Sarah Visser announced as next vice president of student life


Ron Murray

Photo courtesy calvin facebook page

When she was a student at Calvin 15 years ago, working in student life was what made Sarah Visser feel most alive. She had no idea that her experiences in residence life and on orientation board would someday lead to her return to Calvin as its newest vice president of student life.

Yesterday, an email from President Michael Le Roy confirmed that Visser would step in as vice president of student life at Calvin, ending a year-long search after previous vice president Shirley Hoogstra left to lead the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).

“I am thrilled to come back,” said Visser in an interview with Chimes. “One of the things that was encouraging for me throughout the search process was the opportunity to get back into Calvin and look into my roots and the college that was so foundational to me.”

After graduating from Calvin with a degree in communication arts and sciences in 2001, Visser worked in film and media in California. “It was an exciting place to be, but I missed working with people,” she said. “I realized I am passionate about people development.”

This passion led her to pursue a master’s in higher education and a career in student affairs. She has served as associate dean of campus life at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and taught at Azusa Pacific University. This spring she will receive her doctorate in higher education from Claremont Graduate University, where she has studied diversity and inclusion within organizations.

Visser comes full of ideas. “I think that student life is at its essence about student learning and student development,” she said. “A lot of times there is a divide between the classroom and student life. Integrating these is something that Calvin does well and there is even more room for Calvin to do this more.”

Professor Doug Vander Griend, who chaired the search committee, believes Visser is well prepared to manage this task.

“[Visser] has considerable leadership experience in both student life and academics which will help her navigate well between and among those two divisions,” Vander Griend said. “I think she will be able to establish many tangible co-curricular links between academics and student life – something many at Calvin are eager for.”

Visser comes to the student life division in the face of budget cuts and discussions surrounding AHANA retention rates, but she likes to think of these not as challenges but as opportunities for growth:

“I think there are opportunities to be more inclusive,” she said, especially as the student body diversifies. “There are opportunities to think about how we can create more collaboration across the institution and branch out of siloed ways of thinking.”

Vander Griend believes Visser’s experience has prepared her well for tough decisions and questions about diversity.

“We are very excited in the fact that her doctoral work focused on how institutions become more diverse and inclusive on a systems level,” said Vander Griend. “That too is exactly what we want more help with.”

Visser knows that these changes won’t happen overnight. “First and foremost, I am going to come in as a listener and a learner,” she said. “I want to understand the background and history. … What is most important to me is really giving people a voice and an opportunity to communicate where we see the division going. We need to foster conversation.”

Visser, her husband, Matt, and their three children, Emma, Max and Adelyn, will move from California to Michigan at the end of the school year.

Visser will interview with the Professional Status Committee on April 2 after which she will host a town hall meeting with the Calvin community. She will take over for interim vice president of student life, Cindy Kok, on July 1.