Congrats to the 2024 Hope College Culture Champions!

On Friday, April 26, The Center for Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of Disability and Accessibility Resources and Culture and Inclusive Excellence co-hosted Hope College’s annual Diversity Awards Presentation. This year, the Culture Action Team awarded 10 individual Culture Champions as well as one team award. We are grateful for the work of the recipients and all Hope employees for creating spaces of belonging, understanding, and grace.

Read on for this year’s Culture Champions, with words directly from those who nominated them!

Culture Champion Award recipients. (photo credit: Greg Olgers)

1. Dr. Jennifer Blake-Mahmud – Assistant Professor of Biology

“Dr. Blake-Mahmud is gifted with creativity, compassion, and curiosity, and she uses her talents to promote equity, inclusion, social justice, and the overall culture at Hope College inside and outside the classroom… She consistently and intentionally disseminated cultural information (such as holidays of various nations and campus cultural events) to the department, increasing awareness of diversity across the globe.”

“Dr. Blake-Mahmud is committed to educating students and the community that it is possible to reconcile faith and science and make them mutually illuminating, and the mindset can be applied to our daily lives.” 

2. Dr. Annie DandavatiProfessor of Political Science

“There are few people who can bridge the gap between staff and faculty the way Annie does. She is passionate about people, about learning, and about working hard – beyond that, she doesn’t bother herself with caring about titles or hierarchy. She learns people’s names, she contributes to projects outside her scope of work, she is honest about the struggles she sees in the world while also shining a light on the good future that could be possible. Annie is all the best things about Hope rolled into one person and she is very deserving of this award.”  

3. Katie DeKosterDirector of Family Engagement

“Katie truly makes everyone she comes in contact with feel like they are worthy of belonging. She is genuinely curious about what makes people tick and makes you feel like you are the most interesting person in the world with valuable contributions. She is constantly looking for new and creative ways to include people who aren’t regularly included and is able to connect with almost everyone in some way. She does all this while still being strong in her beliefs and convictions, never backing down simply to make others feel comfortable – and by doing this, she makes others ultimately feel more free to do the same thing themselves.”

4. Dr. Natalia Gonzalez-PechAssistant Professor of Chemistry

“[I nominate Dr. Gonzalez-Pech] for her voluminous informal mentoring of students and colleagues of color; for being very engaged with programming coming out of CDI [the Center for Diversity and Inclusion] / Keppel House and advertising it to colleagues and students alike; for being engaged with NASD [Natural and Applied Science Division] Antiracism Team and Faculty of Color groups and helping bridge the two; for the courage to speak up on issues of DEI and culture even as a pre-tenure faculty.”

5.    Lance PellowAssociate Director of Admissions

“Lance Pellow has helped direct the Covenant Process for the last 6 years. He has stood as the informal liaison for our Covenant students and remains a safe place for the Covenants as they continue their four years through college. Lance also supports the Calling Program for the Phelps Scholars as they recruit their incoming class.”

“Lance has many talents but the one that comes to mind the most, is that he is always thinking of everyone. He finds himself volunteering with different departments on campus as well as local schools for tours and visits. Lance makes this place a school where others feel like they belong.”

6.    Sara Sanchez -TimmerResidential Life Coordinator – Phelps Scholar Program

“Sara Sanchez-Timmer has embodied the ethos of belonging, understanding, and grace since beginning her employment at Hope College in 2022. Sara has been relentlessly curious about processes, systems, and structures that undergird the animated experience of students and employees at Hope. This curiosity about structures has been matched by a curiosity about the people at Hope and their experiences… Always seeking to understand people and circumstances, Sara becomes a contagion of suspended judgment and thoughtful response. Her colleagues and students are more considerate, gracious, and kind as a result of her role modeling…Sara cultivates a culture of learning and growth that prompts each of us to be more like the mission and vision we are aspiring toward at Hope College.”

7.    Dr. Joanne StewartElmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry

“Joanne has worked throughout her career to support LGBTQ students both on and off campus. Countless small acts as a faculty member and, particularly as a member of the Board of Trustees, have helped the college get to the point where we have a true campus organization that supports LGBTQ-identifying people… Again, Joanne has provided support through many small acts over her years on campus; more specifically Joanne was critical to the formation of FACES [Fostering A Community of Excellence in Science] , getting funding to start the program and Anna Bonnema as the director….which makes a huge difference for underrepresented students in the sciences.”

8.    Shomari TateChaplain of Discipleship 

“Shomari has provided energy and leadership to expand the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day commemorations on campus by developing a day for faculty, staff, and students to both learn and present about justice and advocacy.”

“He has been an active voice in shaping how Campus Ministries thinks about social justice as a necessary part of our Christian mission. The fact that he manages to connect [with] Athletics, Campus Ministries, and CDI through his role is just a small portion of how easily he connects people and offices in the service of our students.”

9.    Eric Van TassellAssistant Professor of Lighting and Sound Design

“Eric is a connector and spark plug in every sense of the word for our campus community. Eric’s dedication to culture and inclusion is felt every single day…. Eric is constantly thinking of new and innovative ways to engage his students and making them feel more valued, connected and included to one another and to the community at large. Eric volunteers to be a faculty/staff connection point for new hires as well, by offering up his time to do campus tours for new employees. Eric also spends time with the Hope faculty/staff soccer group and always looks to make connections with others through casual conversations and through the art of playing sports together. “

 10. Margo WaltersAssistant Director for the Center for Diversity and Inclusion

“Margo Walters pours her heart into her work with the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the Multicultural Student Organizations. In addition to providing leadership in these areas of the college, Margo has gone above and beyond, such as creating an opportunity this past year for a Self-Care Friday event which has been a great opportunity for staff and faculty to get together and connect in a relaxed setting. It’s important to have spaces like these that are dedicated to health and well-being and Margo has been passionate about making sure these kinds of spaces are created. Margo also is a champion for diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and social justice, across campus and in the Holland community.”

11. Kruizenga Art Museum Team – Charles Mason & Alexandra Lewis

“They exude and embody all forms of belonging, understanding, grace while making continual strides and efforts to improve the equity and accessibility of visual art at Hope College. The team at the KAM is responsible for all things art and curation, but specifically their efforts in the programmatic space have been incredibly impactful and meaningful for members of communities that may not otherwise have the space or representation of their artwork.”

“They pick beautiful exhibitions that include important and significant moments of history. I’m always so impressed at the inclusivity of the exhibitions whether it’s Pride Month, Día de [los] Muertos, Black History Month, Asian History month, or many others.”

Congratulations to this year’s Culture Champions!

Thank you Admissions and Financial Aid Departments!

As we end another semester here at Hope, the Recognition and Appreciation sub group of the Hope College Cultural Action Team is recognizing all the hard work our Admissions and Financial Aid teams have put in throughout the year. 

We would especially like to recognize the difficulties that these departments faced during the end of this semester with the rollout of the new version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). FAFSA has been delayed by various reasons causing problems for both the students as they fill out the form, as well as problems for many colleges as these forms were received very late in the process due to glitches and errors.

We are grateful for our amazing Financial Aid and Admissions Staff who have worked so hard to make applying to Hope a smooth process and have extended the deadline for FAFSA to May 15. We also appreciate the ongoing work of our Admissions Team with their continued dedication to outreach and recruitment as well as providing events such as Anchor Days and Junior Days in order that prospective students feel informed and welcomed to apply here at Hope.

Thank you to both the Financial Aid team and the Admissions team for all you do, providing Hope College with a diverse and high functioning student body.

Meet the Financial Aid Team

Meet the Admissions Team

_____________________________________________________________________

The CAT Recognition and Appreciation Team: Paul Willard, Sonja Glover, Carla Bos, Sarah Baar, Rachel Bishop

Faculty and Staff Spirit Week!

Students wrap up their semester this week, but faculty and staff still have one more to go before we call it a year. Want to add some whimsy to that typically quiet week? Look no further than the faculty and staff Spirit Week!

Started roughly 8 years ago, Spirit Week has held different iterations. It was originally started by the Student Life team started when they were still located in DeWitt and the Bultman Student Center was just a dream. Katie DeKoster, currently the Director of Family Engagement and previously the Assistant Director of Student Life, has been a part of the tradition for years.

“That week when we’re all here without students is just asking for an injection of extra fun!” said Katie. “We used to ‘advertise’ by hanging signs with the Spirit Week schedule around DeWitt. Once the Bultman Student Center (BSC) existed, we tried to spread the fun across both buildings. Now we’ve included the details in Hope Daily because we wanted to include all the faculty and staff across campus who would like to be involved.”

In its many forms, Spirit Week has included potlucks, trivia competitions, dress-up days and always a book swap. Some of this year’s highlights include “Dress like a College Student” Day, Bring Your Own Bowl Cereal bar, communal coffee hour at Biggby, and (you guessed it) a book swap.

“Hope staff members work incredibly hard to serve our students, and it’s fun to have something slightly silly to look forward to at the end of the semester,” commented Katie.

Katie credits her colleagues in Alumni and Family Engagement for collaboratively coming up with this year’s daily options and activities. Thanks Katie and all at Alumni and Family Engagement for bringing fun, belonging, and connection to our final work week of 2024!

Chart of each days activities for Spirit Week

“Belonging Together” CAT Event

Written by Alexandra Lewis, Visitor Services Coordinator at the KAM

I experienced belonging, understanding, and grace at the Culture Action Team’s (CAT) Belonging Together event at the Kruizenga (KAM) this past September. 

As a staff person who is fairly new at Hope (celebrated my 1 year in Sept!), I can tell you firsthand how intimidating it can be to walk into a space or event and not know anyone else in the room. It can be terribly isolating. At the start of the event, discouraging thoughts were quickly whirling around in my head. What if I say the wrong thing? Will anyone want to talk to me?

Employees watching a CAT video

Within my first conversation, while picking out my CAT swag notepads and pens, these fears melted away. Attendees were eager to introduce themselves and connect with me. Common ground was easy to find and I was met with friendly explanations about anything I had yet to encounter on campus. A tidbit from one conversation I had, “How amazing that God brought you to Hope having so much passion for what you do.” 

The Hope community welcomed me, and my hidden worries, with open arms. Now, when I attend an event I seek out the “me” in the room, the person who is new and apprehensive, and I do as was done unto me – embrace them.  

For those who were not able to attend, I have attached a few photos and a synopsis below:

Sonja Trent-Brown speaking at a podium

The CAT event was centered around 3 different video screenings featuring stories of belonging, understanding, and grace by Culture Champions (staff and faculty who were nominated for embodying belonging, understanding, and grace). These videos were played throughout the day on a projector screen in KAM’s north gallery space. CAT also offered the opportunity for guests to write down their own ideas on how “Hope gets Culture right.” Delicious food was enjoyed by all and community was formed while attendees gathered around tables to relax and catch up with colleagues. Swag notepads and pens were a hot commodity – a fun yet functional perk!

Finding Our Way Together

“You’re not still doing such-and-such over there, are you?  Oh, man, I hate that!” a colleague said to me a few months ago. 

We hadn’t spoken much for a couple of years, and the two of us were catching up on “work stuff” for a moment or two.  We had known each other for many years, and their candor didn’t surprise me at all.  It’s part of what I like most about them.


Oh, man, I hate that!

I think about this conversation often. 

Usually, this scene replays in my mind after I’ve jumped to my own snap judgments about another office or colleague.  “Why don’t they do [such-and-such] over there?”

“Well, I’m sure they are just [insert gripe] again.  That’s what they always do.”  I assume.

When I catch myself in those moments, I have to take a deep breath, adjust my perspective, and try to rehearse the lesson that this earlier conversation with a friend helped me see.

Values empower us

In my work with students, we’re often talking about their emotions—not only recognizing them and figuring out what they are about—but also deciding how, then, to act in ways that are consistent with their values

As I spend time re-thinking my snap judgments and assumptions with colleagues, what values inform how I want to act? 

While I confess that I do not perfectly live up to my own standards, I acknowledge that the values from my upbringing, my faith and my experiences motivate me nonetheless. 

Belonging, Understanding, and Grace

Two logos in blue and orange.  The one on the left has three dotted rings with the words Belonging, Understanding, and Grace in blue bold capital letters across the entire design, at a slight angle upward.  The logo on the right is a pentagon shape with a blue band across the middle that says "Culture Action" with "Team" written below.  There is a small cartoon face of a cat in the top point of the pentagon, and the words Hope College above the central blue band.

Hope College has some shared culture values.

Belonging, Understanding, and Grace are three key values the Hope community intends as trail markers to point the way toward a “vibrant, caring academic community where the Christian faith and the pursuit of knowledge intersect and where the full humanity of all may flourish.*”

So when the old longtime friend shared their honest thoughts, I believed the best in them.  I took the opportunity—even if we wouldn’t fully agree—to explain why our office does something so confusing in their world.  And I remembered that Hope College doesn’t belong either to my office or to theirs, but to both of us at the same time. 

Our history together—our friendship—made thinking this way relatively easy for me.

A different example

Another interaction in the past year or two also comes to my mind frequently:  while I shared with a different co-worker my righteous indignation that my department was misunderstood on campus, they replied quietly and with a sigh, “There are a lot of assumptions out there.”  Their tone and body language told me that their workgroup’s experience was not all that different.

“There are a lot of assumptions out there.”

My work is not likely to make as much sense to anyone else quite as well as it does to me.  Each staff and faculty member has their own daily challenges, connections to others in the community, and calling to do this work.

A closeup of a trapezoidal wooden trail sign.  It has two arrows in white.  The arrow pointing left says "more difficult" underneath, and the arrow pointing left says "easy" underneath.
A sign from a hiking trail in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.

As for the second example, I don’t have the same history with that co-worker, but their statement opened me up to see that I share more in common with others that I think.  The more I choose to act in a way that is empowered by and in the direction of belonging, understanding and grace, the more I lean into our common experiences, and the more I develop trust in my many colleagues: whether I’ve known them for years, or whether we have not met.

Belonging, understanding and grace point in the direction I want to act with more regularity.

What do we do?

Creating a college culture shaped by belonging, understanding and grace is a shared path and a shared responsibility. Hope doesn’t belong just to my office or that of my co-workers whom I mentioned above.

The past few years have been challenging; I know it, and so do you. You know your own particular impacts and challenges, frustrations and workloads. The last thing you may have space for is attention to one more thing–especially something as comprehensive as an entire workplace culture.

How can we expect a healthier campus culture, though, if we aren’t contributing to it?

You may feel pressure to do something, join a committee, volunteer more, etc. I hope you do engage where you feel called, but please remember that improving our campus culture may not require the dreaded *one more thing* from you.

What you are doing today already matters to Hope’s culture!

How you do it matters as well.

How can we expect a healthier campus culture, though, if we aren’t contributing to it?

Responding with belonging, understanding, and grace does not have to wait until we are sure we have time for it.

What if a significant way to make the culture you want at Hope is to find ways to foster belonging, seek understanding, and practice grace where you find yourself right now–in what you are already doing and in the relationships around you?


Aaron Schantz is a Staff Counselor in the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office and a member of the Culture Action Team.


*Hope College Christian Identity Statement 

For more about how Hope College defines Belonging, Understanding, and Grace

For information about the Culture Action Team

Rx Racial Healing Circles and Hope College

While the Culture Action Team is committed to reinforcing a culture of belonging, understanding, and grace at Hope, there are numerous other teams committed to that same goal. Today, let’s look at one recent initiative that could have a significant impact on Hope College culture.

Are you familiar with the Rx Racial Healing Circles hosted by Culture and Inclusive Excellence and the Center for Diversity and Inclusion? The first Circles experience at Hope took place January 18, in conjunction with the National Day of Racial Healing. Twenty staff and faculty members were able to attend. Dr. Gail Christopher, executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity, created the Rx Racial Healing methodology. In the words of Dr. Christopher, “Effective racial healing circles emphasize diversity among participants, modeling the desired state of coming together as one community. Effective racial healing design invites story sharing between two people in a safe and affirming manner. […] When we learn counter stereotypes in an attentive, focused effort, we can individually and collectively reduce bias and avoid automatically acting upon our stereotypical perceptions.”

Additional Circles were held on March 29. This time, the experience primarily included students. Student Congress’s Culture and Inclusion Committee, led by Mary Kamara-Hagemeyer and Andrea Hernandez, spearheaded the effort to bring Racial Healing Circles to the student body. Read on for some reflection from two participants.

Racial Healing Circles are a great way to begin to expand your worldview, meet new people and do some self-reflection. I look forward to each one I have the privilege to be a part of.” – Zoe Abadi

I initially thought it would be too long for a circle.  I was pleasantly surprised at how fast the time flew by and how I didn’t want it to end. I wanted more, and I wanted us to follow up again and again!” – A staff member

If you would like to participate in an Rx Racial Healing Circle, it’s not too late! Additional opportunities are in the planning stages for the 2022-2023 academic year. Details will be forthcoming via email.

Your 2022 Hope College Culture Champions!

On Friday, April 29 The Center for Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of Disability and Accessibility Resources and Culture and Inclusive Excellence co-hosted Hope College’s annual Diversity Awards Presentation. Within this awards ceremony, the Culture Action Team honored 10 staff and faculty members with the Culture Champion Award. Reading through each peer-nomination form, we were overwhelmed by all of the people who are actively working to make Hope a place of belonging, understanding, and grace. Read on for this year’s 10 Culture Champions and a few words from each of their nominations.

Kelly Bublitz: “When one of Kelly’s guys are sick he will reach out to them… make them soup and drop it off for their family. Kelly always makes new folks feel welcome by… engaging with them, talking about them and who they are.”

Reagan Chesnut: “Reagan’s presentation to us reminded me of the champion she is for making the world accessible to everyone. I worked with Reagan at HSRT as well and in my time working with her she was always the person who made sure we were finding ways to make theatre accessible for those who could not afford it, those who have never had the chance to experience theatre, and those who needed some accommodations to enjoy the productions. She created sensory packs for those with autism, adhd, and different abilities.”

Laura Clarke: “She goes way beyond her job title to help others around her! She makes work interesting and fun. She loves the students here at Hope and has dedicated her life to serving them!” 

Marissa Doshi: “She was instrumental in broadening the general education revision to attend to issues of equity and inclusion. She…[works] hard to include and recognize the excellence of adjunct instructors, creating a culture of belonging that crosses Hope’s tenure-line/adjunct stratification.”

Pedro Martinez: With a kind disposition and positive attitude, Pedro is approachable, friendly and thoughtful.  He is an amazing listener and speaks up for others when their voices are not heard. Both professionally and personally, Pedro has a passion for leading discussions and taking action when it comes to multicultural recruitment and retention

Pablo Peschiera: “Through his work as chair, he gathered an ad-hoc committee to evaluate the literature curriculum. Pablo was intent on diversity, equity, and inclusion both in the way he assembled the ad-hoc committee (inclusion of variously ranked faculty, multiple genders and ethnicities represented, etc.) and in the way he addressed the curricular needs for our students (the students are requesting greater diversity in literary authors and works, and we should intentionally include better representation of race, ethnicity, ability, etc. in our curriculum).”

Kim Swartout: “She is always an advocate and ally, looking out for others to feel included. Passionate about supporting others and making sure we are being equitable for everyone on our campus.”

Rodrigo Serrão: “I immediately thought of Rodrigo when I was reading about this award because of a recent program he has put in place with.. CDI…  “Casual Conversations about Race.”  These conversations took place bi-weekly in the Keppel House. Rodrigo would organize a reading/podcast/movie or speaker for the assigned day. Students gather with him to have informal conversations informed by the material.

Bonnie VanderWal: “Her warmth, sense-of-humor, and willingness to tell the truth set the stage for people to begin to see things in new ways.  External candidates for CAPS Director complimented the DEI statement on CAPS’ web page (that was her initiative and work). Within the CAPS staff, Bonnie works to make sure that our honest conversations are more honest.”

Deb VanDuinen: “Deb helped relieve some of the tensions among the faculty by being transparent and working toward more consistency. Building a culture of trust is at the very heart of what Deb did as Faculty Moderator. Deb regularly fought for equity across campus whether related to salaries, resources, release time, expectations, etc.”

Why join the Culture Action Team?

There are six unique teams making up the Culture Action Team. Today, we are taking a look at why three individuals chose to volunteer, what their involvement has looked like so far, and their hopes for the future of culture change at Hope.

Andie Near, Processes and Policies Team

What drew me into the Culture Action Team was a desire to try and help Hope College grow with Grace and Understanding in order to live into a community of Belonging. I ended up signing onto the Policies and Procedures Committee, not because I am deft in the arts of policy-making, but rather because I enjoy process in general. I joined in the fall of 2021, and began by becoming acquainted with what the committee accomplished the previous academic year. Their substantial efforts established a solid foundation and direction of how to approach diversity and shift the culture towards a more inclusive sense of belonging. 

As a committee, we are examining ways to improve hiring, onboarding, promotion, and retention policies. However, what I am hoping to tackle this semester is our whistleblowing policy. As a college, we’ve been talking a lot about race and sex discrimination as well as universal access; whistleblowing is also crucial for OSHA, workplace safety, managerial and business practice abuses. This reaches virtually every aspect of college life. I want to demystify whistleblowing as being more than revealing some epic scandal like Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s statements regarding the harms caused by Facebook. Rather it is a culture of internal reporting that holds us accountable to—yes, the law, but also—Hope’s values. I believe a strong whistleblowing culture can give us as a people of Hope a louder voice for Belonging, Understanding, and Grace. 

Dina Martinez Matchinsky, Training Team

[I was drawn to the Culture Action Team by…] the fact that we need an improved culture and climate in our HOPE offices and community. I want to be a part of change. I want to help grow the culture and climate.  I want to be proactive and not just sit back and hope for change. I hope I can help staff process new ideas and be open to new thinking and acceptance. 

Henry Chen, Training Team

I believe truly in the vision of bringing in a change in the culture at Hope. I was first asked to join the Culture Task Force in the Fall of 2019 and through that we worked on the picture of a Hope College that has a focus of Belonging, Understanding, and Grace. This led to the formation of the Culture Action Team. I wanted to help broaden this vision and to help with steps to bring this to the wider Hope community. 

I joined the Training team because I am passionate about training as a form of investing for the outcome of change.  I am a part of many training teams and love the opportunity to assist in this process. CQ training has been done in conjunction with the vision of the CAT. It was offered in a “train the trainer” model and we hope it will continue to expand at Hope. CQ, Cultural Intelligence—including CQ Drive, Knowledge, Strategy, and Action—is a good program that has used outside consultants from the Cultural Intelligence Center to assist us. CQ also explores ten cultural value dimensions that are helpful for learning about yourself and interacting with others. I still feel like there are many other avenues that can be explored in training.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, where we will hear from members of the Recognition and Appreciation team and the Public Events team! If you have questions, suggestions, or would like to be more involved, simply email culture@hope.edu.

Checking in with the Culture Action Team

Welcome to a new series of blog posts about efforts to positively shape culture at Hope College. To begin, allow me to reintroduce you to the Culture Action Team. Formed in June of 2020, The Culture Action Team (CAT) is led by Sonja Trent-Brown. Within CAT, there are six individual teams:

  • Processes and Policies: Defined and official processes and policies that guide work, resources and decisions; includes potential ombudsman or whistleblower system.
  • Recognition and Appreciation:  Focused on highlighting and recognizing our colleagues in their efforts and work in facets of equity, inclusion, social justice and general culture at Hope. It is important to acknowledge these efforts and the positive change they create in the lives of Hope students, faculty and staff.
  • Public Events: Forums, fishbowls, panel discussions and the like that are both about culture itself but also serve as models for how to talk about difficult topics in respectful, loving ways.
  • Training: Formal learning opportunities for leaders and teams in areas that could improve culture.
  • Culture Resources for Engaging Work Units: Facilitation for work units and multiple work units that want to improve culture, relationships and collaboration.
  • Culture Communication and Engagement: Engaging all Hope employees in the work and events of the culture action team, as well as how individuals can take individual action to improve culture and grace/understanding/belonging

For now, let’s take a closer look at Culture Resources for Engaging Work Units (CREW). If your office had a colorful bug-rock flying around, you have CREW to thank. The bugs were the perfect symbol for the Culture Action Team and the values of Belonging, Understanding, and Grace (BUG). The intention behind the bugs was to give staff and faculty members an opportunity to acknowledge peers who were demonstrating belonging, understanding, or grace. We all have great intentions around supporting and encouraging our colleagues, but sometimes time just gets away from us. We hope that if you received a bug, you felt both personally encouraged and also took the opportunity to reach out to a colleague with words of affirmation!

We began the semester with 50 bugs flying around campus. Each bug was labeled with a number and a QR code, so that recipients could log where they were flying on campus. Take a look here to see where bugs have been spotted. If you still have a bug perched on your desk, take this opportunity to send it to a colleague who has demonstrated belonging, understanding, and grace. It’s such a tiny gesture, with the potential to have a huge impact.
Keep your eyes open for our next blog post, where you will be introduced to individual members of the Culture Action Team. If you have any questions or suggestions, please email culture@hope.edu.

If Luck is Your Love Language

“Remember, Dear, tomorrow is the new moon,” my better half said to me.  “It’s the start of Lunar New Year, so wheel out the trash tonight. All our luck will be thrown away if we wait til tomorrow.” The Lunar New Year festival is the same as celebrating Christmas, Thanksgiving, and everyone’s birthday rolled into a single two-week celebration.  The custom is to give your house a good spring cleaning, right up until the start of the new moon, but just not too well. You would not believe how easy it is to sweep away the good luck with the bad luck of the old year. A smidge of dust left behind is wabi sabi, which is the Japanese philosophy of embracing the imperfect and transience.  If you described the dust bunnies under the armoire as wabi sabi and elegantly intentional, you earn instant hipster cred. You also avoid offending any kitchen gods, who insist your house cleaning is kept to a minimum for the first 3 days of the holiday. Whatever you may do, don’t risk sweeping away your good fortune for the year1. We adopted our children from Vietnam and have since adopted the culture and traditions of their birth country. We observe the other holidays on the calendar like the Mid-autumn festival2, but for the Lunar New Year, we usually go big. I don’t want to present that we are in any way authorities on Asian culture or experts in raising a trans-racial family, but just want to share a certain cultural perspective. 

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1I can see how this grew to become a bedrock tradition–the maid needs a break!

2A.k.a. Wok-tober fest

Our house is decorated for Tet not long after we pack away our Christmas ornaments. We hang red-and-gold paper carps and tasseled dragons on our Tet tree, which is a small, fake, bare-limbed “tree” budding with yellow apricot blossoms. The yellow blossoms signify some ancient symbolism and put to mind the start of springtime.  We hang strings of faux giant red firecrackers and yellow and red banners painted with Chinese blessings. Despite the wintry weather, our home carries an air of optimism, of expectation, and hope that spring might be around the bend. Mua xuan den!

Another tradition is the handing out of lycee to the kids. Lycee (pronounced lee-sea), are lucky ornate red and gold envelopes with some money folded within. “I wish you long life and good health,” they say as we ceremoniously pass the envelopes from both of our hands to the both of their outstretched hands, as is the custom. We studied up on the culture of our kids’ birth country to help them understand their heritage. 

We are regulars at the Chinese New Year festival circuit, Tet-heads. We hit a few events each year. We have seen Chinese opera stars, plate-spinning circus jugglers, Falun gong ballerinas, folk dancers, and musicians representative of every region on the continent. At these events they often have displays of fire crackers: miles of red bandoleros snaking across parking lots in red paper. The acrid smoke drifts in heavy clouds for minutes, ears assaulted, and all our collective bad juju of the year shooed away. 

Lion dancers are our favorite, though I must stress the caliber of performances lay in a widely arcing range. I urge you to spend the money to see top-notch acrobatic performers. It’s thrilling to see nimble kung fu artists animating their dazzling costumes to the pounding narrative of the percussionists. On the bottom of the lion-dance scale, we sympathetically witnessed busboys at the Chinese buffet traipsing between the tables to anemic accompaniment, basically phoning it in. We are always appreciative of the intention of this tradition, the frightening away of evil spirits and welcome a year of good luck. 

Food is the best part of the holiday and, of course, we feast.  Toutes les cuisines d’Asie are on le menu at our home.  Sushi, dumplings, curries,  both egg and spring rolls, steamy bowls full of pho and miso and hot-and-sour… From Korean barbecue to bulgogi, biryani and banh mi, we absorb the culture…gustatorily.

We are crazy for all things Asian and Vietnamese. When we adopted both of our kids from Vietnam, our adoption caseworkers impressed upon us to learn and practice the traditions of their culture. “Take every opportunity to raise your kids with hands-on experiences in their culture,” we were instructed, through their senses–touch, taste, smell… Acculturation of Vietnamese traditions and cultural competence is critical knowledge that we, as adoptive parents, must teach our children. Ignoring this aspect of practicing the customs of their cultural roots will hinder them from fitting in with their Vietnamese peers. Our dual-culturalism has instilled greater self-esteem and confidence in our kids. It also has lessened the risk of marginalization and self-consciousness. The goal of the trans-racial adoptive parents is raising a child who easily fits in with peer groups of their own ethnicity.  Ignoring the child’s culture leads to stress, trauma, and marginalization that might mess up your kid for life, we were warned. Adoptees who do not receive this cultural support may lead to a damaging alienation by their Vietnamese peers, in our case.  This paradox was succinctly observed by Eddie Huang, author of the memoir Fresh Off The Boat, who wrote: “Chinese people questioned my yellowness because I was born in America, then white people questioned my identity as an American because I was yellow.” Eddie Huang experienced this dichotomy of disconnect felt by adoptees despite not being adopted himself. 

Let me tell you a story that demonstrates the impact of negating the birth culture of a trans-racial adoptee. We were at Vietnamese Culture Camp held at the YMCA of the Rockies3 in July of 2004. Families who adopted kids from Vietnam met for a long weekend. The purpose of these camps is for families to gain exposure to their kids’ birth culture and for us parents to network and learn parenting techniques for our unique families. The camp counselors lead our kids in typical summer camp stuff: games, teach traditional music and dance, martial arts, language lessons. The children enjoy Vietnamese food, put on plays, and hang out with children that not only look like themselves, but also have a shared story. The parents attend sessions where we learn how to help our kids deal with racism, how to make a decent Vietnamese dish, listen to talks by child psychologists and social workers, to network with other families, and tools to raise a kid with a robust cultural identity.   

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3Hilarious anecdote: Checking in to the half-star facility, the college-aged clerk working the front desk wore a name tag with her name and  “Hope College.” “Wow! Isn’t that in Holland? My in-laws live there,” I said. We were local Coloradoans at the time. She blurted, “The food is terrible!”  “What?” I said, blinking. The girl with Hope by her name pretended she didn’t say a thing. The moment came and went like a sasquatch sighting. I couldn’t believe my ears.  “Name which the reservation is under and your credit card, for incidentals,” she said, suddenly all business, eyes trained on her monitor.  As foretold, the dining experiences did not quite approach the threshold of “institutional.          

There was a simultaneous meeting at the YMCA of the Rockies by the Vietnam Adoptee Network. Their organization was comprised of the now-grown-ups who were brought to America as the babies in Operation Babylift at the close of the Vietnam War. They were welcomed by new families almost forty years ago, but were raised primarily  minus any benefit of experiencing their Vietnamese cultural identity. Adoption social scientists didn’t grasp the impact of neglecting the birth culture then as they do now.  We parents sat in on a VAN panel where they shared stories growing up. They  survived ostracization, not fitting in at school or their neighborhoods, how it felt being the only kid of color in their county, questioning the motivation of their birth families and their adoptive families.  Their stories of depression, grief, hostility, suicide, and anger were impactful and moving. We parents were observing first hand the control aspect of a social science experiment that we were benefiting from, why we did what we did as parents of kids adopted trans-racially.

One of the panelists tried to lighten the mood by sharing this story. He was a music teacher in Seattle. One of his students, an Asian boy about twelve years old, took drumming lessons from him. The panelist explained how the boy’s white mother consistently picked him up after his weekly lessons month after month. But there was that one time that the pupil’s father picked him up. He was white, too. The panelist came to the rational conclusion based on this latest development and made a sincere and innocent attempt to develop a rapport with his student and his family, “Oh, you’re adopted? Cool, me too.” The dad scowled and stormed away, dragging his son with him. The music teacher was perplexed. Shortly afterward the mother called him, irate, and chewed him out: “We haven’t told Timmy he was adopted yet! How dare you!”4 The Vietnamese panelist who was raised up by well-meaning people yet also marginalized as an outsider in a cultural vacuum and traumatized because of it, witnessed the continuation of the cycle. A double-whammy of denial. The fear and ignorance of the parents’ actions with no regard to Timmy’s present and future mental health left all of us gob-smacked. After all these years of mulling this story over, I can’t help but ruminate over the critical role culture and cultural sensitivity play not only in our trans-racial family, but in the successful navigation of our trans-racial world.  I hear stories regularly that mirror the experience of the VAN panelist.

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4As he retells the story, I hope he embellishes with this knee slapper: “We haven’t told Tran Nhat he’s adopted yet, drum teacher–How dare you! Now beat it!.”

In full disclosure, I had a brief phase of denial like Timmy’s parents.  When our social worker explained the science of acculturation to me, I accepted the information as fact. When it was impressed upon me to reshuffle my life-long personal identity, modify my so-called culture to absorb another one, a foreign one, I leaned forward and said, “Sure, no prob.” To teach our little ones their culture, we as responsible parents, had to learn it and practice it ourselves, even register a fluency in it. Well, duh, I have been drilled on the lesson.  However, hard reality could not convert my curmudgeonliness:  I was résistant.” Actual execution of my directive had molassified. My better half eagerly coordinated get-togethers with families who already adopted from Vietnam, months before we even had a child placement. Phooey. The strong urging that we attend Vietnamese culture camps? LOL, utterly repellent. Logging hours of study for Vietnamese cultural nuance? I sorta had other stuff to do despite what I agreed to do when I was in the social worker’s office. Also, with no endpoint in sight for the adoption, I felt time was on my side.

Perhaps the new role of fatherhood was freaking me out. Or rather, fatherhood with an asterisk. I wasn’t just preparing to change diapers and anticipating how I’ll need to tip-toe during nap times like typical dads, but to commit to absorbing a foreign culture.  I realized the commitment to do both was a privilege, a blessing, after a few heart-to-hearts with myself. Also, the prospect of future trips to Vietnam sweetened the deal.

The adoption of our daughter turned out to be a twenty-months wait. By the time the black-and-white photograph of Our Li’l Sweet Pea’s fuzzy head arrived, I banked up enough emotional I.Q. to think beyond myself and my irrationally stubborn self. I jumped into the culture not for my daughter but with my daughter. 

The Tet rituals seem to sharpen one’s focus better for a successful year. Ever draft your New Year’s resolutions on December thirty-first, scheming for incredible personal developments? Did that enthusiasm for personal reinvention fizzle by the day of Epiphany? Perhaps the two weeks of the Lunar New Year propel us with a tad more gumption, motivated by luck-harvesting rituals. But maybe it’s not luckiness and good fortune we get from nearly cleaning the house and lighting firecrackers. Maybe it’s hope we get, hope which manifests our good fortune. You go where your thoughts take you.  

So, that’s my take of one aspect of our family’s adopted culture. By the relinquishment of a little control I was adopted by my kids’ culture in a sort of mutual adoption. New worlds opened when I swept my reluctance under the rug.