Sydney Brummel – Staff Writer
When Dordt’s campus closed and went online in March, many questions hung in the air. How would online learning work, for both professors and students? When would students be able to return? If they did return, what would campus life look like?
Since March, the Dordt community has received answers to many of their questions. Students have finally returned, and class is back in session, albeit with new safety measures in place. To ensure that this semester could happen in-person, the institution made numerous careful decisions. Over the past six months, the Admissions Office faced a unique challenge: how does a closed campus reach out to prospective students during a pandemic?
“We looked at a situation that was really difficult, and we didn’t panic. We pivoted. And so that’s been our theme this year,” Brandon Huisman, vice president for enrollment and marketing, said.
“I appreciate the innovation of our team,” Greg Van Dyke, director of admissions said.
Once campus closed, the admissions counselors worked primarily from home. Because campus visits were no longer an option the office began to personally reach out to students through phone calls, FaceTime, and Zoom meetings.
“It wasn’t like we just called them and said, ‘Hey, are you coming to Dordt?’…it was just more connecting them with them and saying, ‘How are you doing…How can I pray for you?’” Van Dyke said.
Within a week and a half, Dordt began to host virtual campus visits for interested students. These meetings included a greeting from President Hoekstra, a panel of current students, and breakout sessions with professors. Students and parents were able to submit questions through a live chat. From the beginning of March to the end of summer, over 1,100 students participated in a virtual visit.
During the summer, Admissions hosted the first Defender Ready event via Zoom. Beginning with an introduction from the President and Barb Hoekstra and a devotional from Aaron Baart, the meeting served as a sort of summertime orientation. Over 300 out of the nearly 400 current freshman students joined the virtual meeting.
“People were just pumped afterwards,” Van Dyke said.
Josie Huffman, a freshman from Maxwell, NE, personally experienced Dordt’s extended effort to reach out to students while at home. Even though she had decided to attend Dordt already in January, she especially appreciated the virtual connection once COVID-19 hit.
“Especially in the beginning they [Dordt] kept texting us…things like ‘We’re here for you…We’re so glad that you’re still planning on coming at this point,’” Huffman said. “It made me realize that there was still hope for going back to school in the fall, which was really nice.”
Huffman also participated in the Defender Ready event, which she found helpful and enjoyable.
“It made me remember how much I loved Dordt when I first visited,” Huffman said. “I needed that second form of reassurance, and that was it for me…It was cool to be a part of it, definitely memorable.”
The special efforts that the university made over the past few months to reach out to individual students and keep school spirit alive paid off. Counting all full-time, commuting, graduate, and dual credit high school students, Dordt’s estimated enrollment is over 1,600 students.
“All told, you’re looking at about 435 new students that started here,” Huisman said. “Our fulltime number of students we’re hoping is right around 1,340.”
Although this is not Dordt’s largest number of fulltime students, this year does feature the largest total headcount as well as one of the largest incoming classes in the last 10 years. Moreover, the retention rate of first-time freshman from last year to this current year is estimated to be around 83%.
“That’s going to be one of the top three or four numbers we’ve had,” Huisman said, “you wouldn’t expect that amidst a pandemic.”
Huisman attributed the Hope Fund’s work to the entire Dordt campus and community.
“It was the campus community being willing to say, ‘We’re going to help you finish what you started’…a great example of covenant Christian education,” Huisman said. “It’s just a really beautiful story.”
From campus visits and commencement via Zoom to numerous Defender-themed videos throughout the summer, Dordt’s faculty and staff worked to bring together a community that is larger than normal. Of course, more people on campus during these current circumstances requires special attention to safety measures. The Registrar’s Office spent a great deal of time placing classes in appropriately sized spaces.
“I don’t think we can overdo safety on our campus to ensure that we make it to December 11,” Huisman said.
Still, despite the large student body and social distancing requirements, students have been able to enjoy a positive college experience over the past couple of weeks.
“Even if we still have rules around certain things, I still feel involved in the school,” Huffman said. “I feel like they’re doing their very best effort just to make it fun for us and make an experience.”
Dordt Admissions plans to host more virtual visits in the future. In addition, on-campus visit days will happen with limited visitors and no overnight stays. Admission counselors have also been traveling for small, socially distanced gatherings in order to reach out to prospective students and their families.
“Every day brings with it a unique set of challenges. That doesn’t mean we can’t continue on,” Huisman said. “We have the steadfast call to continue in the good work we have.”