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.”