From College to Elementary School

Dressed in a fitted navy suit and checked tie, walking the well-worn school hallways of a classic 20th-century brick building, Erek Kooyman ’02 has the look of a man living a lifelong dream. Living a dream? Absolutely. Lifelong?

Not even close.

Eighteen years ago, as a senior at Grand Rapids Christian High School, Erek’s life was headed in another direction entirely.

A Different Culture

“I was not a top student. I had a three-point-something GPA and always got A’s in math, but that was all I cared about. I didn’t really apply myself in other areas.”

He chose Calvin for its math program and assumed his path was set—right until the moment his classes started.

“Suddenly, at Calvin, there wasn’t any place for mediocrity. An ‘A’ became something I had to work for—and when I got it, it was so satisfying. It was a completely different culture than high school.”

Turns out Erek was a better student than he’d given himself credit for. For the first time, he excelled far beyond math class, and soon discovered his true passion: fighting inequality and injustice. Four years later, this “three-point-something” high school student was a nearly 4.0 Calvin social work graduate.

A New Calling

But here’s the thing: Even when you think you’ve got it all figured out, sometimes, you have no idea where God is leading you. Despite a budding social work career, Erek felt unsettled.

So when a friend invited him to spend a year in Honduras teaching English, Erek said yes. By the time he returned to Grand Rapids, his passions for social justice and equality had taken on a new shape: education.

An Unexpected Opportunity

Now imagine this: a failing public elementary school with a reputation as one of the lowest-achieving schools in the state of Michigan. A young principal and a group of committed teachers get more involved with the community. They invite parents into their decision-making process. They fight to alter the perception of failure.

Like many families in his Grand Rapids neighborhood, Erek noticed the changes happening at Congress Elementary. He and his wife had always wanted to send their kids to the nearby school—and maybe now, with their son about to enter kindergarten, it was a possibility. Just one thing: That young principal had taken a different job, and Congress needed a leader.

You can probably guess how the rest of the story plays out. For six months now, Erek has been the principal of Congress Elementary School—a job he never could have imagined for himself 18 years ago. But thanks to a college that pushed him to pursue excellence and a liberal arts education that prepared him for just about anything, Erek is succeeding.

Calvin is going to test you. It’s going to teach you what it means to strive for excellence.

With his son enrolled in this year’s kindergarten class, Erek is committed to building on the positive momentum Congress has begun. He’s also committed to keeping the school just as diverse as the neighborhood it serves—including refugee children from Africa, children from working-class families, children from high-income families and children from a nearby homeless shelter. No easy task—but then, isn’t that exactly what a Calvin education is for?

“Calvin is going to test you,” Erek says. “It’s going to teach you what it means to strive for excellence. You will develop a sense of character and perseverance, and you will come out ready to find success in whatever you’re going to do.”

Meet other dreamers

Anissa Eddie ’05

Major: Social work
Job: Owner, Malamiah Juice Bar
Her dream: Owns a juice bar in downtown Grand Rapids that intentionally offers jobs to overlooked communities and provides health education. Watch this interview with Anissa.

Mitch Tuinstra ’91

Major: Biology
Job: Professor of plant breeding and genetics, Purdue University
His dream: Researches how corn plants maintain their resiliency in high-temperature and low-water environments, like India during the hot and dry summer season.

VERGE: spring 2016

First-Year Experience