UI student awarded Fulbright to teach English in Taiwan

August 2nd, 2016
Destinee Gwee

By Hannah Adamson, The Daily Iowan

It is no secret that many Fulbright scholars have an impressive track record. They excel in their fields and, to many, seem to be natural-born leaders among their peers. University of Iowa graduate and Fulbright recipient Destinee Gwee is no exception.

Before applying for the Fulbright grant, Gwee had quite the exceptional undergraduate career. She trained as a coxswain on the Hawkeye rowing team, worked with young girls as a member of the charity “Girl’s on the Run,” and received a B.A. in biochemistry and Chinese from the UI.

Only knowing she wanted to do “something big” before she started medical school, Gwee started her application for a Fulbright last year.

The Fulbright is an extremely competitive program in which students are awarded scholarships to work abroad for a year.

Alan Whitters, the medical director of behavioral health at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, employed Gwee as a clinical assistant last summer. As his clinical assistant, Gwee worked with electronic medical records so he could focus all of his attention on his patients. In some instances, Gwee acted as interpreter for patients.

“Destinee’s a remarkable person who will be a fantastic addition,” Whitters said.

Karen Wachsmuth, the UI associate director of international fellowships, got to know Gwee and helped her throughout her application for the Fulbright. She said because of Gwee’s positive and upbeat nature, along with her impressive work ethic, she fits every characteristic of young people Fulbright hopes to get working all over the world.

“The big thing about Fulbright is they want to know that you’re going to reach out and be involved as an ambassador … [Destinee’s] been a great spokesperson already,” Wachsmuth said.

Newell Ann Van Auken, a visiting assistant professor in Chinese, recommended Gwee to be a Fulbright scholar after she stood out in Van Auken’s Classical Chinese course as a natural leader among her classmates.

“If someone’s having a bad day, she’ll be the one to notice and say something encouraging,” Van Auken said. “When I watched how she would interact with her classmates, [Destinee] would always comment in ways that were really positive.”

Gwee will work on a small island near Taiwan teaching English to elementary and junior-high students.

Because Gwee will start medical school upon her return from Taiwan, she wanted to make the most of her Fulbright experience as preparation for her career as a medical student.

“Going with a program through the State Department and also the fact that Taiwan has a national health-insurance program further inspired me to go to Taiwan,” Gwee said.

But there’s more to her time in Taiwan than solely helping her prepare for the future; for her, the time in Taiwan will also be about discovering old roots.

Gwee’s grandmother has been a constant source of encouragement and inspiration to help her pursue her goals. As it turns out, Gwee’s family history is one of much personal sacrifice and perseverance.

“A lot of things I do are because of her,” Gwee said.

Gwee’s grandmother had to escape Laos twice, once during World War II and once during the Vietnam War.

From Thailand, they flew to Iowa, where people living in the small town of Mediapolis took them in.

While going to a new country can always be a bit intimidating, Gwee said, with her grandmother’s story close at hand, she knows she has the know-how to make her experience abroad worth while.

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