Building the Beloved Community

A community might be imagined as a mosaic — each part distinctive, yet existing in relation with others to create something more.

But what does that mosaic become? For 25 years, the Phelps Scholars Program has helped students not only shape the “what” during their time at the college but develop an understanding of “how” to inform their lives in their communities after Hope.

The Phelps Scholars Program is a year-long academic/residential program for incoming freshmen interested in exploring topics related to diversity. The students enroll in a First-Year Seminar designed just for them and participate in co-curricular activities like field trips to explore other cultural traditions, all while living together in the same residence hall to provide informal opportunities for them to connect with and learn from each other. It is named after the college’s first president, the Rev. Philip Phelps Jr., who brought the first international students (from Japan) to the college in the 1870s.

The program launched in the fall of 1999 with 39 students in Scott Hall, with Dr. Chuck Green, professor of psychology, as founding director. A quarter century later, the Phelps Scholars Program is an acclaimed part of the Hope mosaic that has hosted some 2,000 students, transforming not only individual lives but the college along the way.

More than 100 of those individuals, spanning nearly the program’s entire history, gathered at the college’s Haworth Hotel during One Big Weekend: Homecoming + Family Weekend in October to celebrate. They were joined by faculty and staff who have made the journey with them.

“We get to capture 25 years of generational impact and a program that’s been transformative in the lives of students, of our alumni; it’s had transformative impact on our campus as well,” said Kasey Stevens, who has served as the program’s director since 2019 and is also associate dean of integrative learning at the college. “The program is not static. It’s not fixed. It’s not about a shelf life of one year. Instead, its outcomes are continuously reproduced in the lives of our students and our alumni — anybody that the program touches. It is iterative and dynamic.”

“The program is not static. It’s not fixed. It’s not about a shelf life of one year. Instead, its outcomes are continuously reproduced in the lives of our students and our alumni — anybody that the program touches. It is iterative and dynamic.”

Kasey Stevens, director of the Phelps Scholars Program and associate dean for integrative learning

The program’s students have a reputation for being especially engaged with their education throughout their undergraduate career, both within the classroom and beyond. As shared by more than one member of the faculty through the years, “I can always tell when I have a Phelps Scholar in my class.”

In 2009, the Phelps Scholars Program was recognized by the Association of American Colleges and Universities as an exemplary diversity program in higher education. More recently, it has been singled out as one of the initiatives that have helped the college earn the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine for the past two years in a row.

“Campus-wide, it has changed the face of student leadership and the way that students engage in the classroom. It has permeated so many ways in the college,” said Yolanda DeLeon ’88 Vega, now retired from Hope, who was the second director from 2013 to 2019 in addition to previously being resident director in Scott Hall for three years. “The students are incredible when they get here, but they leave prepared to make a difference.”

As she told the group in October, “It’s exciting to know that the body of Phelps Scholars includes (just to name a few) artists, educators, scientists, social workers, world travelers, physicians, engineers, business leaders, graduate students, advisors and community advocates, and that you are changing the world, truly.”

Lenee Ligtenberg ’04 Hall, who pursued a degree in dietetics after Hope and works as a dietician, was a member of the second-ever cohort of Phelps Scholars in the fall of 2000. She was drawn to the opportunity to explore challenging societal questions alongside others who wanted to do the same.

“I’ve always been interested in diversity and inclusion,” she said. “Growing up, I would ask, ‘Why don’t I know any women dentists? Why aren’t there any people of color in our neighborhood?’”

It was even why she made her college choice.

“I wanted to go to Hope College because of the Phelps Scholars Program,” Hall said. “I still think it’s one of the favorite things I’ve ever done in my life.”

“The Phelps Scholars Program is why I became so passionate about social justice and diversity and inclusion.”

Tonisha Gordon ’09

Tonisha Gordon ’09 found the program a crucial source of support as a student of color, particularly following a racially motivated incident. “This program actually saved me as I struggled with my identity as a Black woman on this campus,” she said, by helping her to process what happened and see that the event “[wasn’t] my fault, but it’s something to learn from.”

Something to learn from, and with which to help others through a career in higher education administration. She is currently assistant director of alumni engagement at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where her work has also included diversity education and retention initiatives, and she is active in her community.

“The Phelps Scholars Program is why I became so passionate about social justice and diversity and inclusion,” she said.

It’s a path that even led her back to Hope. After completing her master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, she returned as a residential life coordinator for Kollen Hall, also teaching a First-Year Seminar and advising the Black Student Union. Since 2020, she has been a member of the college’s Alumni Association Board of Directors.

As the program looks forward to what the next 25 years might bring, the focus is on staying true to its vision of building understanding in keeping with students’ and society’s ongoing and evolving needs.

“Who is most in need of freedom today? What is the something transformative that we should be handing across generations to today’s students? What is the something ‘right’ that we should be doing as the new generation of elders?” Stevens said. “How do we continue to create an inclusive and intentionally diverse community that mirrors the diversity of the world?”

The sentiment was echoed by founding director Green, who led the program until 2013 and retired from the psychology faculty last December.

“In her autobiography, Coretta Scott King wrote, Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation… You do not finally win a state of freedom that is protected forever. It doesn’t work that way. Which makes the Phelps Scholars of Hope College as indispensable today as they were 25 years ago,” Green said. “In the U.S. and around the world, we need people who will work for the rights of the marginalized. People who know how to love, fiercely. People who yearn to live with others in the beloved community. People who will stand up to the powerful because of their commitment to liberty and justice for all.

“That’s why I’m grateful for all those who are Phelps Scholars this year,” he said. “And for those who continue to live as Phelps Scholars even after they leave Scott Hall, even after they leave Hope College.”