Erika Buiter—Staff Writer
Most days, Garth Servis Jr. stands behind the Fruited Plain counter scribbling down orders and whipping up coffees. But today, he’s sitting at one of its tables. Tall, sweater-clad and sprinkled with tattoos, Servis is the very image of a hipster-ish college student–and until last fall, he was one.
First a Theology major, then Secondary English Education, Servis bounced between classes and career aspirations before deciding to leave Dordt. For him, the promised degree at the end didn’t outweigh losing his time and money.
“College is way too expensive to be a guessing game,” Servis said.
Now more than five months removed from college education, Servis works full-time. He’s engaged and plans to move to Chicago with his fiancée. Still connected to the Dordt community, he talks to former professors and is even sitting in on one of their classes. For Servis, struggling through college felt worth it – but after he dropped, he felt relieved, and has no plans to return.
“I don’t think that anyone should feel the pressure of having to go to college,” Servis said. “I think that’s something young people are very pressured into, and if you’re having second thoughts, then there’s no shame in taking one, two or even an indefinite number of years off.”
In 2016, Dordt’s bachelor’s degree graduation rate hit 69.3%. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, average four-year-degree graduation rates for private non-profit schools nationwide sat at 66% in 2016, while public institutions sat at 59%.
Though Dordt’s graduation rate fluctuates between high 60s and low 70s – hitting 73.2% in 2018 — Servis is part of a consistent number of students who chose to leave.
So what is Dordt doing right?
Every Tuesday, a Student Success Team meets to review academic alerts and assess which students may be struggling. Jim Bos, registrar, is on the committee.
“We’d love if everybody stayed, obviously, but there’s always going to be students it just doesn’t work out for,” Bos said.
The committee – whose members include residence life staff as well as Dean of Students Robert Taylor – works to connect struggling students with support.
“A student’s best chance for success is trying to establish the opportunity to connect with multiple people on campus,” Bos said.
Even before the Student Success Team takes action, Dordt employees work to set students up for success. Week of Welcome, Core 100 and co-curricular activities work deliberately to put students in situations where they can meet a diverse group of their peers. Amy Westra, associate director of career development, helps provide resources for students with questions.
“The things that we can offer to students in that situation are coaching, assessments and information, and connections,” Westra said. “[A] tool that I use is Jobzology. It takes a couple of those assessments–a personality one, workplace preferences, values, interests—and pulls those together for the purpose of finding career matches.”
But for some students, Dordt just isn’t in the cards. When that’s the case, the team works to help the student exit well.
“I never want to take a student’s money for the sake of taking a student’s money,” Bos said.
For Emily, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, Bos played a part in helping her exit well in 2017. Today, in-between shifts, she sits on a stool by the Townsquare Coffee House’s expansive front window, brown backpack-purse resting on the wooden bar. Emily recalls her hope that Dordt might be a fresh start after high school – but a combination of severe anxiety, depression and gender dysphoria in her first semester made participating in classes almost impossible.
“It ended up being a perfect storm,” Emily said. “About halfway through the semester I felt like ‘this isn’t right.’”
After speaking with Jim Bos and Robert Taylor, Emily decided to proceed with a medical withdrawal.
“It’s reserved for people who withdraw from classes for a medical reason,” Emily said. “I had to see a doctor to see if I had actual mental issues going on, so I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression and started taking medication. For the medical withdrawal, they hold your scholarships, student loans, and if you want to come back, you can. It’s a good process and really good for people who do have those bouts with depression where they can’t participate in school, but don’t want to be stuck.”
Following her withdrawal, Emily moved back in with her parents, and now lives independently while working in the area. But so far, she’s chosen not to come back – and unlike most students, her path back to Dordt could be more difficult.
Though she entered Dordt as a male student, Emily now identifies as a transgender woman. Her identity is on a list of prohibited conduct on pages 33 and 34 of Dordt’s Student Handbook, which states, “Dordt College specifically holds as unbiblical and therefore prohibited…D. Transgendered Behavior. Adopting an identity discordant with one’s biological sex is prohibited…Dordt College may determine that, as the result of conduct described as prohibited, an individual shall be dismissed from the college.”
Though not a guaranteed outcome, according to the handbook, Dordt would be within its rights to dismiss a transgender student like Emily from the college, if she returned. Though she isn’t planning to return to Dordt – or any college – anytime soon, she can see herself eventually pursuing a degree in political science or nursing – a field she can “do good” in.
“Dordt’s out of the picture,” Emily said. “It really is like a brick wall. There’s so many people, especially around here, that seem to think that trans people are gross or that we’re trying to peep on women. It’s super weird to me. I’m just trying to be me and be successful as myself. It’s a hard blow, and it definitely sucks… [but] it’s their right; they’re a private institution.”