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Andrew Weiss

Learning from students
Eight students at West Michigan colleges share
their stories and offer life lessons.

By Terri Finch Hamilton
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Eight college students. Eight compelling stories. As college students return to class throughout West Michigan this month, some stand out. Adversity? They overcome it. Creativity? They’re all over it. Making a difference? They’ve got this.

Lessons? Take a look.

Andrew Weiss: Davenport University
When Andrew Weiss talks about his job in the Army National Guard — rescuing the injured on a Black Hawk helicopter — it sounds like a scene from a movie.

“When we would go out on a rescue, it was because somebody else was having the worst day of their lives,” says Weiss, a student at Davenport University. “They had been shot at or blown up. They had severed limbs or were burned or were dying. That’s why we were going out.

“We’d pick up wounded soldiers or civilians. Sometimes it was a child missing limbs. That was the hardest. My heart breaks for them. There was so much hurt.”

Weiss signed up for the Army National Guard as a senior at Caledonia High School in 2005. He worked his way up to Black Hawk helicopter crew chief for medical evacuations. “Like a flying ambulance,” he says.

Weiss was 22 when he was first deployed to Iraq in 2009. After a year there, he was home for three years, then sent to Afghanistan from April to December 2013.

“I grew up there,” he says. “Being in Iraq matured me immensely. Before that, I was kind of a softy.”

Between deployments, he enrolled at Davenport University, hoping to one day become an entrepreneur. Weiss was asked to start a chapter of Student Veterans of America at Davenport, and he built the chapter from the ground up, serving as its first president.

The nonprofit group helps military veterans reintegrate into campus life and succeed academically.

Veterans on campus face a lot of challenges, including feeling like an outsider among 18-year-old traditional students. Weiss knows something about that.

“Being in the military makes you grow up really fast,” he says. “You go there as a 22-year-old kid, but you come home a changed person. You take life very seriously.

“Then you sit down in class and you hear kids complaining about the stupidest things. It’s kind of frustrating. But it’s also a blessing that they don’t have to know what I’ve been through.”

He has nightmares several times a week. He’s only 26, but he struggles with injuries to his back, shoulder, knees. He has hearing loss. He’s rarely completely relaxed.

“In restaurants, you’re still watching the door,” Weiss says. “Then you realize, ‘Wait a minute, this is Outback Steakhouse — it’s not Kabul.’ But it’s really difficult to let that go because, for 20 months, people were trying to murder me.

“When you get back, all your friends and family think you’re the same guy who left,” Weiss says. “But you have to start over. You have to relearn who you are.”

But he also came back with confidence and leadership skills, he says. And a fierce belief that he can accomplish anything.

“The only limit is yourself,” Weiss says. “In the military, I learned to believe in myself, trust in myself to work hard for my future. I know I’ll be successful, because of what I went through.”

Samantha Stutzman: Kendall College of Art and Design
When Samantha Stutzman was in kindergarten, she was frustrated by the kid who sat next to her. He wouldn’t color inside the lines.

Stutzman, a perfectionist, made it her mission to teach him how.

These days, that precision is serving her well as she pursues the unique art and science of medical illustration at Kendall College of Art and Design. It’s Kendall’s newest major, and students also take classes at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.

“It sounds weird, but I’ve learned how beautiful the inside of the body can be,” says Stutzman. “And how gross, at the same time.”

Samantha Stutzman

Who needs detailed illustrations of gall bladders, facial bones and pelvises? Lots of people. Medical illustrations are used for textbooks and medical posters. Attorneys need them to educate juries about their cases. Patients need them to help understand their medical procedures.

“The challenge is everything has to be exact and precise,” Stutzman says. “You can’t put an arm bone in the wrong place. That would be bad. Little things matter.”

Her latest challenge: sketching from cadavers, through MSU’s willed cadavers program.

“Your first reaction is, ‘Oh, this will be cool.’ Then reality sets in and you realize you’re looking at a real person who used to be alive,” Stutzman says. “It takes an emotional toll. And it gives you a real respect for the people who donated their bodies so we can do this.”

When she was younger, she loved watching her grandmother draw. One day she watched a drawing spring to life on a Post-it note.

“At first all I saw was lines, but suddenly it was a tree, and she added the names of our family members to it,” she recalls. “It made me realize how art can bring people together.”

Or, in her case, help put people together.

“Art has many forms,” Stutzman says. “It’s not just the pretty landscapes that people hang on their walls. Art can have an educational purpose.

“I find beauty in the human body. You can make it beautiful through your art, even if it’s an organ or bones.

“It’s interesting to think about where my art might end up,” Stutzman says. “It might be used for a teaching tool. I’d be real flattered to think I’m helping somebody else learn.”

Valerie Gee: Aquinas College
When Valerie Gee was in middle school in Hudsonville, her parents encouraged her to try a sport. Maybe swimming, they suggested, or track — a sport where someone could swim or run alongside her, since Gee is visually impaired.

Gee surprised her parents by choosing horseback riding.

“Ten years later, I’m still riding and it still terrifies my parents,” Gee says cheerfully. “I‘ve done jumps, done barrels. I’m a little crazy like that.”

Her parents sort of asked for it.

“I wasn’t raised as a visually impaired child,” says Gee, who was born with a rare hereditary eye disease called Leber’s congenital amaurosis. She can see shapes and colors, but little else, and has no peripheral vision.

“My parents taught me to go out and try new things,” says Gee, now a junior at Aquinas College. “They said, ‘Do what you love — we’ll find a way to make it work.’ I was raised with no limitations.”

As a freshman in high school, Gee started preparing for going to college, working with a mobility trainer from the Michigan Commission for the Blind. She didn’t know she’d be going to Aquinas, but her mobility coach chose the campus because of its challenging layout and terrain.

Gee practiced creating a mental map of the campus and navigating the wooded paths with her white cane. But then, a month after high school graduation, she got Vail, the wonder dog. She spent a month in New Jersey training with him at The Seeing Eye Inc., the oldest guide dog school in the world.

“He’s a great working partner — I trust him with my life,” Gee says. “But he’s also just a fantastic dog. He’s a big lover.

“Having a dog gives you a different kind of attention than if you have a white cane,” she says. “When you use a white cane, you get sympathy, or sometimes people act uncomfortable around you. But with a dog, they say, ‘Oh, look at that cute puppy,’ instead of, ‘Oh, I wonder what’s wrong with her?’ It’s much more positive.”

While Vail is amazing, he can’t read to her. She uses a screen-reading device that reads anything on her laptop screen aloud to her, from e-mails to class assignments to chapters from textbooks. A magnification tool helps with other needs.

“I have roommates who still e-mail photos to their blind friend,” Gee says with a laugh. “I use the magnifier for that.”

Gee is a psychology major with plans for attending graduate school to study clinical counseling.

"You see a lot of people with limited sight settle for careers they’re not happy with, but there’s absolutely no reason you can’t go to college and find a career that really clicks with you,” Gee says. “There don’t have to be limitations.”

Daniel Ryou: Grand Rapids Community College
Like a lot of parents of high-achieving kids, Daniel Ryou’s parents really wanted him to go to the University of Michigan.

But it was Grand Rapids Community College that saved him.

When Ryou was in middle school, his Korean parents decided to move the family to Korea for a few years to experience their native culture.

“I guess I had watched too many movies in Korea about American high school,” Ryou says. He wasn’t prepared for the move back to the U.S., and Forest Hills Central High School.


Daniel Ryou

“It was culture shock,” he says. “We had just started to settle into the Korean culture. Suddenly, there was a lot of playing the social game.

“In Korea, everybody is nice to each other, everybody talks to each other. So I would try to talk to everybody. Here, it seems like everybody just wants to be in the popular group.”

It was tough to make friends, he says.

“I just wanted people to like me.”

By his junior year, depression set in. He hoped he would just “get over it.” But Ryou didn’t get over it. And he didn’t get accepted to the University of Michigan.

He started college at Michigan State University with hope of a fresh beginning. But the depression and isolation continued. He had graduated with honors from high school, but he now had a GPA below 2.0. His academic advisor called him in to his office, concerned. He suggested that he take a break from school.

“I never thought I’d have to leave college because of my grades,” Ryou says.

He came back home and enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College. Slowly, he began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s a much more relaxed atmosphere,” Ryou says. “The classrooms are smaller and you can tell the professors want to make sure everybody understands. People approached me and said, ‘Let’s hang out.’

“Everything was better.”

Ryou’s GPA is back up to 3.7. He landed a summer internship at Goodberry, a Christian book and DVD lending website. He hopes to eventually transfer back to Michigan State’s business school to pursue a degree in marketing.

If he goes back to MSU, how will things be different?

“If I have a problem, I’ll talk to someone,” Ryou says. “I won’t isolate myself. Before, I didn’t tell anyone about my struggles.

“I don’t want to leave there as a failure. I want to feel proud of myself. My parents have been really supportive. My mom told me to just do my best.”

He laughs.

“And to smile more.”

There’s no shame, he says, in leaving a big college for a smaller place that can bring back the light.

“If you’re struggling, it might help to take a break,” he says. “Don’t isolate yourself. Tomorrow will be a better day. Keep swimming.”

Andrew Valesano: Hope College
Andrew Valesano is happy to show off the poster he took to the American Society of Microbiology conference this summer.

He should be proud. The society was so eager to have the Hope College science student present the poster about his research, they paid for his travel expenses to Boston. That’s rare, for a student.

“As one of the earliest diverging eukaryotes, Giardia holds a unique phylogenetic position,” the poster reads.

“Giardia lacks the canonical transcription apparatus of eukaryotes and Archaea; its genome lacks TFIIB and has a highly degenerate TBP, raising questions as to how Giardia initiates RNA polymerase II transcription.”


So, Andrew, did you have a good time at the conference?

“Nerdy fun,” he says cheerfully.

Valesano has studied the intestinal parasite Giardia for the past two summers, working with Dr. Aaron Best at Hope College. The bug affects campers and backpackers who drink from contaminated water. It’s also a big problem with outdoor pets.


Andrew Valesano

Surrounded by test tubes and wearing a protective hood to prevent infection, Valesano cultures Giardia in the lab, outside a host, so he can study it between its life stages. The end goal: maybe discover a new drug target, as Giardia is becoming resistant to current drugs.

The chance to work closely with Hope faculty on innovative research lured Valesano to Michigan from his hometown of Sherwood, Ore., where he was homeschooled.

“It’s one of the major things that made me who I am,” he says of learning at home. “It takes some of the constraints off so if you have a certain interest you can dive into it.

“Being smart and doing well isn’t cool in a lot of schools,” he says. “This takes away the peer pressure.”

At age 8, he asked for a chemistry set for Christmas. When he read “The Hot Zone,” a novel about an Ebola outbreak in Washington, D.C., he was hooked.

“I thought, “This is cool stuff.”

Science suits him. Valesano is one of only 283 students nationwide to receive a Goldwater Scholarship for the upcoming school year.

After Hope, he’ll either go to medical school or pursue a Ph.D. in microbiology for a career in research. Or maybe both, he says.

“I like studying things, knowing a lot about it, knowing where the edge of knowledge is,” Valesano says. “In research, you have a question nobody in the world can answer for you. You’re the expert, the one who’s figuring it out. That really appeals to me.”

The next few decades hold huge excitement and potential for medical research, Valesano says.

“Whether I win a Nobel Prize or hit a dead end,” he says, “it’s fun.”

Brittany Jacobson: Cornerstone University
Brittany Jacobson’s cupcakes are a sweet parade of deliciousness.

Cheesecake cupcakes with Oreo crust. Pistachio pudding with almond buttercream. French toast cupcakes with maple buttercream topped with chocolate-dipped bacon.

Cornerstone University students buy them by the armload. Jacobson, a journalism student, sells them for weddings, parties, corporate meetings and Bible study groups.

Buy a batch, and you help her battle human trafficking.

It’s an unlikely combination that started when Jacobson attended a conference on the topic last fall.

“I had read about trafficking, but I was unsure what I could do about it,” Jacobson says. “This problem is so big, I thought, ‘What can I possibly do?’ But I knew I had to do something.”

Brittany Jacobson


One Saturday shortly after the conference, she was baking cupcakes, carrying on a long family tradition of creating sweets in the kitchen.

Growing up in Virginia, she learned at a young age how to bake Granddaddy’s sheet cake — a moist chocolate cake that uses a whole bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup.

“I had this idea,” she says. “What if I started a cupcake business and donated the money to help stop trafficking?”

Enter New Creation Cupcakes LLC, whose tagline is: “Saving women, one cupcake at a time.”

Jacobson has partnered with Eve’s Angels, a nonprofit that assists women trapped in the sex industry. Members visit area strip clubs to talk to dancers.

“They don’t preach,” she says. “They don’t tell the girls how bad they are. They just spread love.”

And now, they also bring batches of Jacobson’s cupcakes.

On one recent visit, it happened to be the birthday of one of the dancers. “So, she got a cupcake on her birthday,” Jacobson says. “That was cool.”

When she started, she planned to donate 20 percent of her cupcake sales to the cause. Turns out, “it’s more like 96 percent,” she says. “It’s more like a ministry.”

She’s received donations of flour and sugar. The other day somebody dropped off five pounds of powdered sugar.

In addition to donating cupcakes to Eve’s Angels, Jacobson and her mom, Anita Vander Ziel, visit Sacred Beginnings, a local safe house for women recovering from sex trafficking. They teach the young women there how to bake.

“It gives these women an opportunity to learn a skill, to maybe find something they’re passionate about,” Jacobson says.

The first time they visited, she taught them how to make red velvet cupcakes.

“From a mix, right?” one woman asked Jacobson as she set up her KitchenAid mixer.

“Nope,” she told them. “From scratch.”

“They had a blast,” she says. “I taught them how to pipe frosting onto a cupcake. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. When we left, we gave each other hugs.

“I’ve started a conversation — a conversation that needs to happen.”

Learn more at

Bob Vander Lugt: Calvin College
Bob Vander Lugt didn’t know what he wanted to do when he started Calvin College in 1979.

He knew one thing: He didn’t really want to be in the hardware business.

He had worked for his family’s store, Modern Hardware on Kalamazoo Avenue SE, since he was in junior high. Been there, done that.

But he didn’t really fit in at Calvin. He was a commuter who lived at home. He didn’t feel part of campus life. So he quit. He started working full time at the store. He married his high school sweetheart, Vicki.

“And I settled into life,” he says.


Bob Vander Lugt

But life has a way of jostling you around sometimes. And now, at age 52, Vander Lugt is back at Calvin, often showing up to class straight from work, still in his Modern Hardware apron.

Turns out there was a writer inside the hardware store guy. Vander Lugt decided college might help bring him out.

He started writing about 10 years ago, little essays and short stories. After his dad, Tunis, died of lung cancer, he wrote quite a bit, working through his emotions by putting words on paper.

His piece about grieving was published in The Banner, a publication of the Christian Reformed Church, and he got a lot of nice feedback.

Vander Lugt took a fiction writing workshop at Calvin. His teacher was encouraging.

“Being on campus again got me thinking,” he says. “I realized this might be a pretty cool thing to do.”

So, he went back to Calvin.

“It’s interesting,” he says. “Every time a new semester starts, I feel quite awkward, like everybody’s thinking, ‘Who’s this old guy?’”

He laughs.

“But I feel really welcomed here.”

“The young students think faster than I do. They process things more quickly. They have more energy.

“But I think my life experience is a plus,” he says.

“I can look back and see how what I’m learning can be applied to life in general, rather than just a career.

“I don’t speak up a lot. I don’t want to be that old guy who has all the answers. But the professors call on me when they think I might have some insight.

“I think I’ve added to the conversation.”

A collection of his short stories, “Sand, Smoke, Current,” was published in January by Wiseblood Books.
Vander Lugt writes of aging, nature, fathers and sons, the death of his dad.

“It’s kind of humbling, in a way,” he says. “I see my name on the front cover and it’s still kind of surprising.

“I hope people are encouraged that a person who did something else his whole life did something new.”GR

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