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An Interview with Julia Stronks, 2004 Distinguished Alum

Dr. Julia Stronks was named this year's Dordt College Distinguished Alumna and was honored at Alumni Weekend on February 19-21. Stronks currently teaches at Whitworth College in the department of politics and history. Perhaps the best way to summarize her contribution to her profession and the world is to quote excerpts from a letter written in honor of her selection as Distinguished Alumna by the chair of her department at Whitworth. Dr. John C. Yoder writes "Julia Stronks uses her academic skills, her professional experience, her love of students, her commitment to social justice, and her Christian faith in a way that sets her apart as a teacher, scholar, and mentor."

Julia Stronks is a wonderful teacher who has done more than almost anyone I know to extend the classroom into the real world. Her courses on American politics and government combine a strong understanding of the political system with a passion to make that system work for all members of society, especially the marginalized. Instead of confining her teaching to the campus, Julia Stronks has included the City of Spokane into her courses. As part of their course work, Julia's students work with street kids, juvenile delinquents, homeless people, and single parents. An innovative course that is characteristic of Dr. Stronks' approach to education is a class she developed in cooperation with several Spokane churches. The class, held in downtown Spokane, brings together Whitworth students and community people in a way that combines theory, practical experience, and first-hand knowledge. In this, as in all of her efforts, Dr. Stronks finds ways to bring many people and groups together to marshal multiple resources for tackling problems. While some merely analyze and study, and others become deeply involved without much understanding, Julia Stronks brings together theory, enthusiasm, and institutional involvement in a unique and productive way.

The Lives of Commitment project Stronks initiated at Whitworth has grown out of her strong belief, formed largely at Dordt College, that every part of life needs reclaiming. Students must do more than simply respond to needs. They need to understand underlying social problems and develop the skills that will help them bring sustainable and structural change to their communities. Stronks not only wants to empower individuals and organizations to solve their own problems but also to establish in students a model for sustaining a life-long commitment to working for justice.

What has been the most exciting thing that has happened in your life recently?

Being named a distinguished alumna is pretty exciting.

What motivates you?

A few years ago I would say that I was motivated professionally by a desire to contribute to the scholarship on religious freedom, and personally I was motivated by the desire to raise a child who understood his obligation to do justice in the world. More recently, I've understood that my work has to reflect my deepest commitments. Now, professionally and personally, I want to live my life and encourage others to live their lives in ways that serve the weak and poor and those who suffer from injustice. This doesn't mean we all have to become Mother Theresa, but it does mean that in whatever field we are working we have an obligation to think about how it can be used to relieve suffering in the world. Engineers can think about the infrastructure in poor nations, artists can speak God's truth using art to express the voice of the weak, chemists and biologists can think about food and environment problems, business people can work on microenterprise development for others

Tell me briefly the path your life has taken since Dordt College.

I went to law school first because Bernie Zylstra of the Institute for Christian Studies told me that God needed lawyers who cared about justice. I worked for several years in the field of law, but I didn't feel that the work I was doing really helped me think about justice issues. I went to graduate school when Charles and I started a family and was quite surprised at how much I loved teaching. I had always resisted the idea of teaching because I grew up in an academic family. But, it is amazing to me to be able to be inspired by and energized by and excited by what God is doing in the lives of college students. As long as I can combine my interests in justice issues with experiential teaching with students, this profession is a good one for me.

Tell us a bit about your family.

Charles Zandbergen ('80) and I were married twenty years ago, and we have a 13-year-old son, Matthew. Matthew loves basketball so Charles and I are learning to appreciate a whole new area of life. Charles is an architect with a focus on historic preservation. My parents (Bill and Gloria Goris Stronks)have recently moved to Spokane, which is great for all of us. Our whole family spends a lot of time talking about political issues in our city and our nation. But we also love to vacation in Puerto Vallarta, which creates a bit of cognitive dissonance!

How did Dordt College shape who you are? What memories stick with you?

The emphasis on "all of life is religion" helped me to understand that every discipline could be claimed for God's glory.

My best memories are of conversations with faculty, which helps me better understand my own work as a faculty member. I have wanted to believe that the classroom is the most important place for my work with students, but it is more and more clear to me that students learn from us by the patterns of our lives and by our discussions with them outside of class.

What makes a good teacher? What are the big challenges and joys?

The biggest challenges are grading and meetings. I hate them both. I hate grading because I want students to focus on the work, not the evaluation. And I find meetings just sap my energy. But both are necessary in academia. The greatest joys are the students who say their lives are influenced by the experiences I help them line up-whether this is a semester in D.C., work with street kids in our city, or community development projects where they learn a surprising amount from the poor.

I used to think lectures were the most important aspect of teaching, but I have realized that most people, including myself, learn best from experience combined with lecture rather than by sitting in a classroom. So I try to be the kind of teacher that can convey information in an environment that helps students see how the world fits together, and then encourage them to do some work in that world as they are learning.

I dislike the model of teacher as holder of all knowledge.

What dreams and goals do you have for the future?

I'm very excited about the poverty work we are doing at Whitworth, both in our city and in terms of developing projects around the world. Right now we have eighty percent of the departments on our campus committed to helping students see the connection between their field and the ability to work for God's justice among the poor. The potential for new projects in this environment is terrific.

I know I should do more writing in the future, and my mother and I have a project we are collaborating on. It relates to the question of how different people have tried to raise children who are aware of their responsibility to do justice in the world. We are not saying that we have a plan for how to do this, but we plan interview hundreds of other people who have done this-and we want to learn from them.

Dr. Julia Stronks is the author of Law, Religion, and Public Policy: A Commentary on First Amendment Jurisprudence, and Christian Teachers in Public Schools: A Guide for Teachers, Administrators, and Parents, which she wrote with her mother, Dr. Gloria Goris Stronks.