Logo: University of Southern California

Paul VanWieren: Adventurer by Bus, Bike and Foot

He never owned a car here, but that didn’t stop him from connecting with the city.
Alison Engel
May 11, 2009 —

When you finish four years of a demanding major with an unblemished record of A’s, it might be time for some self-congratulation. But that’s not the style of USC’s 2009 valedictorian, Paul VanWieren.

2009 University of Southern California Valedictorian Paul VanWieren. (photo by Dietmar Quistorf)
In fact, as he works on his commencement speech, he wants to stress how luck and circumstance need to be credited by those graduating from college. “If you consider that it’s partially luck on where you are born and how you are brought up, then it allows you to retain humility about what you accomplish,” he said. “You start thinking about how you can use what you’ve learned to help others who weren’t as fortunate.”

To that end, VanWieren was involved at USC with Engineers Without Borders, an organization that brings engineering solutions to problems in developing countries.

After graduation, once he works for a while to help pay off student loans (he already has a job with Edwards Life Sciences in Irvine, doing research on a continuous glucose monitor), he plans to enroll in a joint M.D./Ph.D. program so he can help design neuro prostheses to aid those with spinal cord injuries and other debilitating problems. That is, unless he goes to law school or studies philosophy or goes into politics – all among his interests.

The soft-spoken biomedical engineering grad with an electrical engineering emphasis from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering knows from hard work. Growing up in rural Grant, Mich., his high school job was working at a turkey farm. At USC, he worked in the labs of teachers who became friends, such as Edward Maby, who teaches electrical engineering, and Darrell Judge, who teaches physics.

It’s really a toss-up: Did USC get the most out of VanWieren or did VanWieren get the most out of USC?

VanWieren certainly made the most of his years in Los Angeles. He lived on campus all four years and never had a car, but that didn’t stop him from exploring the city by bike, bus and foot. “I like the sense of being connected with whatever neighborhood I’m in. When you are biking or running or riding the bus, you can see what the culture is like in each neighborhood,” he said.

“It keeps you grounded. It’s so easy to get sucked into this bubble of academic life. Most of the people in the world have a different frame of mind. Getting out in neighborhoods reminds you that it’s not all about you.”

So VanWieren would bike long distances – say, to the Getty Center and back, sometimes with Adam Benkato, of Houston, Texas, whom he met in the dorm during his freshman year and who shares an adventurous spirit. Or VanWieren would take a break from studying by running north on Figueroa Avenue to Fifth Street, then riding the glass elevator at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel to the top and enjoying the panoramic view before running back to campus. One of VanWiren’s favorite haunts is Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, home to many once-grand theatres and small ethnic businesses.

VanWieren came to USC without knowing anyone, lured by a barrage of letters the university sent him while in high school and a generous merit scholarship. Both of his parents (Gerald, a physician, and Suzanne, a nurse practitioner) had gone to college in California and approved of his decision to “get utterly away from what I knew.” They will be at commencement, as will his older brother, Andrew, who is in medical school in Rhode Island, and his sister Rachel, who is studying for a Ph.D. in Latin American literature at UCLA.

story by Allison Engel