When Nathan Means says he speaks Spanish “like a hillbilly Guatemalan,” he’s not kidding. The Columbia College biology professor lived in the mountains of rural Guatemala for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late ’90s. “I really enjoyed that time; it made me feel a part of the global community,” he says. “I felt like I was working for humanity, to make the world a better place – and at the same time, I grew tremendously as an individual.”
Fifteen years later, Means, 41, continues to contribute to the global community, but by the end of 2013, he’ll be speaking Spanish like a cosmopolitan Uruguayan – in August, the sabbatical-bound professor is headed to Montevideo for 3 to 4 months.
“Heck yeah!” he says. “I’m definitely going to cook up some crazy adventure, without a doubt.”
The backbone of his journey is a Fulbright scholarship – the first ever awarded to a Columbia College faculty member. Means will perform soil quality research for Uruguay’s National Institute of Agricultural Research. “The general theme of the appointment is in the area of sustainable agriculture,” explains Dr. Robert Kremer, a research microbiologist with USDA-Agricultural Research Service and adjunct professor at the University of Missouri in the Department of Soil, Environmental & Atmospheric Sciences. Kremer was also Means’ PhD advisor at MU and says “Nate is one of the few graduates of our program with a working knowledge in this area, beginning with his Peace Corps experience in Guatemala, then continuing with is work with composting and using this for plant nutrition, which are basic sustainable techniques.”
In addition to Dr. Kremer, Dr. Terry Smith, Executive Vice President and Dean for Academic Affairs at Columbia College, encouraged Means to pursue the Fulbright. “I can’t think of a fulltime faculty member for whom a Fulbright would not be a life changing experience,” says Smith, who spent three months at Portsmouth Polytechnic in England as a Fulbright scholar in 1991. “It’s long-term immersion in a foreign culture where there are specific expectations, tasks and objectives.”
In addition to research, Means will do some teaching – in Spanish, of course – in conjunction with Universidad de Montevideo. Even with the language barrier, Matt Howell, a recent graduate, is confident his former advisor will be popular among the students in Uruguay. “Dr. Means is a charismatic professor who always brings a positive attitude to the classroom,” Howell says. “He is so passionate about what he teaches and is able to make any course interesting. I chose many of my elective courses in college solely because he was teaching them.”
“Dr. Means is a professor who is truly passionate about science and teaching, which provides an excellent learning experience for his students.” –Matt Howell ’12
Means was notified of his Fulbright acceptance in January and has been researching Uruguay in preparation for his August departure. “The more I read about it, the more incredible it is – a lot of things appeal to me,” he says of the socially liberal country. Means cites a particularly inspiring New York Times article that profiles the Uruguay’s president, José Mujica. “He lives in a run-down house on Montevideo’s outskirts with no servants at all,” the writer explains. “His security detail: two plainclothes officers parked on a dirt road.” The article goes on to describe how Mujica, a low-key radical, never wears a tie and donates 90 percent of his salary to a program that helps the poor.
“He’s incredible in that sense, and I think that kind of speaks to the whole nation,” Means says. “Uruguay also, at the same time, has a tremendous health care system, an incredible education system, a very stable economy.”
According to the Times, Mujica rides to work on a Vespa – which is cool, says Means, who’s a big proponent of two-wheeled transportation. “This is totally dorky, but I got a travel bike,” he says of his full-sized BoCoMo that folds up and fits in a normal-size suitcase and will accompany him to South America. “It’s a great way to see different countries, cultures.”
Means will likely live in faculty housing at the university but plans to spend plenty of time exploring beyond Montevideo. “I’ll be there for work, but I’m totally going to travel,” he says. “That section – that region – of the world has always been a draw for me. The culture, the landscape, the plants, you name it.”
That willingness to explore is among the reasons Means was accepted as a Fulbright. Since its establishment in 1946, the program’s mission has been to increase mutual understanding between Americans and the people of other countries. The Fulbright Program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, awards approximately 8,000 grants annually, mostly to students. Only several hundred are extended to teachers and professionals.
“Nate will be a fabulous ambassador for all things that are good about America – and about Columbia College,” Smith says. “He’s a really good guy, he’s really deserving of this. He’s going to be able to go down here and really make a difference.”