Sterkenburg took nine years to com­plete his degree, but he met his girl­friend, Lorryn Cruz ’17, in that time. Stefan Klein­heinz | Col­legian

Some say college goes by too fast. For Stephen Sterkenburg, it feels like a decade.

The 27-year-old from Grand Rapids, Michigan arrived at Hillsdale in the fall of 2009, but he never thought 10 years later he’d still be working toward his bachelor’s degree in eco­nomics.

His parents had been receiving Imprimis since before he was born, and they first intro­duced him to Hillsdale when he began looking at col­leges. The cur­riculum and people of Hillsdale attracted Sterkenburg.

During the spring semester of his junior year, however, Sterkenburg decided to take a break.

“I took some time off a ways into it because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and I wasn’t too serious about it and I also had poor grades,” Sterkenburg said.

So he carried mail around Hillsdale for the post office for a couple of years. Gary Wolfram, pro­fessor of eco­nomics and public policy, and Sterkenburg’s long-time faculty adviser, laughed.  

“He was deliv­ering my mail, and I stopped him, and I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, what are you doing? I’m still your advisor. Why don’t you come back?’” Wolfram said.  

Wolfram sug­gested that Sterkenburg speak to his super­visor at the post office to see if he could return to school because he was close to com­pleting his degree.

But Sterkenburg had his own plan.  

“About a year ago I decided to try some­thing dif­ferent because I didn’t want to be a career post office guy,” Sterkenburg said. “I wanted to get off that wage before I got addicted to it.”

So he became cer­tified for Emer­gency Medical Ser­vices and worked for Jackson Com­munity Ambu­lance. But Sterkenburg’s time at Hillsdale College still wasn’t com­plete. Even­tually, he came around to Wolfram’s advice and con­tinued to pursue his degree.

“I had gotten pretty far in the degree, at least three-fourths of the way done, and a lot of money from the college, me, my parents, had been invested. I felt a duty to make good with what was already invested in me and then to ulti­mately make some­thing come of it; to give back and to use my knowledge to to help people,” Sterkenburg said.

Sterkenburg con­tinues to work part time to pay his way. He said that his parents are very gen­erous, but he wanted to see if he could do it on his own. For work these days, Sterkenburg delivers pizzas and gro­ceries.

“To be fair, it wasn’t entirely noble that I was working,” he said. “I had schol­ar­ships that would have paid for these things and would have had it done, but because of my failures, I even­tually lost the schol­ar­ships.”  

Sterkenburg admits that while his wasn’t the most effi­cient path to a degree, he wouldn’t change it for the world.  The meaning of his long and con­fusing journey revealed itself with great clarity in January of last year when Sterkenburg met Lorryn Cruz ’17.

“One big silver lining is that I would not have met Lorryn if I didn’t take so darn long, so it’s a fan­tastic thing to me,” Sterkenburg said.

Cruz is cur­rently working towards a Master of Edu­cation at the Uni­versity of Michigan. They hope to be married soon, and when they do, they plan to return to Hillsdale to be married at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church.

“When I first met him, I was struck by his gra­ciousness and his atten­tiveness to his family; that was one of the major things he talked about; and as we kept talking, I really appre­ciated his intellect,” Cruz said.

Sterkenburg expressed his deepest grat­itude to the college, the pro­fessors, and the eco­nomics department.

“Par­tially why I’ve been here so darn long is because some­times I’ve had a hard time paying bills to the college,” Sterkenburg said. “I’ve had to retake a lot of classes, but the people have been very gra­cious to me and very helpful, for­giving, and under­standing.”

He joked that he thinks the eco­nomics department has running bets on when he is going to graduate. Wolfram expressed how everyone has an interest in making sure he does.

“That’s what you find at a small school: If he would have been at a big school, that would have been it. No one would have helped him,” Wolfram said.

Sterkenburg has been here so long, he joked, that he should be referred to as “Dr. Sterkenburg.” His decade at Hillsdale College has also given him per­spective on how the school has grown and changed.

“Maybe I’m not the person to give advice because I’ve been here so darn long,” Sterkenburg said, “but I would tell stu­dents to have humility, to be obe­dient, to work hard, and to live for more than just yourself.”

In Sterkenburg’s expe­rience, one of the greatest aspects of Hillsdale College had been the freedom to ask the hard ques­tions and the ability to be a part of such a dis­tinct com­munity — he desires that for all present and future Hillsdale stu­dents.

“I hope that stu­dents have courage to truly be intel­lec­tually honest and ask ques­tions that may be con­tro­versial. You come here to learn, not to rein­force your pre­dis­po­si­tions,” Sterkenburg said.

When Sterkenburg is not earning his degree, working, he enjoys riding his motor­cycle and reading and studying with his girl­friend. Sterkenburg plans to join the United States Navy after his grad­u­a­tions at the end of this spring semester. Nine years later, Sterkenburg is accom­plishing what at one time seemed impos­sible.

“I didn’t want to be a quitter,” he said, “I didn’t want to admit that I was done, so I kept going.”

Wolfram expressed his deepest joy for Sterkenburg’s accom­plishment, saying that all roads lead to the same place, some just take a little longer than others.

“He can serve as an example to people that may think that they’re too far gone to do whatever they were going to do. You can always come around and get back to where you wanted to be,” Wolfram said. “He showed a lot of per­sis­tence. I think that’s why he ended up accom­plishing what he set out to do many years ago.”