Meet D.J. Vanderwerf
Sophomore exercise science major D.J. Vanderwerf trains and shows miniature horses at his family’s home in Sweetwater, and grew up as an athlete, playing quarterback for his high school football team and walking onto the Buccaneer football team the fall of his freshman year. He gives tours to prospective students as a member of ETSU’s Admissions Ambassadors. Many folks are amazed, for he does all of this walking and running on a prosthetic leg. But for D.J., who has had a prosthetic since he was 11 months old after an amputation due to the birth defect of fibular hemimelia, this is normal, everyday life, and, in fact, plays a role in the path he envisions for his future.
Q: Tell us about growing up in a farming family.
A: I’ve always lived on a farm. Even when I was in Florida, we had a small farm before we moved up to Tennessee. We have a 30-acre farm that we live on. We have around 13 or so horses, dogs, cats. We grow our own hay on our farm, and have our own garden. We raise miniature horses, and we train them to show, so that keeps me busy on weekends and off days.
I wouldn’t trade living on a farm for anywhere else. I just love it. My mom’s always had horses. Dad had farm animals – he had cows, and pigs and goats. It’s just something we’ve always been interested in, and I love doing it.
Q: What was your experience like as a walk-on member of the Buccaneer football team?
A: I walked on as a quarterback, because that’s what I played in high school. It was a really great experience. Not many people can say they’ve been on a college sports team, so that was my goal, ever since I was young. I wanted to play a college sport, so I definitely was able to achieve that, and it was pretty cool to do it at ETSU, where they were just starting football back up. The guys up here – they’re great.
Being an athlete with a prosthetic leg, to me, has been the norm. It’s really influenced who I am; it’s been a big part of who I am. My parents always instilled in me to never say “I can’t” just because I have a prosthetic limb. I’ve had it since I was a baby, so I’ve never known anything different. It’s everyday life for me. A lot of people are amazed by it, but it’s nothing different.
Q: How did you decide on your major of exercise science?
A: I knew I wanted to go into prosthetics when I came here, so I have to have anatomy, biology, and things like that for the graduate training I’ll need, which is all about prosthetics – how they make them, how they work, different types of amputations and what all is needed to supply a patient with a prosthesis. It’s a specialized curriculum. But also having a prosthetic myself, and I like to exercise and play sports … I figure it’s the best of both worlds. I get to learn how the body functions during exercise, but I also get to cover the curriculum for the graduate school that I want to go to.
I want to provide awareness for prosthetics. A lot of people don’t know about it. It’s an uncommon thing that many people don’t understand and may not know. There are a lot of misconceptions about it. I want to help broaden the horizons for that. Mainly, I want to help people. I want to give back to people who haven’t had as good an opportunity as I have, who haven’t been dealt the same cards as I have.
Q: Are you already doing some work in that field?
A: In Nashville, where I get my prosthetic made, I’ll go up there for two or three weeks in the summer and just help out in the shop or the clinic – just take it all in. Sometimes I see patients with the prosthetists there. I try to help them out because they’ve helped me so much.
Q: How has serving as an Admissions Ambassador at ETSU helped you?
A: It’s been a really great experience, getting to meet new people from all over and tell them how great the campus is. It broadens your horizons and helps with public speaking. When we start out on the tours, we introduce ourselves and speak a bit about ourselves to the big group of people in the conference room, and then speak to the small groups that we break into. It really helps, talking to somebody you haven’t met before.
Q: We understand you often volunteer with the Admissions Ambassadors during Craft Night at Lakebridge Nursing Home. Tell us a bit about that.
A: It’s fun to get to go and help make crafts with the seniors. They’re pretty fun to be around. They tell you funny stories and stuff like that. It’s fun just to help people or brighten their day, or do something for them that might not normally get done. It’s just a nice thing to do.