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Kansas Wesleyan University

Dr. Steve Hoekstra’s first day on the Kansas Wesleyan University campus was a memorable one, not only for the talk he was giving as part of a job interview that would ultimately lead him to campus, but also for what was going on 450 miles away in Littleton, Colorado.

As Hoekstra was giving his social psychology lecture on persuasion to faculty and students in Peters Science Hall on April 20, 1999, a school shooting tragedy was playing out in Columbine High School, just south of Denver.

“I was interviewing while Columbine was happening, and I was here when 9/11 happened. I got the phone call from news agencies asking me why would someone fly a plane into the World Trade Center,” Hoekstra said.

From that April day right up until today, Hoekstra, who is a professor of Psychology, has seen students change, classes change and how learning styles change. And that is part of what makes Hoekstra’s career in Salina such a satisfying one.

Hoekstra has been on the KWU campus for 23 years, working under six different presidents, from Rev. Dr. Marshall P. Stanton when he started to Dr. Matt Thompson today.

“Each president has had his own management style and choice of upper administrators, which has also affected the campus culture, work priorities and general philosophy of the campus,” Hoekstra said. “The transitions have made me feel empowered, in that it illustrates how important long-term faculty are to the continuity and history of an institution.”

That feeling of empowerment has allowed Hoekstra to focus more on the classes he teaches than worrying about what the next step in his career might be. He is quick to admit that his ability to mix up the classes he offers has kept him from getting bored and stale in his teaching. Rather, it has allowed him to be creative by leading up to eight different classes per year.

“I’ve always been of the opinion that I will stay here as long as I feel like I’m heard and can make a difference,” Hoekstra said. “When I talk to my friends who are teaching a big class, teaching multiple sections of the same thing every semester, their eyes get wide when I start rattling off the things I teach.”

Hoekstra has also embraced his ability to take on leadership roles. Over the course of his career, he has become KWU’s Chair of Interdisciplinary Studies and has taken an active role in Alpha Chi National Honor Society, where he is an at-large member of the national council. He has also been Faculty Presiding Officer twice, twice chaired strategic planning groups and served on the Faculty Affairs Committee twice. That’s just the beginning of what he has done in his 23 years. Hoekstra has also started a Study Abroad program, the Interdisciplinary Studies Program and the Open Option program, as well as initiating the Environmental Studies interdisciplinary major and several interdisciplinary minors.

“Steve has been a great leader here at KWU and an example of selflessness to both faculty and students,” Dr. Annel Cordero, associate professor of psychology, said. “His involvement in various faculty and ad hoc committees, involvement with student clubs and organizations, and involvement in various Salina community events are but a few examples of his willingness to give of his time and personal talents.”

Off campus, Hoekstra has spent many hours immersing himself in the surrounding Salina community. When he first moved to Salina, he became involved with the Community Theatre (now Theatre Salina), where he would meet his wife. There, he worked on the tech team for various shows and performances. He also spent a decade on the Salina Arts and Humanities Commission, which oversees the Smoky Hill Museum and River Festival, and remains active in the Trinity Methodist Church folk choir.

Hoekstra has also witnessed firsthand the upgraded curb appeal of the school and campus.

“The town has changed, the campus has changed and the relationship between the two has changed,” Hoekstra said. “When I first came, the room where I gave my talk was all in yellow with the single chairs and desks that flopped up with the little baskets underneath the chair. Now we have big TVs in every room and sound systems and built-in chairs. It looks more professional.”

In Hoekstra’s years in Salina, KWU’s campus has added the Student Activities Center in 2008, demolished Glenn Martin Stadium to make way for the Graves Family Sports Complex, and in 2021, opened the Nursing Education Center. The university has also announced plans for a new dining hall and new student housing, and during Hoekstra’s tenure, it also began Project HERO (Helping Everyone Reach Out). That program gives KWU students an opportunity to give back to the community through various service projects.

“The face of KWU appears much more vibrant and alive than it did 25 years ago,” Hoekstra said. “Salina has deepened its cultural heritage. It has become much more visible.”

All of those things – the moments in U.S. history, the changing of the classroom – is what makes psychology so interesting to Hoekstra and why he started studying and teaching it.

Originally planning to work as a media researcher, hoping to work for one of the big firms such as Gallup or Nielsen, Hoekstra went to graduate school at Kansas State University. Working as a TA to earn his way through school, he determined that instead of mining the data for others, he’d like to teach off of it. He earned his master’s in Psychology and his Ph.D. in Social Psychology and has been at Kansas Wesleyan ever since.

While social media didn’t exist when he started teaching at Kansas Wesleyan, Hoekstra has seen its impact grow over the years, both in the courses he teaches and in the way students consume it.

“When I started teaching and when I was in college, the five and 10 minutes before class everybody was busy and you had to shut them off to start. Now everyone is on their phones,” Hoekstra said. “It’s very quiet and self-focused. The aspects of the classroom have changed, how students process and what they need to work on.”

There are benefits, however, to students being more in tune with what interests them.

“The other benefit of psychology is that it encompasses life. Everything that you do should be applicable to life somehow. People should be able to apply it to any degree,” Hoekstra said. “We’ve got those classes of ‘Psychology of’ pick a major and drop it in there. We can come up with a class that double-dips and is a good elective for everybody. Psych of Sport; Psych of Business; Psych of Religion; Psych of Language. This semester I’m teaching Psych of Law. Next spring it’s Psych of Art and Psych of Health and Medicine.”

Hoekstra feels that every class, every moment gives him a chance to impact the lives of not only those in his classes but also those that their lives touch, adding in jokingly that last year he had the first child of a former student in class.

“We are working for the students and their parents, but we’re also working for their future employers,” Hoekstra said. “There is that sense of personal investment in each student that I think makes me take my job seriously.”

Story by Dan Froehlich; Photo by Jean Kozubowski