From Spark to Fire: Mentoring Tomorrow’s Church Leaders

Pastor Jonathan Elgersma at the first Generation Spark training at Hope College

As the Rev. Jonathan Elgersma, senior pastor at Faith Reformed Church in Zeeland, Michigan, ambitiously scribbled note upon note in his jam-packed director’s manual, other pastors at his roundtable spouted idea after idea. The problem they were debating, and seeking to solve, concerns them deeply, so their discussions toward implementing a possible solution were focused and lively.

The problem? The steep decline in church attendance among the millennial generation and adults who no longer affiliate with a church. Recent research shows 70 percent of those raised in the church leave by the time they’re in their 20s, and one-third of those under 30 in the U.S. claim to have “no religion.”

The possible solution? Generation Spark, a newly-created program by Hope College’s Center for Leadership (CFL) funded through a $458,502 grant given by Lilly Endowment Inc. in 2017. The new program’s research-based action plan is to retain youth (ages 16-24) and adults (ages 45 and older) and fully integrate them into the life and leadership of the church in ways that are intergenerational, relational and entrepreneurial.

“This is a real need, and practical solutions are appreciated. Right now our people (at Faith Reformed) can’t clearly identify with another program but they can very clearly identify with the challenges we face,” said Elgersma. “They care. We all care about this generation.”

Representatives from five other area churches who feel the same way joined Elgersma for the first day-long Generation Spark training program on Hope’s campus. Other church leaders present were Beckwith Hills Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids; First Reformed Church of Holland; Hope Church of Holland; Parkside Bible Church of Holland; and VictoryPoint Ministries of Holland.

Hope students working with CFL — senior Allison DeVries, senior Kaelyn Tarsa, junior Monica Ruser and sophomore Matthew VanDyken — led the training along with consultant Kathy Stanek and Generation Spark program director Virgil Gulker, who is also servant-leader in residence with CFL and a lecturer in business and economics at Hope.

Virgil Gulker, Director of Generation Spark

“We’d thought we’d have to market (Generation Spark) but churches are coming to us,” says Virgil Gulker. “This kind of programming is needed in the church because its future depends on the younger generation.”

Generation Spark’s plan starts with this affirming reality: Not all youth are leaving the church. But many of those youth do feel under-utilized and misunderstood. “The younger generation has said, ‘Older people in the church don’t listen, I’m not needed, I don’t belong,’ so they don’t feel like stakeholders,” explains Gulker, who was also the founder of KidsHope USA. “We’ve got to stop thinking that only the older adults have the answers.”

“They’re not just sharing coffee, they’re sharing a purpose.”

Since youth want and need a platform to speak and be heard, Generation Spark’s strategy works this way: Younger church members are connected with older members in mentoring relationships, supported by prayer partners. Then, in one-on-one meetings over 12 weeks, they are given one unique aim: to identify, assess and recommend solutions for a real problem affecting the church and its community.

Allison DeVries presents at Generation Spark training.

“An adult and a youth come together to solve a problem they identify as being an issue, such as bullying within the youth’s middle school class,” explains DeVries, a business major, who was charged with the planning and implementation of training for the first Generation Spark churches. “The mentor-mentee work together to discuss a way to solve that problem. Then they are encouraged to go in front of their churches after the 12 weeks to explain the process they went through and also to appeal to the church for their involvement with the solution together.

“So throughout that entire process, the youth and the adult come together to problem-solve but their relationship has also grown by spending time together in a meaningful way.”

“They’re not just sharing coffee, they’re sharing a purpose,” Gulker adds.

DeVries felt the same sense of purpose, too, in her work for CFL on behalf of Generation Spark. Her desire to become involved was both personal and professional.

“I definitely have a passion for the church and for leadership within the church,” DeVries confides. “I can see myself working in a non-profit organization some day. So I loved researching different training methods with Kathy and Virgil because they are so experienced. But I brought the youth aspect to the table, and I felt like my opinion was valued a lot.”

Hope students directly involved in the planning and implementation of Generation Spark include, left to right, Allison DeVries, Matthew VanDyken, Monica Ruser, and Kaelyn Tarsa.

As do the other Hope students on the Generation Spark pilot team who manage every area of the program’s planning and implementation. Besides DeVries’ work on training methodologies:

  • Ruser, a communication major, is responsible for communication efforts to the Generation Spark constituencies. She is focused on powerful story-telling about relationship successes utilizing social media;
  • Tarsa, a business major, is point-person on the evaluation process and will work with the Frost Research Center on campus to develop a survey process as well as in-person focus groups; and,
  • VanDyken, also a business major, is working to hone the existing marketing materials for future church collaboration and participation.

“I loved researching different training methods with Kathy and Virgil because they are so experienced. But I brought the youth aspect to the table, and I felt like my opinion was valued a lot.”

More Hope students will join in the Generation Spark effort over the next couple years. The Lilly Endowment Inc. grant supports the program’s invention and fine-tuning over a three-year period. By the end of the pilot, CFL plans to develop a model that individual congregations can implement on their own.

“While some of the social issues that Generation Spark mentors and mentees tackle — like hunger in schools or underage drinking — may never go away, I hope we see them diminish because of Generation Spark’s impact,” says DeVries.

And as some social problems possibly diminish, youth in the church possibly increases. That is the hopeful intent of Generation Spark.

Hope Turns Purple to Help Find a Cure

They have never met but they are on the same team. Their uniforms are different but they don them with solidarity of purpose. And though they play different positions, they desire the same outcome. The soccer player and the scientist want to beat cancer.

Senior Allie Wittenbach, a forward on the Hope women’s soccer team, takes her fight against cancer to the field to help defeat the disease that claimed the life of her mother, Debbie. Senior Philip Versluis, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, battles cancer in a research lab in the expansive Van Andel Institute (VAI) in downtown Grand Rapids. Together, the two Hope students, along with hundreds of others, use their activism and skills to combat what has been aptly called “the worst scourge of humankind.”

Purple means funding. Purple stands for awareness. Purple gives hope.

And the color purple unites them. Is there a prettier color to represent a longed-for cure of this ugly disease? It signifies VAI’s grassroots fund-raising program, called Purple Community, connecting individuals, schools, teams and businesses to the resources needed to join the fight against cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Purple means funding. Purple stands for awareness. Purple gives hope.

And in January, 2017, purple equaled $8,691.89. That was the amount raised by Hope athletes during a Purple Community Game on Hope’s campus. The funds are financing the stipend, and other expenses, for a Hope student to be a VAI summer intern, a unique way Hope athletics partners with Hope academics. Wittenbach is one such athlete. Versluis is this summer’s intern.

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Senior forward Allie Wittenbach

Whenever Allie Wittenbach puts on her soccer cleats — the ones with her mom’s initials, DJW, penned on the white Nike swoosh, and “Never Give Up” written on the sides — she remembers she is playing for something bigger than herself. Every practice. Every play. Every game. When the Purple Community Game rolls around, played in purple jerseys and paraphernalia to bring attention to and raise funds for cancer research at VAI, her sense of loss and hope is even more pronounced.

“There is definitely a different feeling in the air that day,” she says. “On Purple Game day, we are playing for those who are fighting and surviving cancer.” She pauses and her voice trails off a bit but does not tremble. “Or those who are no longer with us. They are, and were, the ones battling harder than we ever could on the field.”

Wittenbach became heavily involved in Purple Community Games long before she arrived at Hope. At her high school, Forest Hills Central, she became a whole-hearted Purple Community member after her mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. While there, she was instrumental in raising over $100,000 for VAI ‘s cancer-cure effort.

“There is definitely a different feeling in the air that day. On Purple Game day, we are playing for those who are fighting and surviving cancer.” She pauses and her voice trails off a bit but does not tremble.

Once at Hope, Wittenbach rallied forces again to raise even more money. Driven and intense, loving and loyal too, Wittenbach just wants to make a difference beyond the soccer pitch. It’s that plain and simple. Her commitment to cancer research is as purple as purple gets.

“This is a cause Allie is really passionate about but it is never all about her,” observes Head Women’s Soccer Coach Leigh Sears. “Last year, I left it to her to organize the event for our team and she had everyone involved. She is always so grateful for the opportunity to raise money and awareness for the cause.”

Allie and Debbie Wittenbach (Photo Courtesy of Allie Wittenbach)

Debbie Wittenbach ended her battle with cancer in November of 2015, Allie’s sophomore year. The woman who knew just about everyone by their first name in her hometown of Ada, Michigan, and who never missed one of her children’s sporting events (Stephen Wittenbach also played basketball for Hope), left a legacy of strength and compassion as well an indelible mark on her community and her daughter. Allie talks about her mom with evident pride tinged by profound loss. But it’s clear she’s not asking for sympathy. She talks about her mom with great joy as a way to keep her memory alive.

“Everybody knows somebody who has been affected by cancer. I’m not the only one who’s lost a loved one too young…. But I would not trade the 20 years I got with my mom for 100 years with anybody else,” Allie says. “You can quote me on that.”

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Philip Versluis commutes to VAI in downtown Grand Rapids from his hometown of nearby Walker, Michigan, long before the traffic gets thick. He takes the elevator to his fifth-floor lab and starts his day by checking the incubator he set up the night before, well after 6:00 p.m. Research is not a 9-to-5 job, he says. It’s dedicated to questions and experiments that have little consideration of a clock. And that is why the whip-smart Versluis likes it. No two days worked, or the results derived, are exactly alike. Even if those days and experiments try his patience and stamina.

Hope senior Philip Versluis conducts cancer research at VanAndel Institute. (Photo Courtesy of VAI)

“When you do research, most of the time you just fail,” he confides. “It’s rather remarkable how many times you can perform an experiment and see it get infected, or it doesn’t develop well. So then you redo it over with the hopes that it works next time. When it does, when you find that one bit of information that leads to another question that leads to another experiment, that is pretty cool. And the more you dig in, the cooler it gets.”

Dr. Scott Rothbart and Philip Versluis at Van Andel Institute (Photo Courtesy of VAI)

Versluis has been digging in for three summers now under the direction of Dr. Scott Rothbart, assistant professor in the Center for Epigenetics at VAI, who supervises five other lab assistants too. The two previous summers Versluis worked as an intern funded by the Meijer Foundation. As he continues on with cancer research this summer thanks to funding designated from the Hope Purple Community Game (“For which I am very appreciative,” he says), Versluis embraces the complexities of his work that specifically deals with the mechanisms of DNA control. Knowing more about genomic information inside various, specific cells — be they the peculiarities of brain, blood, liver or lung cells — gives researchers better knowledge about molecular drivers of cancer.

We expect a lot from human-made technology. So why is it then that we haven’t cured cancer?

And it’s the knowing that takes time and money. A lot of time and money. We’ve gotten men to the moon, constructed an information highway, talk on phones that move with us, and built monoliths of modern design. We expect a lot from human-made technology. So why is it then that we haven’t cured cancer? It turns out the human body is much more complicated than any one of those other things.

Philip Versluis and Dr. Scott Rothbart, and son, attend a Purple Community Game at Hope.

“Different cancers act differently,” says Rothbart. “And they affect different people differently. The types of approaches that would be effective for treating one type of cancer are ineffective for treating another type of cancer because they are driven by completely different mechanisms.”

In other words, curing cancer is like taking aim at a constantly morphing bull’s eye even though the target may look somewhat the same. But there is hope on the not-too-distant horizon because “for some cancers, the idea of a cure is within reach,” Rothbart adds. “For other types of cancer, the idea of converting these deadly diseases into chronic diseases that are abated with a pill once a day, like diabetics use insulin, may be a way to manage cancer. We may not be able to get rid of every single cancer cell but we may be able to hold the system down where you can live a long healthy life as long as you take your pill.”

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Having assurances like that from Rothbart keeps Wittenbach focused on Purple Community efforts at Hope and inspires Versluis to continue research after graduation from Hope, as he’ll soon apply to Ph.D. programs in molecular biology. The two Hope students may not know each other but they share the same commitment to be the change they want to see in the medical world. The soccer player needs the scientist and vice versa.

“You don’t have to be only in the lab to help this cause. We all play a part. That’s why these games matter.”

“I can’t be in the lab but Philip can and is and I respect him for that. We need him there,” says Wittenbach, a communication and business double major. “But you don’t have to be only in the lab to help this cause. We all play a part. That’s why these games matter.”

Walk This Way To Challenge Borders


See this image here above. Maybe you’ve encountered it on your way through the first floor of DeWitt, or in the first floor rotunda of Martha Miller, or by the psychology department in Schaap. Maybe you’ve looked at it and thought, “That looks interesting.”

It is. Slow down.

See the image above. Maybe you glanced at it on your way into the dining areas of Cook and Phelps, or in the lobby of DePree and Jack Miller. Maybe it caught your eye by the circulation desk in Van Wylen Library, or just inside the front door of Kruizenga. Maybe you’ve looked at it and thought, “That must have something to say.”

It does. Look closer.

See the image above. It is at all of those nine locations, providing an atypical classroom through a QR code that will teach you. Maybe you’ve looked at it and thought, “That seems like a game changer.”

It can be. Stop.

Get out your phone, scan the code, and learn. The project, “Challenging Borders: Displaced People,” has much to teach you about those whose lives have experienced disruption and disorder due to immigration, climate change, the refugee crisis and mass incarceration. And the disciplines of art and English and science and psychology and communication all converged to do so, crossing interdisciplinary boundaries in order to challenge you about the ways you view borders — domestic or international — and the people who are affected by them.

The best way to take in the “Challenging Borders” project is actually do that: challenge borders by walking the project in its entirety. Traipse to every poster on campus, cross streets, open doors, enter rooms, search hallways, and you’ll feel measures of boundaries as you do.

Funded by a $16,000 Global Crossroads Initiative grant sponsored by the Great Lakes College Association (GLCA), of which Hope is a member, “Challenging Borders: Displaced People” is an interactive, 3-5 minute audio-visual diaspora in those campus locations listed above. Nine faculty/student collaborative projects were selected from across divisions to participate so when you scan each poster’s QR code located on its lower right corner, you’ll engage in interdisciplinary sensory and factual uploading.

“The days of us living in our disciplinary silos are over,” says Dr. Heidi Kraus, co-coordinator of the project. “This project is a great example of disciplines converging. We have people from chemistry, from art, from English, from psychology, from communication all talking together. We are breaking down borders even between our own disciplines with this project.”

The best way to take in the “Challenging Borders” project is actually do that: challenge borders by walking the project in its entirety. Traipse to every poster on campus, cross streets, open doors, enter rooms, search hallways, and you’ll feel measures of boundaries as you do. And it’s a good way to get in 2,481 steps on your day, too. It’s also a good way to encounter multiple perspectives on the complex issues of migration and displacement gripping our nation and world.

“When we thought of challenging borders, we were interested in the idea of movement and bringing a physicality to this,” explains Kraus. “We wanted the feel of borders and of crossing those and walking to spaces. So the idea of a physical diaspora came to fruition.”

“It is like an image in a kaleidoscope: each piece itself is beautiful, but when you look at all of them together, you feel how all of them create something new and even more beautiful.”

“After I saw all the projects, it surprised me how different all of them were but at the same time how all of them complemented each other,” says Dr. Berta Carrasco de Miguel, co-coordinator of the project. “It is like an image in a kaleidoscope: each piece itself is beautiful, but when you look at all of them together, you feel how all of them create something new and even more beautiful.”

You can start at any one of the nine buildings shown on the map above (and identified on a list below). Then think of tackling your walk across campus borders to every project as strolling in a circle, rather than a rectangle, and you’ll begin to feel encompassed and safe inside Hope’s finely groomed green areas and well-kept buildings, a fraught juxtaposition for the images of marginalization and disenfranchisement you’ll soon encounter. As you watch and hear each project depict those who have been displaced and excluded, a needed unease settles in and with it comes the most needed emotion of all: empathy.

So, slow down, look closer and stop to challenge borders, but know this: You won’t walk away the same.

“I hope the Hope community understands the complexity and importance of these topics and gets a feeling of closeness to the main characters of these videos,” adds Carrasco de Miguel.

If walking to every poster in one fell-swoop isn’t within your end-of-the-semester time budget, then take in one project at a time when you happen to be in each building. Slow down, look closer and stop to challenge borders, but know this: You won’t walk away the same.

  1. The Complexities of the Immigration Experience — Prof. Deb Van Duinen @ Jack H. Miller Center for the Musical Arts (Lobby)
  2. A Voice to Balance the Negative Rhetoric About Refugees — Prof. Jayson Dibble@ Martha Miller Center (First Floor Rotunda)
  3. What is in a Name? Hispanic or Latino? — Prof. Berta Carrasco de Miguel @ Kruizenga Art Museum (Entry Area)
  4. Finding Truth in Fiction — Prof. Susanna Childress @ DePree Art Center (Lobby)
  5. Walking Gregory’s Neighborhood — Prof. Tori Pelz @ DeWitt Center (North Hallway)
  6. It Takes a Village, But Will There Always Be One? — Prof. Joshua Kraut @ Phelps Hall (North Dining Entrance Area)
  7. What Would You Do? — Prof. Scott VanderStoep @ Cook Hall (South Dining Entrance Area)
  8. Fitting In: Our Quixotic Endeavors in a New Home — Prof. Tatevik Gyulamiryan @ Van Wylen Library (Circulation Desk Area)
  9. Climate Change and Global Displacement — Prof. Joanne Stewart @ Schaap Science Center (First Floor, Near Psychology Offices)

Hope 2017: A Watch List

New year. New semester. New classes. New start.

The bisected rhythm of an academic year is something special. It affords faculty, staff and students two yearly markers for two new beginnings that most other entities and professions do not. In academia, new starts come at the end of summer (and the official start of a new school year) and at the end of 365 previous days (and the official start of a new calendar year). And each gives new opportunities to look at what’s to come on our educational horizon.

It is once a year or in a lifetime events that brighten our mission statement with even more living color, those things that make a Hope education as fresh as a new year or semester.

At Hope, we’ve done our fair share of looking ahead. We’re not wishing our days away, mind you, but we cannot help but be excited about what 2017 has in store on campus. Of course, we’re always mindful of the everyday privilege “to educate students for lives of leadership and service in a global society through academic and co-curricular programs of recognized excellence in the liberal arts and in the context of the historic Christian faith.”  Yet, it is once-a-year, or in a lifetime, events that brighten our mission statement with even more living color, those things that make a Hope education as fresh as a new year or semester.

Here is a list of the top five Hope happenings to watch for in this New Year, from new buildings to new institutes to new classes.

  1. Student Space Expands

One has been a little over a year-and-a-half  in the making, the other about eight months. Each will give students new space for living and learning in 2017.

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Construction on the $22.5 million Bultman Center nears completion.

The Bultman Student Center, a 42,000-square-foot facility devoted to student activities in the heart of campus, will reach its completion in the spring of 2017. It is hoped that students will get their first look inside their new communal home this April. Ground broke for its $22.5 million construction in the fall of 2015 and since then, this campus epicenter has been taking shape to the excitement of student life offices and groups longing to use it. Named for former presidential duo, Jim and Marti Bultman, the center will be dedicated in the fall of 2017.

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The Cook Village will have two new apartment buildings which will house 16 students by fall 2017.

Cook Village, the student apartment complex that stands in the “U” along Lincoln Avenue and 11th and 12th Streets, is being expanded, adding two more townhouse-style buildings to the four that already exist. At about 3,800 square feet in each, the new brick apartments will house 16 more students. The $1.8 million addition to the village, named for its major donor, the Peter C. and Emajean Cook Foundation, will be completed by the fall of 2017 to welcome new inhabitants for the 2017-18 school year.

2. Toward a Better Understanding of Our Global Society

A series of lectures on wide-ranging international topics will be hosted at Hope in conjunction with the World Affair Council of West Michigan in the spring of 2017. Bringing renowned experts to campus, which include a retired brigadier general and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan on Mondays, starting February 7 and ending April 3, the “Great Decision Global Discussion Series” will address hot topics such Latin American health care, clashes in the South China Sea, and the future of the European Union, to name a few. It is a perfect example of Hope’s prioritization to provide the campus community with opportunities for global understanding.

“By bringing foreign policy experts to campus, we live into our liberal arts mission to prepare our students to faithfully engage an increasingly complex and interconnected global society,” says Dr. Dede Johnston, professor of communication and Hope’s liaison with the World Affairs Council of West Michigan. Hope is an educational partner of the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan, which informs and engages people of all ages on matters of national and international importance, and explores how national policy and global events affect the community in West Michigan.

3. New Institute to Prepare Students for Vocational Future

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George ’61 and Sibilla Boerigter

The Boerigter Institute, a new, college-wide initiative, will help ensure that every Hope student is robustly prepared for career success and professional growth. The goal of the Boerigter Institute is to transform the college’s approach to career preparation with an innovative and comprehensive framework that guides students from their first semester onward by identifying their strengths and interests, and engaging them in career planning and experiential learning. It will more closely link multiple departments and programs at the college.

This significant effort is made possible by a major gift from SoundOff Signal in honor of Founder and Chairman George Boerigter, who is a 1961 Hope graduate, and his wife, Sibilla. A task force of Hope faculty and staff is currently working to develop this new, cross-functional integrated program, bearing the Boerigters’ name, which is scheduled to begin implementation by fall 2017.

4. Happy Anniversary, Reformation!

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Reformer Martin Luther, 1483-1546

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther changed the course of Christian history for 95 reasons. It was on that day that the once anonymous monk and scholar delivered his “Ninety-Five Theses” to a Roman Catholic Church in Wittenberg, Germany, sparking the Protestant Reformation and altering the progression and understanding of Christianity as the world once knew it.

As a school affiliated with the Reformed Church in America since its inception in 1866, Hope has long appreciated the significance of this event. And as a school that also appreciates ecumenism, Hope will commemorate this momentous 500th anniversary by looking at the Reformation with more than one event, and throughout the year, from various faith-based, historical and social viewpoints via lectures, discussions and even a musical performance. A Presidential Colloquium commences this spring with keynote speakers to complement the Danforth Lecture that will all address the Reformation’s impact. Hope faculty will engage in panel discussions this fall, offering other perspectives on the topic. As for the musical element, a participatory hymn sing is being planned as well.  Additional information will be released throughout the year about each event.

5. Up to the Grand Challenge

Relevant, complex topics will get new, curricular looks this fall, all thanks to $800,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  The Mellon Grand Challenges Initiative (MGCI) is providing Hope faculty and students with opportunities to come together in true liberal arts fashion to explore “grand challenges” by crossing and connecting disciplines for Hope’s general education program as well as for collaborative summer research. Over three years, MGCI will aspire to support the development of about six projects per semester, involving two or more faculty members and developing a potential total of about 50 new linked courses.

Currently, the MGCI committee has awarded about $130,000 in internal funding to six cross-divisional projects involving a total of 15 faculty members. Entitled Disability in Contemporary Societies, Healing in Post-Conflict Societies, Immigration Stories, National Identities, Peace Movements, Storytelling and Cross-Cultural Empathy, these new classes involve nine departments and all four divisions at Hope.

Three more rounds of funding are on the docket to fund additional courses as is the creation of a summer research program for 2018.

Keeping it Real: A Librarian’s Advice to Ending Fake News

Since the dawn of the Internet, college librarians have been concerned about the communication of accurate stories racing around the “information superhighway.” Never ones to subscribe to the “if it’s on the Internet, it must be true” idiom, these information professionals have long questioned and looked closely at internet source reliability, authority and bias.

But now that fake news has the spotlight in real news, (i.e., the recent Pizzagate fiasco), one Hope librarian wants students — and all of us, really — to remember that what we search for and read on the internet, especially on social media, is often precisely what we want to search for and read. It’s this “filter bubble” that is causing fake news to find its way in our news feeds in the first place.

Hope College - Students and staff working at the Van Wylen Library on Hope campus.
Jessica Hronchek instructs students in the Van Wylen Library on Hope campus.

“A ‘filter bubble’ means you are primarily seeing news (on social media) that you agree with and are blocked from viewing those things that you don’t agree with,” says Jessica Hronchek, a research librarian at Hope’s Van Wylen Library. “[Facebook] newsfeeds are the results of complex algorithms that attempt to show you what they think you want to see. This will be based on your networks of friends and the content you have clicked on and ‘liked’ in the past, as well as many other factors. The end result is a newsfeed that heavily reflects your own opinions on major issues…. And that gives us no sense of perspective or balance at all.”

Fake news thrives when readers refuse to investigate both sides of an issue, or look for other notable news sources, or succumb to emotion rather than reason.

Filter bubbles lead us to one-sided debates and harm real research, Hronchek believes. Fake news thrives when readers refuse to investigate both sides of an issue, or look for other notable news sources, or succumb to emotion rather than reason. So, asking critical questions about the bias and authorship of a story should be mandatory for any article online, “because who the source is tells the story as much as the words they use,” Hronchek says.

“Right now, it feels like information is cheap because it is so available and so abundant,” she explains. “But good, real, authentic information is anything but cheap. It has value socially, politically, and of course, persuasively.”

Spreading false news and information can have a measurable, negative impact and it harms real research.

Information must be used in the correct way for its value to compound. “Pizzagate” is just one example of how spreading false news and information can have a measurable and negative impact. It is enough to give pause for every Internet user to ask, “how can I be sure what I read is real and how can I stop the proliferation of what is not?”

Hronchek, a purveyor of truth, gives these suggestions to help answer those questions:

  1. The likelihood of an article to trend online is not necessarily connected to its accuracy. If something resonates with you and you share it without taking a moment to do some basic fact-checking, then you may be only spreading false information. Look at the source. Is it credible? Have other outlets written a similar story, or is what you are reading a stand-alone piece? If it’s the only story of its kind on the Internet, it’s probably not a factual story.
  2. Fake news capitalizes on emotion.
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    Not real! But a lot of readers on the Internet thought it was.

    If an article online deeply angers you, ask why. Then double-check your source.

  3. Avoid “click-bait” headlines — those with vague, wild stories that offer up caricatures of issues instead of realistic portrayals (Fisher-Price Happy Hour playset.) And remember, satire stories from The Onion and the New Yorker’s The Borowitz Report are meant to make you click, laugh, and think, while not actually being real news.
  4. Slow down. Take time to ask critical questions of yourself and the story you just read. Don’t be tempted to see a story as the only facts you want to see. Instead, look and think more broadly. The world is wide with ideas; don’t narrow your exposure to just one.

 

Hronchek concludes: “If you are going to stand on a soapbox to proclaim your point of view, you need to do so from a fully informed position. And it’s a position that says, ‘I’ve read all about the issues from both sides. I’ve been responsible. Now I can stand here and make my point and here’s why.”

Now that’s keeping it real.

Politics and the Virtues of Public Discourse

This year’s presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has been described as many things: contentious, awkward, controversial, bizarre. But perhaps the best descriptor of this election is this: It’s personal. Like never before, Americans are vehemently debating, disagreeing and disrespecting each other on social media, and in person, in ways that cut at our moral core. It’s personal and political, which means things can quickly get out of hand.

Now imagine being a college student who is voting for the first time.  It’s as if you are wading hip-deep in a murky mess of political polarization, looking for the right candidate to pluck out. And with so much to disseminate, emotions are running high. Reasoned, mature voices who are modeling civility may seem few and far between to rookie voters navigating such muddy waters.

Vox Populi Logo

Enter Vox Populi — five forums featuring interdisciplinary panels organized by the Office of Student Development. Using the Hope-authored document called the Virtues of Public Discourse as a guide, Vox Populi, meaning “the voice of the people,” tackles weighty topics that revolve around this dramatic election and seasons them heavily with five virtues needed to make discussion and dialogue both respectful and constructive: humility, hospitality, patience, courage, and honesty.

“We are using our Virtues of Public Discourse document to frame each event because we have a responsibility to our Hope community to see this election in both a more intelligent and holistic way.”

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A Vox Populi panel discussion entitled “Could Honest Abe Make It in Politics Today? Why Politicians Lie and Why We’re Okay with It.”  From left to right, Dr. David Ryden of the political science department, Dr. Fred Johnson of the history department, Dr. James Herrick of the communication department, student director of Vox Populi Kathleen Muloma, and Chris Bohle of the student development office.

“We are not having CNN or Fox News screaming matches here,” said Chris Bohle, associate director of student life and main organizer of Vox Populi. “We are using our Virtues of Public Discourse document to start and frame each event because we have a responsibility to our Hope community to see this election in both a more intelligent and holistic way. That means we must help students see what being an informed voter, a critically thinking voter, and a civil voter should look.”

Vox Populi is student-driven, Bohle points out, as eight leaders from campus organizations* choose the topics very early in the academic year “that they needed and wanted to hear about.” Faculty and staff from various departments bring their experience to the panel discussions which have delved into party affiliation and Christianity, social media wars, post-truth politics, and politicized familial dissension.

Each of these tough topics seems somewhat more approachable within the intimate confines of the DeWitt Studio Theatre, when sagacious faculty and staff offer their expertise in both relational and concise ways. But it is the Virtues of Public Discourse that are the true stars and calming influence of Vox Populi. “If we set our gaze locally and exercise these virtues with our families and friends in our communities, then we can start to change the overall landscape because we’ve practiced in trying times,” said Dr. David Ryden, professor of political science and chair of the department.

So, talk politics and voice your views — remembering to be humble, hospitable, brave, patient, and honest — as if our nation depended on it.

“Do we need documents (like the Virtues of Public Discourse) to guide us?” asked Dr. James Herrick, the Guy VanderJagt Professor of Communication, at a panel on honesty in the election. “Yes, because these are not intuitive and we need reminders. Documents such as the Virtues of Public Discourse constitute us as a community and remind us of our standards when it feels inconvenient to live them out. Without such a statement of what we stand for, we run the risk of becoming a tactical community rather than a conversational one.”

The Virtues of Public Discourse fully engaged and on display in Vox Populi set an example for Hope students on how to civilly express their political views when all about them, bombastic and concerning conversations abound. Kathleen Muloma appreciated that most about the forums.

“Vox Populi has taught me that healthy, empassioned, educated conversations are possible,” observes Muloma, a sophomore chemistry major with a biochemistry emphasis and student director of Vox Populi. “We are not without hope for having honest discussions without pulling out hair or insulting the other person. Every time students attended, it reminded me that I am not alone in my desire for these healthy conversations, and that Hope students do want to talk about the controversial topics and are seeking opportunities to learn and get better in the context of the the Christian faith.”

Now with that hopeful sentiment, go ahead and talk politics, voice your views, and like Kathleen Muloma and others who have been enlightened by Vox Populi, remember to be humble, hospitable, brave, patient, and honest – as if our nation depended on it.

*Writer’s note:  Vox Populi’s topics and programming were the brainstorming and organizational results of the following students and these groups: Kathleen Muloma, Student Director; Derek Chen, Hope Republicans Representative; Irene Gerrish, Hope Democrats Representative; Joseph McClusky, Residential Life Representative; CJ Proos, Student Congress Representative; Julia Fulton, Political Science Department Representative; Terah Ryan, SAC Representative, and, Mark Brice, Assistant Director of Residential Life and Housing.

Boston: City of History, Archives, and GLCA Research Opportunities

In unarguably America’s most historic city, Dr. Natalie Dykstra is currently flinging open archival doors, often quite literally, for the scholarship and imaginations of Midwest faculty and students. 

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Dr. Natalie Dykstra, professor of English and director of the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar (Photo provided by Natalie Dykstra)

Each June in Boston – with its wealth of recorded narratives and artifacts from the past, Dykstra – with her trademark affinity for American history and literature – welcomes researchers from Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) schools to step foot into history by working in notable archives that house a myriad of interdisciplinary stories. Once in them, participants in the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar (BSS) find that centuries-worth of artifacts and articles impact their independent thinking and learning. It’s become a win-win-win situation for all involved.

“In Boston, the GLCA faculty members win because they get to concentrate on their own work,” says Dykstra. “Students win because they get to live in this great city and do original research. And the archives we work with win, too, because they want to be part of it. They want to have their materials looked at and used.”

Dykstra, professor English, created the now-competitive and popular GLCA Boston Summer Seminar just two summers ago. Teaching at Hope in the fall and living with her husband in Waltham, Massachusetts, the remainder of the year, she wanted to expose Midwest faculty and students to the Boston institutions that changed her life when she researched and wrote her critically-acclaimed book, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Lifea once hidden story about a fiercely intelligent and creative Boston Brahmin. “I found working in the archives to uncover Clover’s life and death to be moving and gripping… And I wanted others to have that same experience, that same feeling, too,” she confides.

After all, Dykstra’s dream was to make archive work the heartbeat of the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar experience, making available  tactile materials – diaries, ledgers, photos, letters, newspaper clippings – that make history come alive.

Helping others to use archival materials to unfold other remarkable stories would require partnering with Boston research institutions that house unique primary source materials. After all, Dykstra’s dream was to make archive work the heartbeat of the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar experience, making available for students tactile materials – diaries, ledgers, photos, letters, newspaper clippings – that make history come alive. So, with the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) as host, she and Hope alum and MHS reference librarian Anna Clutterbuck-Cook ’05 arrange a network of connections with the Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections, and three archives at Harvard University: the Countway Center for the History of Medicine, the Schlesinger Library and Houghton Library.

“You don’t create a program like this by yourself,” confesses Dykstra. “If the Boston Summer Seminar was my idea, Anna and her expertise has been absolutely crucial in getting it off the ground and making it a success. All our partner archivists are necessary for our success, and a pure pleasure to work with…. Plus, they have asked me, ‘Where do you get your students? We are so impressed.’ It’s a joy and a privilege to hear them say that.” Dykstra is also grateful to the strong support for the seminar from Greg Wegner at the GLCA and from her college colleagues.

Once participants are selected – three teams consisting of a faculty member and two students, from numerous applications each year – Dykstra and Clutterbuck-Cook connect GLCA faculty and students to the right archivist according to their interests. This year, teams from Albion College, Denison University, and Oberlin College are delving into topics on the experience of black Northerners in the era of Southern Emancipation, Boston and New England in Atlantic contexts, and occult practices and new literary traditions in 19th century America, respectively.

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Dr. Julia Randel, back right, Genevieve Janvrin ’15, front left, and Hannah Jacobsma ’16, front right, ride the Boston subway, off to a GLCA Boston Summer Seminar event. (Photo provided by Genevieve Janvrin)

Last June, though, the Hope team of Dr. Julia Randel, associate professor of music and chair of the department, and then students Hannah Jacobsma and Genevieve Janvrin, now graduates, were selected to go to Boston – receiving faculty funding and student stipends (as all participants do) – to conduct research on three separate, though related, projects:  Romanticism in 19th-century French ballet (Jacobsma); the tours by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes that brought serious ballet to the United States in 1916-17 (Janvrin); and George Balanchine’s work with Igor Stravinsky (Randel). Randel’s research in Boston informs a book she is writing about the composer and choreographer.

“Natalie’s work for us was so wonderful,” declares Randel, who earned her doctorate from Harvard and specializes in the history of European and American classical music. “We had so much support there. And for me, going to Boston was like going home, and I hadn’t been back for a while. It was like a dream come true to receive funding to be in a place I love.”

Besides the transformative experience of archive work, faculty and students are exposed to weekly guest speakers, such as Pulitzer Prize winner Megan Marshall, receive historical tours, and are hosted at Dykstra’s Waltham home. Each activity and project gives participants both a breadth and depth of experience as well as clarity of purpose, gleaned from the past and applied to the present and future.

“I got carried away with the stories and the questions,” wrote Janvrin in a BSS blog entry about her experience. “I got carried away with the quiet Houghton atmosphere and the kind souls, both living and dead, who guided me. I got carried away with Boston. My time at MHS, Houghton, and Harvard helped formulate a desire for the future: I want to be a researcher.”