Honoring a family legacy by giving back

Deborah Rotman '93

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A black and white image of a man (Eugene Tenbrink) in a cowboy hat is placed next to a headshot of a woman (Deborah Rotman) smiling

At right is Deborah Rotman '93, Eugene Tenbrink is at left.

For Deb Rotman ’93, making the decision to attend Grand Valley State University was an easy choice. Her great-grandfather was one of the founding members of the university and her father continued the tradition, working on campus during its early years. Through her family’s involvement, Deb felt a connection to Grand Valley long before she was a student.

With the encouragement of her professors and the variety of classes she took at Grand Valley, Rotman developed a love of history and archeology that molded her professional life.

In honor of her great-grandfather and in gratitude for the education she received at Grand Valley, Rotman established the Eugene J. TenBrink Scholarship to assist other first-generation students. Rotman said she gives back to students to allow them to create their own legacy and positive impact, both on their community and the world.

Can you tell us more about your professional journey and what you enjoy about your current position?

I have been in various non-profit leadership roles for more than 20 years. My current position is director of operations for Hacks/Hackers, a collection of journalists and technologists who are building tools to help readers discern the credibility of the media they consume. I enjoy being part of meaningful work that contributes to the health of our democracy.

Your job involves a lot of travel. What do you enjoy most about traveling for work?

I enjoy the encounters with other histories and cultures that travel allows. Learning through travel puts my own life experiences in the context of our shared humanity. There is a great big world out there and I am determined to see as much of it as I can. My most recent trip was an African safari.

Can you share about your experience as a Fulbright US Scholar?

I went to Ireland for the year. I was hosted by the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar during the 2015-2016 academic year. During my grant period, I studied the landed estates of northwest County Mayo (in Western Ireland). Knowledge gained about these rural settlements is important to understanding domestic life not only in Ireland, but also the cultural traditions, beliefs and practices that traversed the ocean with people immigrating to the United States.

Why did you choose to attend Grand Valley?

I have many family connections to GVSU. My paternal great-grandfather, Eugene TenBrink, was instrumental in securing the location for the university in the 1960s. My dad, Jim Rotman, was the director of the physical plant (1965-1975). So attending Grand Valley was an easy choice. Many other family members are also alumni, including my sister, cousins and aunts. My niece is a current student. GVSU has a lot to offer.

A man sits on the ground, an archeological dig is squared off. He is looking at a book. A woman is sitting next to him on the ground is making notes on a piece of paper.

Deborah Rotman ’93 is pictured on archaeological dig with father, Jim Rotman. Jim was the director of Grand Valley's physical plant.

Could you share a little about your experience as a first-generation college student?

I really struggled initially. I knew I wanted to go to college, but was unsure what my long-term career goals were and how a college education would help me get there. One of my professors suggested I choose courses as a way of discerning my future path. 

I registered for a variety of classes that all sounded interesting, which collectively led me to taking courses in history and majoring in anthropology/archaeology. I took many evening classes and was fortunate to connect with other first-generation students who were also working full time. I encourage all students, not just first-generation, to build community with other students as sources of mutual support and encouragement. They will become lifelong friends!

Is there one lesson that you learned at GVSU that you continue to reflect on or use today?

I learned to take chances and follow my passion, even when it didn’t make sense to anyone but me. Archaeology is definitely a less traditional career choice, but I have had a rich and varied professional life. I cannot imagine doing anything else.

An old fashioned sepia toned image of a man in a cowboy ensemble complete with scarf, hat and rope. There is a painted scene in the background with trees and rocks.

Eugene TenBrink, circa 1905-1910

The Eugene J. TenBrink Scholarship honors your great-grandfather. Can you tell us about his support of Grand Valley?

Great-grandpa Eugene loved history as much as I do. The Eugene J. TenBrink Scholarship supports first-generation students from the Midwest who are interested in studying history at GVSU.

From 1904-1910, Eugene was a cowboy out West. I wrote a short book about his experiences called Grandpa the Cowboy: A Young Man’s Journey through the American West . A portion of the proceeds from the sale of that book support this scholarship.

He left for the West without telling his mother, Alice Gelderloos TenBrink. He always felt badly about that so when GVSU was established, he set up a scholarship in her name. Eugene set up the award in February 1965 but died just two months later, so it was never fully funded. This scholarship honors both of their memories.

What impact do you hope this scholarship will have on students?

It is my hope that this scholarship will increase students’ capacity for deeper engagement with learning. Perhaps these funds will mean a student doesn’t have to work while going to school full time or at least work fewer hours than they would without this scholarship. This award might also mean they are able to study abroad or have some other kind of experiential learning experience. Intellectual engagement outside the classroom is incredibly important for developing skills and discerning one’s career path.

Why do you believe it is important to give back to Grand Valley?

The education I received has blessed me with skills and knowledge that have enriched my life. For me, establishing this scholarship is an act of gratitude and a way of giving back to the Grand Valley community. College is about gaining skills through pursuit of education; it creates opportunities to grow both personally and professionally. Scholarships make those opportunities accessible by removing barriers, leaving a legacy for future generations, and having a lasting impact on a better world.

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