One does not have to try hard to hear the praises of Northwestern’s beloved Randy VanPeursem; the science department might as well be considered a choir.
While many on campus have relationships with VanPeursem, very few actually know his story.
It was the fall of 1988 when VanPeursem became a full-time student at NW. Coming from a long line of mathematicians and educators, VanPeursem was sure he was destined to major in mathematics. In high school, he loved and excelled in chemistry, physics and math but did not like biology – at all. His academic advisor, Dr. Peter Hansen, knew what he was doing when he signed VanPeursem up for zoology, general chemistry and calculus during his first semester at NW.
He soon found himself switching his major to biology health professions.
“I thoroughly fell in love with biology—the intricacies of the human body and the way God designed and created us was mind-blowing to me,” VanPeursem said.
Professors only fed my passion for biology and chemistry,” he said. Nervous to break the news to his family, including his dad, who has his masters in math, and his brother, who has a Ph.D. in math, he was relieved when his dad replied, “Do whatever you feel called to do.” That calling became a lot more ambiguous when his health took a turn for the worse.
After graduating from NW in 1992, VanPeursem continued his education at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. At this point, VanPeursem’s mind was set on becoming a doctor. Even though he tutored classmates throughout his schooling, he never considered a career in education. But God had other plans.
It was the start of his third year of medical school in 1994 when VanPeursem had to drop out due to physically disabling dysautonomia, or POTS. “I physically could not function,” VanPeursem recalled. After 20-plus visits to hospitals all over the Midwest, his fear became a reality.
He withdrew from medical school and was confined to his home for the next two years. Luckily, VanPeursem’s POTS was secondary to severe allergies. Through changes in diet and environment, he was finally ready to get out of the house.
Hoping to get out of the house for a few hours a week, VanPeursem asked Prof. Peter Hansen, his old advisor, if any students needed tutoring in chemistry. Pretty soon, he made a chemistry drop-in center, then a biology one, and by the fall of 1999, the science center was born.
What started as volunteer work soon became a full-time job. VanPeursem currently advises first-year biology health profession majors, helps students with study skills and supervises the drop-in centers in the afternoons and evenings. He tutors organic, college and general chemistry as well as physics.
“I always was amazed by and admired my past professors who had the wisdom to help students like me navigate college and career choices. When I was a student, I never imagined I would be doing the same thing,” VanPeursem said.
VanPeursem continues to bless students with passions, gifts and talents— however unexpected they might have been.