Shown at the University of Michigan, Nate VanderVeen takes a closer look at a flask of human glioma cells. Nate VanderVeen

Allegan grad earns Fulbright to study in Brazil

By: 
Ryan Shek, Intern

Amid a volunteer group of premedical students, nursing students, undergrads and graduates, Allegan native Nathan VanderVeen saw—for the first time—the marriage of his academic interests: Spanish and biochemistry.

The 2007 Allegan High School graduate became the group’s interpreter as they worked at underserved health clinics in Peru in 2009.

“(Going in) I figured everybody who went on this trip would have a good understanding of Spanish,” VanderVeen said, “to my surprise, nobody spoke Spanish—it was the first time I was able to realize two dissimilar fields.

“The fusion meant (Spanish and biochemistry) would be more than just my interest or my career; I really could combine (these studies) in a utile way for my future—as a physician, researcher or whatever.

“It was this cool, enlightening moment.”

VanderVeen, who finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan in 2011 and now works as a research scientist developing brain cancer therapies, has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship grant for the 2014-15 academic year.

The grant is part of a U.S. exchange program that offers graduate study, advanced research and teaching opportunities to students and young professionals; 8,000 are awarded annually.

As part of the fellowship, VanderVeen will teach English to university students and conduct a water purification project in Brazil.
John Rubadeau, senior lecturer of English at the University of Michigan, was a Fulbright Professor in Romania during 1978-79. He taught VanderVeen at U of M and eventually helped him along the application process.

“Fulbright is extraordinarily selective,” Rubadeau said. “I’ve helped 300 or 400 students apply (over the years) and only five or six have gotten in.”

According to Rubadeau, Fulbright grants are not only incredibly selective but also crucial, as Fulbright scholars essentially become U.S. ambassadors.

“In its rawest form, Fulbright is the salesman of U.S. democracy,” Rubadeau said. “There are a lot of professors (and students) from Harvard and Stanford who are very intelligent, brilliant people. But they’re not gregarious—they don’t really represent the U.S.; we’re open-minded, friendly, we shake hands.

“Nate (VanderVeen) feels comfortable in his own skin,;that’s very important when you go overseas. He’s gregarious, friendly, funny, intelligent—he’s a representative of the best of American democracy.”

For VanderVeen, the fellowship is a dream realized since meeting a few Fulbright scholars. As he lived abroad in Spain during his junior year, VanderVeen first applied for, and was denied, a Fulbright grant.

“I was really passionate and thought I’d put together a nice application, and it just didn’t turn out,” VanderVeen said. “I’ve definitely faced failure many times before—but (that) hit me kind of hard.

“At the end of day, I just wasn’t ready to give up on that dream. I wanted to keep going, so I put my nose to grindstone.”

VanderVeen kept at the applications believing he was an unorthodox candidate due to his unique teaching experience, which in large part came from coaching athletes and helping fellow researchers in the lab.

VanderVeen said it was important to play up those differences in the application. His strong suit, however, was his former international experience and Portuguese proficiency—an interest in language that budded into a passion and can be traced to VanderVeen’s time in Allegan Public Schools.

“I totally fell in love with languages in Mr. Westgate’s (Spanish) class. He was one of the coolest guys—the most influential language teacher I’ve ever had,” VanderVeen said. “(Through) my Spanish concentration at U of M and my study abroad experience, he was that force to keep me motivated.

“When I think about teaching abroad, (I’d like to) be my own version of Timmy Westgate—colorful and charismatic.”

As part of the grant, VanderVeen won’t know where he’ll be placed in Brazil until November, but, because he’s currently applying to medical school, VanderVeen is trying to both shed all expectations as well as imagine how the experience will affect his future in medicine.

“I’d (like to) be totally in the moment and adapt and just see what (Brazil) spits out,” VanderVeen said.  “On the other hand—writing essays for medical school has helped me realize (how) feeding my interests and passions in language has helped my future in science and medicine.

“Brazil is really on the cusp; the country is incredibly rich in natural resources and manpower and diversity. The economy is bustling, and it’s in this interesting position where they’re kind of trying to establish themselves as a great world power.

“They have a unique opportunity to set a precedent for other nations—and it’ll be great to play even the minutest of roles there.”

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