Grace Van Voorhis: 2010 Outstanding Graduate in the College of Arts & Sciences

Foreign language allows student to translate learning into teaching

Amid the sea of green gowns in Brookings quad at Commencement, you’ll be able to spot Grace Van Voorhis.

As she files in with her fellow grads from the College of Arts & Sciences, she’ll be wearing a sash from Sigma Iota Rho — the honorary society for international studies. It will display a red, white and blue flag with a lone star. It’s not the Texas flag, but that of Chile — another place that Van Voorhis calls home.

“I spent an hour and a half on Skype last night talking to my family in Chile,” Van Voorhis says.

The soft-spoken blonde from Iowa City, Iowa, spent half of her junior year living in Santiago. She took classes at two Chilean universities, but her Chilean family, a household of five women, taught her more about the culture and life of her adopted home than any textbook could.

“About a month into my stay in Chile, I started to dream in Spanish,” Van Voorhis says about the true milestone for anyone who has studied a foreign language.

Her love affair with el Español began nearly 10 years earlier in seventh-grade Spanish class. She started her high school’s first Spanish club and volunteered with an after-school program for Latino youths.

A medical mission trip with her father, a physician, to Ecuador during her sophomore year of high school took Van Voorhis far beyond the bounds of classroom Spanish as she served as a translator for the doctors and patients.

“It was exciting to see how I could use the language,” Van Voorhis says, “but in retrospect, I realize I didn’t even know all the verb tenses back then!”

Today, Van Voorhis is an accomplished student of Spanish and of Latin American studies, her double major. She received the Madeleine Albright Scholarship as an outstanding junior in International and Area Studies in Arts & Sciences and the Louis G. Zelson Award as an outstanding junior in Spanish. Her senior thesis is the culmination of several years of work and research to examine the effects of U.S. immigration policy on children who are born in the United States to undocumented parents.

“Grace has always approached her studies at Washington University with great dedication and energy,” says Chris Riha, coordinator for International Programs. “She excels at everything she has undertaken academically.”

Riha also applauds the leadership roles Van Voorhis has taken within the honorary society Sigma Iota Rho, where she has been editor-in-chief of The Summit magazine and vice president and town hall committee chair, organizing topical events and helping to inspire increased participation in the group.

An active member and leader of WUSTL’s “Cambios” tutoring program, Van Voorhis also has organized activities with Latino students and families in South St. Louis.

When not in South America, Van Voorhis spent her college summers in Iowa. In 2008, she worked with a mobile clinic providing health services and educational programs to Spanish-speaking migrant farm workers and their families. During the summer of 2007, she worked at the grassroots level of a political campaign that was just gaining momentum for presidential candidate Barack Obama.

But “politician” is not on Van Voorhis’ career list. She doesn’t rule out a diplomatic job in her future, but for now she’s focusing on a transition from student to teacher; she heads to Texas next month to begin a two-year assignment as a Teach For America corps member at a school in San Antonio, where roughly 90 percent of students are Latino.

Van Voorhis was a teaching assistant with two subsections of Spanish 101 at WUSTL this year. “It’s given me a chance to go from a recipient of knowledge to someone who can pass that knowledge on,” she says. “I have a passion for teaching.”

Between graduation and her new teaching job, Van Voorhis will have a brief, busy visit with her family back home in Iowa, including attending her brother’s high school graduation and spending time with her sister and parents, who she says always have “supported and encouraged me in everything I do.”

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