Nov 25, 2023

What's so special about Defender Days?

It’s always been a popular weekend, but this year was unlike any other.

Parks Brawand (’22) drove through icy weather from Aberdeen, South Dakota, to Sioux Center to be at Defender Days, Dordt’s alumni and parents’ weekend. He works long hours as a region design engineer with the South Dakota Department of Transportation, but he knew that he didn’t want to miss an opportunity to be back on Dordt’s campus.

“The biggest motivator for me was spending time with friends from Dordt again, all while being physically on campus,” he says. “There’s nothing quite like returning to where these friendships started, and returning to that sense of campus life, even if it’s just for a weekend.”

Brawand’s friend and former roommate, Sam Landstra (’22), flew in from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to be at Defender Days. He works as a reporter for FOX 17 News in Grand Rapids, where he finds, shoots, writes, and edits five stories a week for the nighttime newscasts. Landstra took time out of his hectic work schedule to be at Defender Days for “a whole lot of reasons,” he says, “but they can all be condensed into one word: people.”

“My brother and sister are in their senior and freshman years, respectively. My grandparents live in Sioux Center. I hadn’t spoken to many of my professors since graduation, and I’m always looking for a reason to see my friends and former roommates.”

Keeping up with college friends through social media and texting is one thing, but Landstra misses the day-to-day interactions he once had with his close friends. “Walking to a car in Siberia, debating what to order at the Fruited Plain, seeing a friend in one class while you walk to another – we’re no longer able to consistently share the mundane moments of life together,” he reflects. “But for a moment during Defender Days, all that was lost can return.”

“Dordt brought me my closest friends who are now living across the United States and different parts of the world,” says Hannah Vanderhooft (’22), who works as an associate director of advancement for Avail Academy in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This year, she returned to Dordt’s campus for Defender Days to reconnect and recharge. “Graduating college was nothing like I expected it to be; it was difficult and scary. It was lonely at times. But it was staying connected with my Dordt community, albeit a long-distance and virtual community, that kept me going.”

As she began to establish a community in Minneapolis through her church and work community, Vanderhooft felt like “Dordt gave me a standard of what a good community looked like.”

“Community is something more than a place to go and exist; it’s a group of people that gets to know you on a personal and spiritual level, encourages you, challenges you, and goes through every up, down, and turn of life together,” she explains. “After Defender Days, I said to a friend that I feel like I’m going to spend the rest of my life looking for a community like Dordt gave me, but the thing is, I still have it. It just doesn’t look quite the same as it did while we were in college.”

Defender Days in late October is the biggest event on Dordt’s campus. Alumni, parents, and students spend a weekend attending home sporting events, concerts, dinners, the fall theatre production, music festivals, President’s Brunch, the 25th Reunion, and more. Alumni like Vanderhooft, Landstra, and Brawand return to campus to reminisce and reconnect, while parents spend quality time with their favorite Dordt students.

It’s always been a popular weekend, but this year was unlike any other. Alicia (Groen, '05) Bowar, director of alumni and parent relations, says that all ticketed events were sold out this year, which isn’t usually the case.

“We saw hundreds more alumni, parents, and friends come back to Defender Days this year,” she says. “They are highly engaged, deeply committed, excited about what’s happening on campus, and making this weekend a priority for their families.”

And alumni came from far away to be at Defender Days. Juanita (Van Belle, ’97) and Chris Draaistra flew in from Abbotsford, British Columbia, in large part to see their three children: Daniel, a senior accounting, business, and economics triple major; Josh, a junior business major; and Rachel, a freshman nursing major. Juanita also wanted to attend the 25th Reunion on Saturday night, where 126 graduates from the classes of 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999 gathered at the Founder’s Room in the President’s Home to enjoy a light meal and reconnect with old friends.

“When I look back at my Dordt education, I appreciate the lifelong friendships, and I’m glad that Dordt provided me with a solid, biblically based Christian education,” she says.

“We are so thankful for Dordt,” adds Chris, “because they have stuck to a solid Reformed worldview in spite of all the pressures from the world and culture.”
He may not have attended Dordt, but Chris recognizes how enriching the relationships have been for his wife and children. It’s the community aspect, he says, that makes him a huge promoter of Dordt.

“I chose to attend a different Christian college, and I know firsthand, you won’t find that same sense of community as you experience at Dordt,” he says. “Last year, we came back to Defender Days for the first time in 30 years, and as our kids started talking about their friends, we realized that their friends are the children of many of Juanita’s college friends.”

Gar (’71) and Beth (Middelkoop, ’72) Jasper of Rochester, Minnesota, also have strong relational ties to Dordt: all three of their children attended, and two met their spouses at Dordt. Now the Jaspers are grandparents of Dordt students, including Darin Jasper, a senior engineering major from Pine Island, Minnesota.

“I think what makes Dordt unique and special is how they haven’t wavered from their core beliefs. They know who they are and aren’t ashamed. I think that strong identity has attracted a lot of my family members to be interested in attending Dordt,” says Gar.

The Jaspers have attended Defender Days for many years, and they always make a point to sign up for the President’s Brunch.

“It’s fun to meet people there,” says Beth. “Even if you don’t know the person sitting across from you, it only takes a minute to be able to form a good connection. It’s great to interact with fellow grandparents, parents, and classmates. President Hoekstra and Dr. Barb are both so good at relating to everyone.”

“The information they share is helpful, too,” adds Gar. “It’s nice to have President Hoekstra stand up and say, ‘Here are some new initiatives that are happening.’ It helps you to feel connected.”

For the past three years, Michael (’92) and Amy (Vanden Hoek, ’96) Vande Voort have come from Lynden, Washington, to be at Defender Days. Their children, twins Emma and Hendrick, both attend Dordt.

“We take the approach of being ‘all in,’ because we only have the two kids the same age,” says Michael. “We try to make the most of experiences like Defender Days, to spend time with them and see what their lives are like at Dordt.”

Michael is originally from Edgerton, Minnesota, so he and Amy spend time with family there. Defender Days gives them a chance to reconnect with those from further away, too; Amy met up with former roommates from California and Michigan while at Defender Days.

“You have so many people from all over the country coming to this little town in Iowa,” says Amy. “There’s a powerful connection here. Because why else would you spend your vacation time to go to Iowa?”

The Vande Voorts were glad their children chose to attend Dordt not only because it was their alma mater but because “the community at Dordt is like no other.”

“I think it’s because so many deep, lasting friendships are formed here,” says Michael. “You meet people from all over the country, and it’s that mix that’s fun. Hendrick’s roommates, for example – six of them are from five different states. I don’t think you get that at other places.”

Of the dozens of events held during Defender Days, Bowar says her favorite is hearing from alumni speakers at both the Business Connections Breakfast and the Defender Nation Dinner on Friday.

“At the Defender Nation Dinner, the Horizon Award and Distinguished Alumni Award recipients get a chance to share their stories with the broader Defender Nation and talk about what God is doing in their lives since they were Dordt students,” she says. “It’s special to see them interact with current students; it’s inspiring for those students to recognize what they can do with their Dordt education.”

Bowar, Kaysha Steiger ('21), and Becky Ringsby begin planning Defender Days festivities months in advance. They take time in the summer to line up the details: what events will take place? Who are the speakers going to be? How can they collaborate with other departments?

“It takes the whole campus community to pull off Defender Days,” says Bowar. “Every department steps up in some way, and we’re grateful for that.”
Ringsby, who serves as alumni and signature events coordinator, says she enjoys organizing the details of each event and seeing it all come together in the end. “I also love working with others, so having the opportunity to get to know so many different people and working together toward a common goal as a team is very fulfilling.”

Dordt is growing and thriving, which means that new and exciting things are happening, adds Ringsby. “I think people come to Defender Days not only to reminisce about the past, but to celebrate the future of Dordt University and see what’s coming next.”

Steiger, who serves as executive assistant for enrollment and marketing, says that Defender Days is one of her favorite weekends of the year, as it’s a beautiful time to reflect on God’s faithfulness throughout the years. “We see people who graduated in some of Dordt’s early years to those who graduated this past year, and everyone in-between,” she adds. “We gather together to share in the legacy of Dordt, but also join together to worship our Lord together. Through it all, the Lord has been faithful. And when we take the time to step back and reflect on that, we can be amazed at our great Savior we serve.”

Sarah Moss ('10)

A picture of campus behind yellow prairie flowers