Faith, family and Fareway were top priorities for Shawn Vande Kieft ’21 until his youngest child was old enough to go to school. With faith and family still at the top of his priority list, Vande Kieft took the opportunity to go back to school himself after 15 years in the workforce and follow his dreams of becoming an engineer.
The Early Years
Vande Kieft is a Marion County native, growing up in Oskaloosa, Iowa, and later moving to Pella. He started working for Fareway Stores, Inc., the Midwest-based grocery store chain, just before his senior year in high school. He connected with the manager of the store, who encouraged him to consider joining the management program when he graduated. Though Vande Kieft dreamt of becoming an aerospace engineer in high school, he tucked that dream away as he worked part time for another Fareway location while completing his associate degree.
Upon graduating, Vande Kieft transitioned into working full time for Fareway — even joining the management program — but soon learned it wasn’t for him. Vande Kieft and his wife, Hillary, wanted to be closer to family, and the possibility of being moved across the state, or even to another state with little notice, was unsettling. He decided to walk away from the management track and work full time at the store in Pella.
A Faithful Nudge
Engineering and going back to school were always in the back of Vande Kieft’s mind. For years he prayed about what to do, when to make the change and where to go. One day at work, he happened to see a Des Moines Register article on Engineers Week. It detailed everything one could ever want to know about what an engineer does, career paths, schools and more. Vande Kieft welcomed the sign and waited for their youngest son to begin school before going back for a four-year degree at Iowa State University.
Change Is Coming
And so began the changes in the Vande Kieft household. Hillary went back to work after staying home to raise their five boys. Shawn was gone. A lot. Homework and studying became regular pastimes not just for the Vande Kieft boys, but their dad, too. Family time became even more precious than before.
“Dad didn’t have much time for them, and that was hard,” Shawn says.
“And I was re-entering the workforce after 12 years at home with our boys,” Hillary says. “Talk about turning the family dynamic on its head!”
Hillary worked in the Pella Community School District so she could be home with their boys in the evenings while Shawn was studying and doing homework. “Balancing work life, home life, family schedules and still trying to find time for the things I enjoy doing was a real struggle while Shawn was wrapped up with studying,” she says. “There were times it seemed as though Shawn’s college journey would never end.”
Shawn recognized his wife’s sacrifice. “My wife was doing a lot — more than I wanted her to,” Shawn says. “But she stepped in to fill the gaps for our family when we needed it. I’ll never forget that.”
Still trying to help provide for his family, Vande Kieft would work at the grocery store in the mornings and on weekends as often as he could. When he was done working, he’d get on the road to get to class in Ames. Sometimes he’d stay overnight with his in-laws to cut down on driving, get more uninterrupted homework and study time or in case of inclement weather.
The family endured a semester of stress, yearning, learning, time apart and more. Relieved to learn about Central’s new engineering program right in his backyard, Vande Kieft inquired. After talking with members of the admission and financial aid teams, praying and talking through things as a family, he made the decision to transfer — a choice that would not only benefit him, but the whole family.
“The Career and Professional Development team was a great help to me.”
— Shawn Vande Kieft ’21
We all know the liberal arts experience includes a dash of just about everything: math, science, the humanities and more. It’s the beauty of a liberal arts education!
“Honestly, I wasn’t terribly excited about the additional required courses outside of my major and minor because I was already busy enough,” Vande Kieft says. Once he embraced these … growing pains … he became quite fond of them, “especially Spanish and my Islam course with Terry Kleven,” who is the Dr. Jacob and Gela Schnucker Sessler Chair in Philosophy and Religion and professor of religious studies.
Vande Kieft also was grateful for the writing courses he completed. He feels he grew and honed that skill in ways he wouldn’t have been able to if not for Central pushing him outside his comfort zone.
“The Career and Professional Development team were a great help to me, too,” Vande Kieft mentions. “I never had a formal interview until I heard back about an internship opportunity. I didn’t know there was a place on campus dedicated to helping students create résumés, practice answering and asking questions, etcetera until after my first go-round.”
Spending time with Jess Klyn de Novelo ’05, associate dean for career development and civic engagement, and team made a difference, too. “I was prepared, more confident — still nervous, but a lot less so — and my overall impression was much better when it came time to interview again,” he says.
Man on Campus
When you’re a nontraditional student, there’s bound to be a bit of an age gap and generational differences. “But there were times it seemed I almost fit in better with college kids than people my own age,” he laughs.
As one can imagine, campus life looks a lot different for a married person with five kids in school. But Vande Kieft found time to engage with classmates, even joining the Ultimate Frisbee Club on campus.
“I made some good friends in my time at Central and connected with some really great people. I didn’t fully know what to expect from my experience, but it was even better than I imagined. I thought I wasn’t really going to get close to anyone because who’s going to want to hang out with an old guy? But they truly accepted me.”
So much so that at least one of Vande Kieft’s classmates had no idea he was older than the rest of them. “It came up in a class one day and one of the guys in the room looked at me, completely shocked, and said, ‘I thought you were 23!’ I don’t know if it was a compliment or feedback that I don’t act my age,” he chuckles.
His connections didn’t end with students, though; he connected with faculty and staff in a different way than a traditional student would. “I knew Mark Mills, professor of mathematics, before coming to Central, and while students typically address professors by their last name, Mills told to me to call him Mark because he didn’t feel right being addressed as ‘Dr. Mills’ by someone with kids that were the same age as his own.”
A good portion of my classes were with Viktor Martisovits, professor of physics, and Mills. As my advisor, Martisovits gave me advice on what classes to take and when. He was a great resource and they both became great mentors to me.”
Vande Kieft adds, “I got to build great relationships with my professors here. I didn’t feel like a burden stopping by my professors’ offices to ask a question or get help during, or even outside of, office hours. I would even do my homework outside their offices sometimes. It was just nice that the professors here are willing to make time for you.”
It’s no secret that scholarship dollars and grants can go unnoticed or underutilized. But scholarships for nontraditional students are harder to come by. Vande Kieft did some extensive searching before starting down this path and struggled to find legitimate options for which he qualified.
“The decision to bring a financial burden on my family like this was almost always with me,” he shares. “We made this choice because of me and what I wanted to do. It weighed on me. The payoff is, of course, the experience and the degree, right? It was an investment, and that’s paying off in other ways now. I’ve got a great job with a great company that takes care of me and my family. Plus, having a stable, typically 8-5, job has been such a reward. I don’t have to think about if I’m working a Saturday or evening, I can just go do things with my wife and with my kids or go to their events.”
Thanks to the generosity of the Central family and Central’s excellent financial aid staff, Vande Kieft was able to minimize the financial burden.
“I was fortunate that Central had a nontraditional scholarship and other scholarships available to help bring down the cost,” he acknowledges. “With that support, it was pretty comparable to a state school, especially when you considered what I was spending on gas with multiple trips to Ames and back each week. And the time I was able to have back with my family made it even more worth it. You just can’t put a price on that.”
The Next Generation
While going to Central — just like Dad — isn’t off the table for the Vande Kieft boys, more than anything, “my wish for my kids is that they won’t think their dreams are too big or out of reach,” he shares. “I want to be the person to encourage and push them to follow their dreams. I have wonderful people in my life, but nobody ever told me to just go for it when I was their age, and I want to be that for them.”
“I also hope they see the importance of hard work and not waiting to explore their passions,” he adds. “I don’t regret the decisions I made, but I’ve wondered what life would have been like if I did pursue something like this right out of, or shortly after, high school.”
The Next Chapter
“I honestly thought about not going to graduation because it seemed like it was for kids who were graduating and their parents,” Vande Kieft says. “I was worried I’d stand out or feel awkward. I decided to put those feelings aside and I’ll admit, I’m glad I went. It was the bookend I didn’t know I needed to start my next chapter. My wife, kids, parents and grandparents were there to see me walk across the stage. All of this was just as much for them as it was for me.”
His new chapter started a block or two down from Central at Pella Corporation, where Vande Kieft has worked since shortly after that special day in May 2021. He followed his dream and now he’s a product engineer in a great environment full of opportunity, learning experiences and autonomy. Vande Kieft is right where he belongs, exploring solutions for products and feeding his inner tinker.
“It was exciting for Shawn to receive a job at Pella Corp,” Hillary says. “To have local companies see his value and hard work is quite an honor. More than a year since this journey ended, I’m starting to see the beauty of what we have accomplished. Shawn has settled into his work community well and I have the liberty of getting back to being a mom as my top priority. I am so thankful we are able to stay in the Pella community as we launch Shawnʼs new career.”
Though his path to career fulfillment was difficult, Vande Kieft found beauty in the journey.
“The whole experience, while it was challenging in many ways, was a joy. I’m so glad I did this — that I challenged myself and saw this through. It was hard, but it’s one of my greatest accomplishments, aside from my family.”