Nick and Kjerstin Kauffman

Taking the Hillsdale Conversation to the Real World

Written By Chandler Ryd

Hillsdale College approaches education differently than other institutions. Provost Dr. David Whalen says it best when he says: we’re in a different conversation from most other colleges.

Alumni Nick and Kjerstin Kauffman, ’08, have taken the Hillsdale conversation with them and engaged in the conversations of a classical school in Colorado Springs, Johns Hopkins University, and Valparaiso University in Indiana, and what they’ve found is twofold:

Yes, we are different; and that’s okay, because we’re prepared.

“Hillsdale prepared me in the sense that I was extremely well read, and my writing was on par with people who had specialized in it since high school,” Kjerstin said. Kjerstin graduated with a degree in English and served as one of the editors of the Tower Light, Hillsdale’s literary magazine. She married Nick shortly after graduation and continued to pursue poetry at Johns Hopkins, where she was accepted into the university’s MFA program. She is still publishing while caring for their three children.

“No place is quite like Hillsdale,” added Nick, who earned his PhD from Johns Hopkins before accepting a teaching position at Valparaiso. “The habits of mind and fundamental human questions that were instilled here enabled me to continue studying classics in the reality of grad school.”

Due to the sheer difference between us and the rest of academia, however, emerging from the Hillsdale conversation wasn’t easy. Kjerstin noticed the difference right away when she entered her MFA poetry workshops and discovered her peers were writing from a radically different perspective.

“I didn’t know how to read a text through a feminist lens or how to engage poetry that decries racial injustice,” she explained. “I felt unprepared for that.”

Nick also encountered a different perspective outside of Hillsdale.

“There’s no concept of great books in most other universities,” he said. “To them, classics don’t have truths about humanity. They’re cultural artifacts that can be analyzed and dissected in different ways.”

The Hillsdale conversation may be a source of post-graduation adversity, but one cannot leave this institution without knowing, intellectually and personally, that “strength rejoices in the challenge,” as our school motto reminds us when we forget.

When Kjerstin was struggling with the conversation beyond Hillsdale, she emailed Dr. Whalen and asked him, “How can these things you told me about poetry be true? I’m not experiencing it as beautiful contemplation; I’m experiencing it as something painful.”

Dr. Whalen responded within a day, giving her encouragement and support, as did Dr. Somerville and Dr. Smith. Through conversations with these professors, she realized that she faced the strenuous decision of whether to reject or affirm her Hillsdale education—to reject or affirm the Western and American heritages, the great books, the liberal arts, the transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness. It requires great strength indeed.

But Hillsdale graduates have this strength. “It manifests itself really quietly,” Kjerstin said. “It’s in their ability to do the work they have to do, whatever it may be: raising a family, doing their job, investing in their community, and they do it with unostentatious grace and dignity. That’s so inspiring.”

In other words, Hillsdale is worth it. And, according to Nick, the education here is phenomenal.

“I’ve taught in a classics program at a top-ten university, and I can say that the kind of training students get at Hillsdale is really exceptional,” Nick said. “There’s consistently high expectations of mastery.”

Kjerstin’s poetry flourished here as well. “There are so many creative-writing opportunities even without many creative-writing classes,” she said.

Beyond the academics, Hillsdale cultivates the soul. For that reason alone, we should rejoice in our environment. If the college participates in a different conversation, then we must affirm our conversation and carry it with us, on campus and beyond.

Chandler RydNovelist, filmmaker, and resident root-beer snob, Chandler Ryd, ’18, is the president of the Creative Writing Club. He studies English in his free time. You can usually find him in the periodicals section of the library.