On any given fall day, you may find geography professor Deanna van Dijk on top of a dune in P.J. Hoffmaster State Park.
Donning an orange vest and surrounded by research equipment, it is clear she’s not there simply to take in the views of Lake Michigan. She is leading a class of first-year students in geography research.
This past spring, this dedicated professor and researcher was celebrated as the recipient of the 2019 Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching Award, the highest teaching honor at Calvin University.
Coastal regions have long held a top spot among van Dijk’s research interests.
“These are some of the most dynamic environments on earth,” she said.
Another key passion for van Dijk? Fieldwork.
“To really understand geomorphology,” she explained, “you need to spend time with the landforms and processes.”
It’s no surprise, then, that van Dijk’s First Year Research in Earth Sciences (FYRES) course combining coasts and fieldwork has become a passion project.
She puts in long hours preparing equipment, coordinating with community research partners, training student mentors, and meeting weekly with those mentors throughout the fall semester. During the spring semester, she walks with the course mentors as they continue their research projects. Finally, she shepherds the group as the first-year research students and their mentors together present their findings at a statewide conference.
“The end result of all this work and innovative pedagogy,” said colleague Mark Bjelland, “is an incomparable experience for our first-year students and résumé-building conference presentations and publications for our advanced undergraduate students.”
In addition to the FYRES course, van Dijk has taught more than ten courses including core classes, departmental entry-level courses, and upper-level courses.
Academic dean Arlene Hoogewerf praised van Dijk for being an educator who has been “successful across the board.”
In 1991, van Dijk graduated from Redeemer College with a BCS degree in math and a geography minor.
Drawn to geography, she went on to earn her MA (1993) and PhD in geography from the University of Waterloo (1998). She took on significant field experiences in Presqu’ile Provincial Park, on the north shore of Lake Ontario. After earning her PhD, she completed her post-doctoral work in a salt marsh on the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick.
Since 1999, van Dijk has served as a professor in Calvin’s geology, geography, and environmental studies department.
Teacher, researcher, mentor
One former student said of van Dijk: “While her teaching style provides a nurturing environment in class and allows every student to feel engaged, it is the learning opportunities she provides outside of the classroom that take her teaching above and beyond the average professor.”
And indeed van Dijk is perhaps best known, both on campus and in her field, for her commitment to research. Year after year, she inspires both first-year and upperclass students to embrace research wholeheartedly and to execute their own research with excellence.
Former students know van Dijk not only for her teaching and research, but also her heart for mentoring and advising. Students gravitate toward her as an advisor and appreciate her aptitude for giving advice—often over cookies or tea. And, at her allowance, many students choose to call her by her first name.
One former student said of her time at Calvin: “While I was a student, it was commonplace to see Deanna in her office until midnight, but that never prevented her from having her door open to students and mentors, to proofread an abstract, or to brainstorm a solution to a problem. I know that Deanna cared about me and about my health and well-being.”
Graduating senior Noah Schumerth said van Dijk has guided him through every step of his geoscience coursework from gathering academic sources for papers, to aiding in sand movement research, to finding specific data sets.
At the annual Faculty Awards Dinner, President Le Roy shared a portion of Schumerth’s tribute to van Dijk before presenting her with the award.
“She has given me, and hundreds of other students, a deep and practical understanding of Earth’s processes,” said Schumerth. “This understanding … has spurred an appreciation for the rich complexity of God’s creation in the hearts of many.”