Defying the odds, UI Fulbright scholar Nicholas Grandstaff heads to Europe

UI student Nicholas Grandstaff had an unlikely journey to earning a Fulbright, but with this scholarship he will be heading to the Netherlands.


Andy Mitchell, News Reporter

In the early morning hours of April 19, University of Iowa student Nicholas Grandstaff received an unlikely, life-changing phone call.

Earlier that week, he had accepted an offer from a Ph.D. program at Purdue as a backup plan in case the call never came — since the odds were so slim that it would. Now, instead of spending his next couple of years at Purdue, he’ll spend them in the Netherlands.

To this point, advancing despite the odds has been the Fulbright-award winner’s modus operandi.

Grandstaff comes from Emmetsburg, Iowa, a farm town with a population of around 3,000 people. Irish immigrants had settled the town during the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s. Grandstaff grew up on a farm, where he developed an affinity for the nuts and bolts of agriculture. He laments the current crisis in corn planting across the Midwest, where weather conditions have prevented thousands of acres of corn from being planted.

“It comes pretty naturally when you don’t live next to a city every day,” Grandstaff said.

What he was really interested in, and what he was missing, was the research and development side of agriculture. He was keyed into that aspect through high-school biology, and in his sophomore year, his class wrote for the World Food Prize, which helped him see the bigger picture and Iowa’s place in global food production.

Grandstaff transferred to the UI from Iowa Lakes Community College. Going into higher education, he said, he knew he wanted to pursue a technical skill and, in the long run, work in agriculture. He opted to study economics, and graduated in 2019 with a B.B.A. in economics and a minor in mathematics.

While Iowa State University is more associated with learning about agriculture, Grandstaff opted instead for the UI because of the more diverse groups of people and backgrounds.

“There’s no place in the state that’s like Iowa City,” Grandstaff said.

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With his Fulbright award, he will travel to the Netherlands to study under the international development master’s program and the technology of the Dutch food system at Wageningen University. Grandstaff said the Dutch food industry is quite different from Iowa’s. It is also unique in that despite the country’s small size, it is the second-largest value food producer in the world.

“Bottom line, Nick is an exceptional young man,” said Professor Anne Villamil, a professor of economics at the Tippie College of Business and one of Grandstaff’s advisers.

It’s an arrangement that almost did not happen. Grandstaff made it far into the application process but fell just short of the award. He became an alternate, meaning if one of the award winners had to drop out or decline the honor, he would be the next person up. While he was an alternate for four weeks, he said, he was not optimistic about his slim chances of getting the prize.

“You don’t want to turn down a Fulbright after spending a year working on it,” Grandstaff said.

Karen Wachsmuth, the UI associate director of international fellowships, said it’s both an educational and cultural-exchange program.

“Nicholas going abroad is going to not only receive incredible benefits of a graduate school at an excellent institution, it’s that he’ll also make connections with local communities and organizations,” Wachsmuth said.

Further along, Grandstaff foresees a career solving problems with such organizations as the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Food and Agriculture Organization, tackling the challenges of food all around the world.