A Northwestern student has been named to USA Today’s All-USA College Academic Team.
Weinberg senior Alexander Hertel-Fernandez was one of 20 undergraduate students named to the All-USA College Academic First Team and will receive $2,500 for his academic achievements and activities outside of the classroom.
More than 500 students applied for one of the first team or 40 runner-up second- and third-team spots.
NU has had 14 college team winners in the past 10 years, but Fernandez is NU’s sixth first-team winner.
Director of the Office of Fellowships Sara Vaux said the competition is very selective.
“They’re looking for not only intellectual firepower, but also abilities beyond the classroom, especially that benefit society,” she said.
Fernandez, who speaks Spanish fluently, spent nine months in Chile last year where he worked at the World Health Organization researching child mortality rates. His study found that certain cities, regions and socioeconomic populations in Chile suffered from inequalities in health.
“Chile has had a radical decrease in infant mortality rates over the past 50 years, but among the disadvantaged population the rate has remained stagnant or increased,” he said.
Fernandez’s findings and recommendations to reduce child deaths have been published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization and the Health Affairs journals.
Political science professor Ben Schneider said Fernandez’s work is at a graduate student level.
“He’s very courageous,” said Schneider, who is Fernandez’s academic advisor. “He will take on big tasks and large goals and will do his best to complete them.”
Fernandez said he wasn’t always interested in public health, but became interested after taking political science classes and attending campus lectures.
“I was gung-ho about science at first, I wanted to work in a lab and go to grad school,” he said. “I realized I was interested in the application of science rather than the science itself. Studying abroad solidified (that interest).”
Fernandez’s humanitarian work also helped him better understand public health issues. His work in a Chilean public clinic allowed him to see “both sides” of the issue, he said.
“Working with statistics, reports, crunching numbers, gave it an abstract view, while working at a (clinic) gave it a human face and humanized the experience,” he said. “It’s far too easy to become detached.”
He also received undergraduate research grants and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute research fellowship.
“He is the most fascinating discussion partner,” Vaux said. “He speaks this humanitarian language in a very personal way, people just want to sign up and follow him wherever he goes.”
After graduation, Fernandez will work as a field director for the Service Employees International Union Local 880, which works for child and home health care workers.
“He is a marvelous example of what college students can actually accomplish,” Vaux said.