Blessed in the midst of breast cancer

Katie Ribbens— Staff Writer 

In any conversation with professor Julie Van Otterloo, the themes of blessing and calling will surface. Even as she faces an upcoming surgery as part of her breast cancer treatment, Van Otterloo remains positive. 

Van Otterloo is in her first year as an instructor of social work at Dordt University. She once walked the sidewalks around the red brick buildings as a student. She started as an education major, then switched to social work.  

“Even when I was in my undergrad at Dordt, I felt an interest to someday teach higher level learning,” Van Otterloo said. “To combine the two has been very exciting, especially at this level.”

She graduated from Dordt with her bachelor’s of social work in 1993 and later earned her master’s of social work at University of Nebraska. Van Otterloo began teaching at prevention programs in second grade classrooms, then later taught classes to individuals struggling with substance abuse.

Van Otterloo counts it a privilege that, during the 23 years she worked for Bethany Christian Services, she helped people in every walk of life. She walked beside her clients from their first breath of life as she placed newborn babies into the hands of their adopted parents. 

“The moments that stand out to me,” Van Otterloo said, “were those moments when birth parents were literally handing their child over to adoptive parents.”

Additionally, Van Otterloo wrote the application for the Abstinence Education grant and managed it once Bethany received it. 

She also walked beside clients in their last breath of life as she worked with hospice at Sioux Center Health. Van Otterloo counts it a privilege that she experienced the life cycle where she worked with pre-natal and end of life issues alike. 

The emotional aspect of social work attracted Van Otterloo to the field in the first place. Her deep empathy for people allowed her to imagine the pain of her clients and succeed in her calling. However, it could also be draining.

“We’re working with the challenges of life. I mean, that’s why we’re there: to help people, support people, provide resources, and walk beside them.” 

Van Otterloo had always had a heart for Dordt. When she realized Dordt had an opening in the social work department, she applied to see where God would lead her. 

She accepted the position in February 2021 and began teaching her first classes in August. She said she feels blessed to be actively involved at Dordt. Sitting among the faculty at convocation and participating in training affirmed that she belonged at Dordt, amid the Christ-centered community. 

“Our purpose here is so distinct in walking beside students as they follow God’s calling into this world of service,” Van Otterloo said.

Transitioning from direct service in the field into a new role as an educator has been her greatest challenge. She misses developing relationships with clients but enjoys creating new relationships with her students. 

Shortly after Van Otterloo accepted her position at Dordt, doctors diagnosed her with stage one breast cancer. 

“When the diagnosis occurred after accepting the position, there was definitely some question. Boy, is this truly God’s plan? How am I going to be able to do this?”

Van Otterloo believes God gave her the strength to get through her daily demands and she still believes that teaching at Dordt is her calling. 

“To trust in Him completely, obviously going through a challenge such as cancer and treatment of chemotherapy, and the unknown upcoming surgery,” Van Otterloo said. “It’s just bringing about growth for myself and my own faith.”

She hopes that God can use her experience to help students whose lives are also impacted by cancer. Van Otterloo has completed chemotherapy and now faces an upcoming surgery that will prevent her from teaching for a projected six weeks.

“The support that I’ve received through this journey,” Van Otterloo said, “from the other faculty members in my department, but also Dordt as a community–it’s been amazing.”

Although many do not encounter cancer once in their lives, Van Otterloo has walked this road twice. She counts the two experiences as very different, with her first confrontation with breast cancer much simpler than her second. Ten years ago, the treatment and recovery were much shorter. She remembers that, in both cancer treatments, even at the moment she received the diagnoses, the overwhelming peace she encountered.

“It’s amazing how, when you go through it,” Van Otterloo said, “you truly see the hands and feet of Jesus.”

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