An introduction to possibilities

Matias Grande’16 came to Beloit College interested in physics. Instead, a vacation term in Uganda inspired a career in public health.

Matias Grande’16 arrived at Beloit College with physics in mind and earned a major in the subject. Today, however, he applies the data analysis and visualization skills he learned in physics to a different passion: public health.

Currently, a program manager for a non-profit HIV/STI clinic in southwest Houston, Matias will join the U.S. State Department in April 2022 to serve as a Strategic Information Advisor in the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator.

Matias Grande'16 with a Regional Malaria Contract Tracing Team. Matias Grande’16 with a Regional Malaria Contract Tracing Team.

Pivoting partway through a Beloit College education to a new focus is not unusual. In fact, such shifts are not only common but encouraged when they help students realize their passions. After all, college is a time of growth, when students not only learn skills and subject matter, but also about themselves. Faculty and staff at Beloit not only understand this, but support students as they learn, grow, and change.

“I thought I had a good understanding of college life when I enrolled at Beloit, as my mom teaches at Texas A&M and my dad at a community college,” Matias recalls. “And since my family is considered to be left-leaning in conservative College Station, where I grew up, I assumed that Beloit’s campus environment would be familiar.”

But no, it differed from life at home, from its liberal ideas and social mores to modest interest in viewing sports. In Texas, Matias was used to crowds of 5,000 attending the high school football games he played in. Nonetheless, Beloit College was also welcoming, and once Matias developed a passion for public health, he found the resources and guidance he needed to prepare for a career in that field.

First, however, Matias took a break to rethink what he wanted out of college; during his sophomore year, he felt like he was coasting. He’d spend what would have been the fall semester of his junior year in Uganda. Vacation terms allow students to take breaks from the college when they need them. They also ease re-enrollment when students return.

In Uganda, first-hand observations introduced Matias to the power of public health programs: they improve people’s lives. Reading public health literature deepened his interest, such that upon his return to Beloit College, he began taking courses in the health and society program.

“In Uganda, I realized I wanted to make an impact. I became aware of the work being done in public health by NGOs, the CDC, and the State Department. Back at Beloit, I was able to explore public health as a discipline and profession and was introduced to career possibilities.”

For example, a class presentation by another student focused on the work of an international NGO. Additionally, Beloit alumni were often invited to address classes, so that students could learn about their careers both in the U.S. and abroad.

Eventually, Matias would major in both physics and public health. It’s a combination that has served him well, as he is able to apply the data analysis and data visualization he learned in physics to work in public health.

Following his graduation from Beloit, Matias served in the Peace Corps in Botswana, where his skills helped make him useful in the regional hospital to which he was assigned. Peace Corps volunteers typically work with counterparts who serve as mentors to help volunteers integrate into the host organization and community.

Matias Grande'16, left foreground, with participants in a workshop held in conjunction with the Y... Matias Grande’16, left foreground, with participants in a workshop held in conjunction with the Youth Clinic opening.

Matias, however, found himself without a counterpart. But when he recognized that the hospital and its management team needed help keeping track of its work, he offered to help. Drawing on his ability to work with numbers, he complied and reported data on the hospital’s vaccine, HIV, and malaria programs, as well as those of its twenty-nine sub-facilities. When his persistence built trust, he was allowed to apply for funding to establish a youth-friendly clinic. The clinic now operates with a dedicated nurse.

Not yet ready to return home at the end of his two years of Peace Corps service, Matias signed on to a University of Washington PEPFAR-supported project in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital. Established by George W. Bush, PEPFAR, or the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, works in 50 countries to save lives, prevent HIV infections, and accelerate progress controlling the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Matias returned to Texas to finish out his contract, after which he moved into his current program management role.

Matias Grande'16, second from left, at a PEPFAR conference Matias Grande’16, second from left, at a PEPFAR conferenceNow, on the cusp of joining the State Department, he’ll shift to working at the macro-level, where he believes he will have a greater impact on people’s lives using the skill set he began acquiring at Beloit.

Looking back on his time at Beloit, Matias notes the enormous impact of the interdisciplinary health and society curriculum on his career. Taking courses ranging from the natural sciences to the humanities broadened his worldview and helped him define his passions. Guidance from Ron Watson, the political scientist who heads the program, was also key. Feedback from Ron, whether on a presentation or research paper, challenged Matias’s thought process and helped strengthen his ability to formulate comprehensive arguments.

Finally, he recommends exploring the world while you are young. “Buy a plane ticket instead of a car. Material items depreciate; experiences are investments in your future self.”

By: Elizabeth Brewer
March 10, 2022

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