one too. For some in more technical majors, it offers an opportunity to engage topics and issues they don’t have room for in their tight schedule of required courses.

Katiegrace Youngsma, a junior from Massachusetts who currently is not officially in the program, says the program gave her a good start in her college education, and she still participates in the seminars. “As an engineer I spend most of my academic energy on mathematical and technical equations, but I enjoy being able to write every so often,” she said.

Many students agree that the introductory rhetoric course was a lot of work but a good way to start their college education. Junior Connie Du Mez from Wisconsin who was part of the first class in the Kuyper Scholars Program three years ago says she didn’t really know what to expect, but that it has been an academic challenge.

“The independent and interdisciplinary nature of the program allowed me to really dig deeply into the wide variety of subjects that interest me, and then to discuss what I learned with other students. I never expected that I would have so much freedom in earning college credit,” Du Mez says.

“The program challenged my intellectual abilities,” says Mangold, who plans to stay in the KSP because of how much he’s learned already.

Rachel Koopmans, a freshman from Chatham, Ontario, sums up what KSP has been for her: “When other people ask me what KSP is I usually respond that it is a class where you do a lot of work, get a little bit of money, and learn a lot.”

While most students agree that the rigor of the program has benefitted them academically, they also credit the work they do with deepening their understanding of what it means to be a Christian in today’s world. “I firmly believe that the program is a useful tool for shaping the children of God for more fruitful service in his kingdom,” concludes Roth.

Papers in KSP-151 this fall have included such topics as:

“KSP knocked me right into college level coursework. And I have already been introduced to the whole world of extracurricular educational opportunities on campus that are required for KSP seminar response papers—events and lectures I would otherwise not have been as aware of.” --Robert Minto

The KSP Seminars have attracted audiences of students and faculty. Held on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons after classes, the sessions allow Kuyper Scholars to present papers responding to films, drama, off-campus conferences, campus issues, and lectures by visiting speakers. Student presenters research and analyze the event they attended; those not presenting that session respond to the other’s papers with questions and debate. So far, this fall, KSP scholars responded to visiting speaker Dr. Bucko’s Catholic/Anthropological work with the Lakota Tribe and a lecture by Christian environmentalist Cal DeWitt on “The Christian and the Environment.” Others wrote papers after attending a conference on ecology at Gustavus Adolphus College, critiqued the film American Beauty, gave analyses of the Democratic and Republican debates, and reviewed the Dordt production of Winter’s Tale.