September 13, 2017 | Hannah Ebeling


In June 2017, Tom Hoeksema received the Henri Nouwen award from the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

On June 29, Tom Hoeksema received the Henri Nouwen award from the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. The award recognizes one of its members who reflects a commitment and dedication to ministry and servanthood that values and esteems people with developmental disabilities, much like Henri Nouwen.

Hoeksema was the first professor of special education at Calvin and retired in 2012 after 38 years leading the department.

Providing access to education

“Tom Hoeksema was instrumental in the development of special education opportunities for students with disabilities in Christian schools,” said Philip Stegink, professor of special education and a former student of Hoeksema. “He was the person who gave great structure and vision for the special education major at Calvin.”

Stegink said that in the mid-70s, Hoeksema was asked to help Calvin become more accessible to students with disabilities. “Strong progress was made over the stretch of about two decades (1980-2000) in making the campus physically accessible, but there are still a few problems,” says Hoeksema. “Harder than retrofitting buildings has been providing instructional accommodations. But, we have come a long way, and many students have been given access to a Calvin education who before may not have even considered it.”

Supporting inclusive environments

Hoeksema set a tone for special education services that are grounded in a mutual respect for the individuals with disabilities, said Stegink. “He was always striving to create a community that includes all people and championed the notion that it is critical we begin to understand each other from a gift based starting point rather than from our disabilities or differences,” he said.

The historical treatment of persons with disabilities of a variety of sorts has been, with too few exceptions, atrocious and dehumanizing, said Hoeksema. “Every person bears the image of their Creator; they not only deserve my respect, they deserve to have their gifts recognized and used,” he said.

“1 Corinthians 12:13 says the body is made up of many parts,” said Stegink. “Through Tom’s teaching, I take that to mean that the body is not passively made up of many parts, but many parts are necessary, otherwise you do not have a complete body.”

Lisa Kooy, disability coordinator for the Center for Student Success, believes this same diversity is vital in the classroom. “Not everybody learns the same way,” she said. “If we have a learning environment that is diverse, everyone is getting a different perspective and may be catching more than they would have if the class was structured in a singular way.”

Empowering students to succeed

Hoeksema was instrumental in the establishment of Calvin’s Office of Services for Students with Disabilities, now a part of the Center for Student Success. “The passion that Tom Hoeksema has for students with disabilities is very strong across this campus," said Kooy. “We hope that the Center for Student Success can continue that legacy in what is being done here, today.”

As the name suggests the Center for Student Success is committed to supporting every student on Calvin’s campus. “It’s biblical and missional to Calvin to provide equal educational access to all students,” said Kooy. The center provides accommodations for any documented disability and currently works with more than 400 students.

Disability Services provides assistance to students with visual impairments, learning disabilities, mobility impairments, hearing impairments, chronic health conditions, psychological disabilities and temporary disabilities. “We work with students through an interactive process in order to understand their individual needs,” said Kooy. Disability coordinators collaborate with Calvin’s physical plant to ensure buildings are accessible and make sure the learning environment gives students access to what they need in order to learn. “We aim to make sure that every part of the Calvin experience is accessible to all students,” she said.

In addition, the Center for Student Success promotes universal design, creating environments where students do not have to request accommodations because they are already designed in a way that allows all students to access materials. 

Hoeksema’s legacy has also inspired the reinvigoration of a partnership program, Ready for Life Academy (RFLA), said Stegink, the program director. RFLA is a college program for men and women with developmental disabilities. The program offers these men and women the opportunity to experience college life, to develop friendships with peers, to participate in and learn from college classes and to take classes designed particularly for them. “Last spring two students enrolled, and this fall we expect five or six. As the program expands, we are hoping to enroll up to 10 or 12 students in future semesters,” said Stegink.

Celebrating diverse community

“Tom is a wonderful recipient of the Henri J. Nouwen award,” said Stegink. Hoeksema’s commitment to finding and championing the inclusion of individuals who are marginalized, represents well what Henri Nouwen was about. Nouwen believed in finding and celebrating the wonderful community of all. Certainly, Tom was about that in his career and continues to be in his retirement.”

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