Glory Reitz — Co-Editor
When Emma Nibbelink entered a room, no matter how large or crowded, her friends could tell she was there. She was easy to find because usually, she was talking.
“To know Emma, was to hear Emma,” her obituary said. Many at Dordt University heard her and felt known by her, and they remember her with sparks of joy she left embedded in all of them.
Emma talked about a lot of things: clothes, shoes, her sister, her latest adventure, and whatever else happened to come up. She attacked life at top speed, with high energy and joy.
Driving back to campus after Christmas break on Jan. 10, Emma died of injuries sustained in a car accident. She was 18 years old. Although she had only spent one semester at Dordt, Emma left a lasting impact.
Anneka Pollema was one of Emma’s WOW leaders, which meant she was one of the students Emma designated with the title of “Mom.” Pollema remembers Emma storming into her room at random times of the day, calling, “Hi Mom!,” gushing out “the craziest story” at her standard pace of “a thousand miles per minute” and flopping down to take a nap.
“Emma’s the type of person, that… she’ll make you laugh until you hurt,” Pollema said. “You’ll be on the floor. Crunched over. Not okay.”
Sophomore Ayden Den Herder said sometimes Emma would walk into a room and launch directly into a story without saying hello.
Den Herder remembers staying up with Emma to study for a McCarthy exam. They had the option of a multiple choice or essay format, and both were planning to do the essay. When they still had not started studying by two in the morning, they changed their minds and began texting people to ask about a Quizlet for the multiple choice.
They set timers to remind themselves to study at least ten minutes of every hour, and went to bed past 5 a.m., only to wake up at 6 a.m. to study more before taking the test.
“We got done with the exam… and we looked at each other and we were like, ‘There’s always next year,’” Den Herder said.
Kristen Van Elderen remembers going shopping with Emma — often. Emma loved to shop, but rarely had cash to spare. Several of her friends remember she would go to Sioux City and donate plasma to make some spending money. She took iron supplements to keep her iron levels high enough to be eligible.
“I’ve had a really hard time accepting the fact that she’s gone,” Van Elderen said, “and I think it’s because… she’s just the opposite of everything that death is. She is loud and she is happy all the time. And she was so full of life.”
By all accounts, Emma was generous with the liveliness she carried. Van Elderen remembers walking with Emma and hearing her say hello to many people she already knew, then introduce herself to new friends.
But Van Elderen’s favorite moments with Emma were the personal, spontaneous times when they would stay up late at night talking, playing Guitar Hero, and cooking frozen orange chicken and rice from Walmart in the dorm kitchen.
“Not even the big things,” Van Elderen said. “Just the little things, I think she loved.”
Emma went to every home hockey game Dordt had during her first semester. Once, Emma’s family was visiting to see her in a choir concert. As soon as her part on stage was over, Emma dashed to the All Seasons Center to catch the remainder of the hockey game, leaving her family to wait in her dorm.
Sometimes at games, Emma would say “I don’t even know why I’m here… I don’t even like hockey all that much,” according to Anneka Pollema and Ayden Den Herder. Then she would change her mind again and insist “I love hockey so much!” Pollema and Den Herder believe Emma really loved the game because she knew the players, many of whom were dating her friends. She would stay after every game to talk with “the guys.” The team dedicated their first game of the spring semester to Emma’s memory.
Emma also loved music and singing. She enjoyed karaoke and sang with Bella Voce, listing in a class essay the repetition of vocal exercises as an example of how to live out her faith. The essay assignment, for Leendert van Beek’s Core 100 class, was about comparing repetitions in everyday life to spiritual rhythms like daily devotions and prayer.
“I thought it was kind of neat to see that. Many students that I have in class would compare repetitions to physical activities such as sports… which are relevant too, but she saw ‘With my voice, that’s what I can do with that,’” van Beek said.
Emma also told van Beek, who was her academic advisor, about her dreams of entrepreneurship and social work. She wrote in another essay of going to Haiti on an Easter mission trip in high school, which inspired her to use her talent for marketing to support a social work aspect.
Anneka Pollema, who is a social work and pre-law major, said she and Emma dreamed of opening a non-profit together to help trafficked people. Emma’s friends agree she loved people, and she wanted to use her business: marketing degree and sociology minor to reach that goal.
Selena Munson is an admissions counselor at Dordt University. In her first year in that position, Munson visited Southwest Christian High School and met Emma, then a high school senior. Munson said Emma was enthusiastic about the new opportunity, and knew she would be “a great Dordt fit.”
Before her freshman year at Dordt, Emma applied to be an admissions assistant, and Munson was excited to see her name on the list. Working alongside her during the semester, Munson appreciated Emma’s inside familiarity with potential students from Southwest Christian, and her enthusiasm in cold calling recruits.
“She was always just so full of energy,” Munson said. “She was always just such a refreshing person to be around… She will live on in this place.”
Samantha Heeringa met Emma in the first week of school and feels blessed for the time she had. She remembers Emma spitting her ice cream into the snow, and stuffing pumpkins up her shirt in a preposterous attempt to sneak them out of the Commons unnoticed.
Heeringa remembers how Emma hated physical touch, but how every once in a while, she would accept a hug and it would feel like “the best thing.” Heeringa takes comfort in the thought that God loved Emma so much he wanted her with him right now.
“Even now that she’s gone, she still brings joy, which is something I don’t think anyone else could be doing,” Heeringa said. “I feel like I’m experiencing the same amount of joy [as] I am grieving right now.”
Heeringa believes God put Emma on the earth for the short time she was here so she could make the impact she did on so many people’s lives.
“The day she met me, she probably did the same thing to so many other people and introduced herself, and talked to them, and everyone remembers her energy,” Heeringa said.
As Anneka Pollema said:
“Emma makes you feel seen when you talk to her. In her short time here, she impacted so many.”