Vandersmash: A Man of Many Trades
- by Lizzy Collins, ‘13 Science, Technology, and Society w/ emphasis on Management Science and Engineering Stanford Women's Rowing
“I’m afraid of being boxed in, being mediocre.”
Jake Vandermeer joined the Stanford men’s volleyball team as a walk-on in the fall of his sophomore year. After he competed with the club volleyball team during his freshman year, his coaches encouraged him to try out for the varsity team, an extremely uncommon invitation. “Nobody walks on to this team,” says head volleyball coach John Kosty. But Jake was the “nobody” that accomplished the seemingly impossible task.
What made Jake think he could make the Stanford volleyball team? The same forces that drive his every endeavor: his heart and his unyielding determination. Jake’s story, however, extends far beyond the realm of sports into a life characterized by remarkable achievement as a student, musician, and researcher. His childhood dream was to cure some major disease; in fact, up through his freshman year of college he aspired to follow in the footsteps of his father. Jake explains, “I always wanted to be a doctor because my dad was an orthopedic surgeon and I thought he was pretty cool.”
Jake has done just about everything from academics, to sports, to music, to traveling, to community service. When Jake was ten years old, he told his mom, “As I look at my life it seems very stressful, but as I live my life, I love it!” Wise beyond his years, Jake was a pretty normal kid, doing extraordinary things.
The Musician: “Music is sort of the glue in my life; it keeps me sane when everything else is blowing up. I think there’s something therapeutic about it. Just going through the motions of playing and hearing sound come out of the cello somehow resonates with me.”
Growing up in Dallas, Texas with his parents, Robert and Karen Vandermeer, Jake was an energetic, outgoing, and adventurous kid. He began playing musical instruments before he could talk. He loved singing and frequently performed concerts for his family and friends. At age 2, Jake began playing nursery songs on a toy piano. At 2 ½, he learned how to play autoharp, while singing along. At age 5, he began to play the guitar, composing his first song, which he titled “Dreamland.” “Not only were the words advanced for a 5 year old,” says Karen Vandermeer, “but the melody was lovely.” Learning how to change keys and adjust his vocals really fascinated Jake and thus began his hobby of creating original music.
According to those who can attest to Jake’s musical abilities, he performs and composes with utmost concentration, beauty, and intensity. Through middle school and high school, Jake participated in his school orchestra in addition to singing and playing his cello in various choirs and orchestras. For six years from elementary school to high school, Jake sang professionally with the Dallas Opera, receiving a yearly paycheck starting in the third grade.
In 2008, his composition won the high school division in the North Texas Young Composers Project. The project, aimed at identifying and promoting young musicians, recognizes talented young composers for their creativity, originality, and technical skill. As a reward for his contribution, members of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra played Jake’s prize-winning piece, “Farewell,” for 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, and piano. “I was moved to tears,” says Karen Vandermeer, “as were many others in the audience.” The moment Jake heard his own music being performed by professional musicians was priceless.
“It was a great feeling. I think it’s a very rare and special occasion as a composer to hear your creation brought to life by real people,” comments Jake. Jake was not included in the rehearsal process, and because he did not play an active role in the preparation of his music for the professional performance, the final product was somewhat mysterious, yet beautiful. “The incredible thing was that it was so different from how I had planned the music, how I heard it in my head. Performance day brought a lot of surprises, most of them quite wonderful.”
With Jake’s rigorous academic and athletic schedule, music has become less of a priority and more of a hobby. Yet whenever the opportunity arises, Jake loves nothing more than to spend time practicing his cello. While he acknowledges that his interests shift a lot, he says, “I’m always playing volleyball and cello.”
The Student: “I’m not a genius; I’m just smart and I work hard.”
As a teenager, Jake informed his parents that, academically speaking, he knew where he was going and what it was going to take to get there. As Jake is currently a chemical engineering major at Stanford University with a 4.14 GPA and a laundry list of awards and achievements, it may be safe to say that Jake was right. He knew he aspired to attend one of the best academic institutions in the country, and he understood that a strong work ethic and a commitment to his studies were his keys to success.
Jake attended high school at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, where he set the bar for those who came after him. Jake’s inquisitive mind and sharply honed intellect set him apart from his fellow classmates; his thirst for knowledge kept him striving for more. Jake earned the two highest senior awards at his school, Valedictorian and Headmaster’s Cup, graduating cum laude with a 4.47 GPA and a perfect 1600 on the SAT. According to Jake, it was “all pretty normal high school stuff.”
In 2008, Jake was named a U.S. Department of Education Presidential Scholar, which is awarded to one male and one female high school student in each state on the basis of outstanding all-around excellence. The mark of distinction landed Jake, along with his fellow scholars, a unique trip to Washington, DC following his senior year, where he spent an afternoon at the White House with the President.
Henry Ploegstra, an English and History teacher at St. Mark’s, reminisces about his time spent in the company of the most talented student he has ever taught. What made Jake such an incredible student was the fact that he never had a bad day, never disappointed, never underperformed, and always offered his intellectual insight. Jake is an inquirer and desires not only to know, but also to understand. When asked by colleagues whether he ever taught Jake, Ploegstra responds that he is not sure he taught Jake, but he did have him as a student for two years. “Jake always taught himself,” says Ploegstra. “I merely pointed out the road signs.”
The science and engineering programs attracted Jake to Stanford, and, since coming to the Farm, he has discovered that his primary interests are financial derivatives and batteries. Currently a member of the energy club on campus, Jake finds the time during his lunch break to organize and run sessions where he invites people from various startups, established companies, research facilities to talk to students about their work. Some of Jake’s other interests include derivatives trading, energy storage, energy production, and clean technology.
Gerry Fuller, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Stanford, refers to Jake as “one of the very strongest majors with whom [he’s] interacted during [his] years at Stanford. He is reserved but his qualities as a leader have always been very evident.” Amazingly enough, students regard chemical engineering as one of the toughest majors at Stanford, but that does not faze Jake, who has received nothing less than an A during his time at Stanford. So has Jake ever failed a test? “By my own standards, yes, many times. But I don’t think I’ve ever truly received a failing grade on anything.”
Jake’s fondness for Stanford University, however, stretches beyond its status as an elite academic institution with a strong athletic program. Jake appreciates Stanford because of the people and because of his everyday encounters with fellow students. He thinks of them as “really cool, down to earth people,” and yet, he says, “you walk away in amazement of their brilliance and achievements.” Unpretentious regarding his own brilliance, Jake is quick to turn the attention on others. According to Jake, “There are so many people who have done so much more with their lives than I have that sometimes it’s hard to stay confident. I’ve done very normal things so far.”
The Researcher: “Really the only reason that research interests me is that it involves knowledge discovery.”
Jake’s academic interests extend far beyond what he hopes to learn as a chemical engineering major at Stanford. His craving for knowledge has encouraged him to delve deeper into his studies, to research, and to learn more. On March 7, 2010, Jake presented a medical research paper to the Orthopedic Research Society in which he proposed a potential cure for Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, also known as “Bo Jackson” disease. The hip disease, which ended Bo Jackson’s professional football career, affects about 1,200 children a year. Jake was one of the youngest students ever to address the Orthopedic Research Society. While conducting his research he worked alongside Harry Kim, director of the Sarah M. and Charles E. Seay Center for Musculoskeletal Research at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.
Before the day of the conference, Jake sat the Stanford volleyball team down after practice to inform them that he would have to miss a few days of practice in order to deliver his research to a panel of doctors. “I’m pretty sure everyone on our team had an ‘I am not worthy’ moment,” comments Brad Lawson, a teammate of Jake’s and current captain of the team. “He really does do it all.”
In addition to his medical research, Jake enjoys studying Spanish history. The summer before his junior year, Jake lived in Madrid, Spain where he conducted research at the National Archives with the aid of a Stanford Chappell Lougee Scholarship, which allows current Stanford students to embark on a summer project in the humanities, creative arts, or social sciences. For three months, Jake perused a variety of eighteenth century letters, court documents, and government briefings, all of which required Jake’s translating from eighteenth-century Spanish to English.
“I’m not an expert, just an amateur,” says Jake, “but I am fascinated by the very peculiar role Spain played in the development of modern Europe and of course the Americas. I think often it is overlooked in broader narratives of history, so it was very interesting for me to dig around a little bit and observe for myself the Spanish account of its own affairs of state.”
From discovering a potential cure for Bo Jackson’s disease to uncovering information about Spain’s history, Jake asserts that, while the research process is tedious, the discovery is “very satisfying.”
The Athlete: “I had a bunch of neighbors on my block and we all loved sports. I remember in the summer [my friends and I] got up around 8, played some sort of sport outside until lunch, and then played again all evening until it got dark. Every single day. It was awesome.”
While music, academics, and research represent a large part of Jake’s life, sports unveil another side of Jake. As a three-year-old, Jake loved the outdoors; with his incredible amount of stamina and endurance, he enjoyed running, climbing, and staying active. When Jake was a boy, he went hiking with his family in Colorado and it was not until they had hiked uphill for several hours and begun their descent that Jake asked to be carried.
Roller hockey, tennis, soccer, ice hockey, baseball, football, basketball, volleyball, and even a few made-up sports all attracted Jake’s attention. The thrill of the game and the friendly competition lit a spark in Jake as a youngster. Whenever he had the opportunity to play sports, Jake gladly seized his chance. In high school, he narrowed his play to tennis and volleyball and, as usual, he committed himself to developing and improving his game in each sport.
On the tennis court, Jake was a natural. His exceptional skills earned him all-conference recognition twice during his high school career and landed him in the top 500 tennis players in the nation. On the volleyball court, Jake received all-conference recognition three out of his four years, although in his mind, “It wasn’t really that hard, since it was Texas.” The St. Mark’s students believed otherwise. In their eyes, Jake’s standout skills deserved special attention, so they formed a fan club. For every home volleyball game, they painted themselves blue and gold and proudly cheered for their very own “Vandersmash.” Looking back, Jake says, “I’ve always loved volleyball; I’ve never really been able to get enough of it. Seventh grade was when I started playing for my school, and after that I couldn’t wait for the season to start and I was always devastated when it ended.”
Jake’s participation in the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra prevented him from playing at the more elite club level; because he did not play club volleyball, his chances of attracting college recruiters were improbable. Upon graduating from high school, Jake decided that he no longer wanted to pursue tennis and, deciding that his volleyball playing days were coming to a close, he believed it was time to start anew. “I was good at tennis, but I was over it. I thought I would start the next chapter in my life, focus my attention on academics and research, without sports being in the way.”
Upon coming to Stanford, however, Jake discovered that life without sports did not satisfy him, at least not just yet, so he joined Stanford’s club volleyball team. Jake was a principal player on the club team, making the all-tournament team at club nationals his freshman year. “I found out I could not live without it. I had to have it again, I had to have volleyball.”
The Stanford Student-Athlete: “It was really amazing, a very fitting end to months of work. When I was nearing the end of my summer workouts and was completely exhausted, I would just picture Kosty handing me a Stanford jersey, and that would push me through. As it actually happened, he announced it during the huddle at the end of one of our fall practices in front of the whole team and handed me my jersey with number twenty on it. Pretty special.”
Jake is truly a multi-faceted person who has proven to be one of the best at nearly everything he sets out to do. So, considering his talents and his extensive potential in activities outside of sports, why does he seek to play varsity volleyball? Last year, Jake played in 5 of the 30 men’s volleyball games and did not make the travel squad. He is not on scholarship and has no financial incentive to be a member of the team. He spends anywhere between 20 and 30 hours a week practicing and perfecting his game, even though in two years he likely will no longer play volleyball.
Jake is clearly not the best on the team; he does not start, and he sees very little playing time, yet being a member of the Stanford volleyball team brings Jake much pride. But why? Why does he spend so much time and energy participating in something in which he does not excel? Why is one of his proudest memories the first time he got to suit up for a Stanford home volleyball game? Ask Jake “Why volleyball?” and the answer is simple: “I joined the team because I love volleyball and couldn’t stand the idea of regretting a missed opportunity later on.”
Jake is genuinely passionate about volleyball and the fact that he is not the most talented player on the team only encourages him to work harder. “I love it enough to put in the extra time. I like how it feels when I play, I like the feeling I get when I do well, I like the feeling when I don’t do well and I have 19 other guys pushing me up. At the core, I just love the sport.”
Jake understands and embraces his role on the volleyball team. Because of his lack of experience, he mainly plays against the starters in practice and occasionally acts as a serving specialist in games, but his contributions do not go unnoticed. Teammate Brad Lawson admires Jake for his generosity and his dedication. “Jake brings coachability and a work ethic to the team that’s an example for us all,” says Lawson. “Jake is always open to hear from anyone who has advice for him, whether coach or player, and is constantly striving to improve on his game during practice.” According to Jake, “most of my teammates are much more skilled at volleyball than I am, which is why it’s so great getting to step on the court and compete with them every day.” For once, Jake is surrounded by people whose talents are greater than his own, yet he contentedly welcomes the opportunity to challenge himself and to prove he can hold his own and he will improve.
“I love the team. We are like family, and we know that we would do anything for each other.” Jake’s passion for Stanford volleyball is due in large part to the sense of camaraderie he feels with his teammates. The volleyball team is comprised of a group of good-natured and friendly guys who share a special bond. Having spent most, if not all, of his life working towards individual goals, Jake enjoys the thrill of working with his team to achieve a single goal: an NCAA Championship. “My teammates are some of the most motivated, talented, and humble people I have ever met, and they have been so gracious in helping me improve every day, even though I came in with much less experience.” Jake sincerely respects his team and maintains that every day he steps on the volleyball court with his teammates is an honor and a privilege.
Lizzy Collins, ’13, was a member of the Stanford rowing team her freshman year, but two hip surgeries took her out of the sport during her sophomore season. As a junior, she will once again join her teammates on the water. Lizzy is currently pursuing a major in Science, Technology, and Society with a focus in Management Science and Engineering. Her ultimate goal is to start her own business, but for now she is studying societal needs in order to determine what might be of use in the coming years.