PROFILE Bridging the Gap


The community director at Pacific Lutheran University is working toward bridging the divide between higher education and community advocacy while taking into account his personal compass and how it contributes.


Joel Zylstra converses with members of the community at B Sharp Coffee Shop. The Sept. 2014 opening of the Center for Media Studies in Tacoma, Wash. PHOTO COURTESY OF ELISE ANDERSON

PLU alumni Joel Zylstra has served as the Director for the Center for Community Engagement and Service for nearly four years. Zylstra aims to build positive relationships between PLU and the greater Tacoma area.

“I see my role as a bridge between the university and the community. I’d say my pivot foot is in the community. That’s where I’m most comfortable, and that’s probably where I’m most committed,” Zylstra said. “I think I see the university as a place to kind of connect those two passions.”

Zylstra plays an integral part in developing PLU’s relationship with the Tacoma area. His own position is emotionally involved.

“I feel misunderstood a lot of the time because when I’m involved in the community, everyone sees me as the university guy,” Zylstra said. “And when I’m involved in the university center side of things, people see me as kind of the community advocate.”

His Director role encompasses a wide array of community involvement. This includes the pilot of a new study away program launching this spring.

The Tacoma Immersion Experience Semester, TIES, allows students to immerse themselves in the hilltop area of Tacoma, Washington for a local study away experience. Sophomore and Tacoma native Austin Beiermann is one of six students participating in the program this spring.

Beiermann said he sees Zylstra as a liaison to students who want to connect with and reach the community. He helps bridge the cultural divide between Tacoma and PLU.


CCES Director Joel Zylstra speaks in the PLU Regency Room about the Habitat for Humanity housing development in Parkland, Wash. Presentation given March 2013. PHOTO COURTESY OF LUTE TIMES

Beiermann said he sees himself as ‘Tacoma Austin’ who’s invested in the community he was raised in and ‘PLU Austin’ who is invested in life as a Lute. Beiermann’s relationship with Zylstra is that he feels comfortable being both versions of himself.

Zylstra hopes students can take away valuable insight from the TIES program, such as finding the balance between community and educational roles similar to Beiermann.

“Whatever you can learn about this experience, you can take that to any city wherever you live and you would still be able to transfer some of those skills and knowledge base,” Zylstra said.

His hope is for students is to pursue a more meaningful life. He wants students to ask, “What does success look like?”

Zylstra is deeply invested in PLU, but even more so in the community.

“The stronger Parkland is, the stronger PLU will be.”

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