When Nathan Tauger ’14 was growing up in West Virginia, he was often struck by the crushing poverty he saw near his hometown of Morgantown.
“The stark inequalities in education, income, and opportunity all bothered me,” Tauger says. “I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about the people back home who don’t have access to the resources I had growing up.”
A biology major at Vassar, Tauger had long thought about returning to West Virginia and pursuing a career in public health in an impoverished area of the state, but he was worried about the finances. “I wondered how going to graduate school in a field that didn’t promise big gains after graduation could be financially feasible,” he says.
Tauger’s worries have been reduced substantially: As one of 62 undergraduates in the country to be named a 2013 Truman Scholar, he will receive up to $30,000 to pursue a master’s degree in public health. The Truman Scholarship Foundation was established by Congress in 1975 to support students who plan to pursue careers in government and public service.
Tauger, who spent the spring semester in a Junior Year Abroad program at the University of Oxford, credits several of his Vassar professors with helping him shape his goals. “Economics professor Shirley Johnson-Lans did a great job of helping me understand how the American health care system works; she presented concepts fundamental to understanding health from a policy standpoint,” he says.
He credits his organic chemistry professor, Christopher Smart, with demonstrating the value of science in everyday life. “Professor Smart did this thing at the start of each class called the Molecule of the Day, explaining how it was significant,” Tauger says. “It reminded all of us of the practical applications of what we were learning.”
Smart, who wrote one of Tauger’s recommendations for the Truman Scholarship, says he “wasn’t overly impressed” by his student’s initial performance in class. “His first test score wasn’t all that good, and I didn’t think he was particularly motivated,” the professor says.
That impression soon changed. Tauger was the only student that semester to get a 100 on one of Smart’s tests, and as the two got to know each other better, Smart saw a rare quality in his student: a genuine love of the pursuit of knowledge. “Nate enjoys the journey his academic pursuits are taking him on,” Smart says.
Tauger says Vassar has afforded him the opportunity to pursue numerous activities outside the classroom. He’s an editor for the Miscellany News, tutors middle school students in the Poughkeepsie City School District, and is active in the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU).
Rabbi Rena Blumenthal, assistant director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and an advisor to VJU, says Tauger has always had a way of “coming at issues from a different angle” from most other students. “He has a genuine interest in his own roots, but he also has a real interest in fostering understanding among other groups,” Blumenthal says. Over the past two years, Tauger helped organize dinners for VJU with other student groups, including the ALANA (African American/Black, Latino, Asian/Asian American, Native American) Center and the South Asian Students Alliance, she says.
Tauger says he’s particularly enjoyed his work as a tutor for Poughkeepsie middle school students with the Vassar After School Tutoring (VAST) Program—something he’s done since his freshman year. “Dealing with middle-schoolers is challenging. VAST keeps me sharp, and it encourages the students to try new things and become more responsible,” he says. “As much as I try to influence kids’ lives for the better, they affect mine more.”
Before Tauger returns to Vassar in the fall, he’ll spend the summer at a medical clinic in Uganda under a fellowship program funded by Steven Tananbaum ’87 and Lisa Tananbaum. Tananbaum Fellowships are awarded to deserving Vassar juniors and seniors.
Tauger will be working for the Uganda Village Project, which provides clean water, medical care, and other services to families in rural Uganda. He says the Tananbaum Fellowship will enable him to “gain perspective about doing public health work in the field.”
Tauger says he believes his background in the sciences will help him make significant contributions to those in poverty in West Virginia. But, he adds, he hopes to broaden his perspective in graduate school. “I think I gravitated toward health as a career because of my biology background—that’s what I’m good at. But I’ve also learned all of these problems I see in West Virginia are related and that concentrating on only one thing, like health or education, can only do so much,” he says. “Thinking of ways to reduce inequalities and improve access to education, health care, and meaningful career opportunities—while also maintaining the environment—all of this is incredibly challenging, and incredibly important.”