Auto industry policy analyst credits Grinnell for giving him set of convictions

January 26, 2022 — Tom Van Heeke ’12 discovered Grinnell College by what he terms a “happy accident” involving a different Tom.

While born in the United States, Van Heeke grew up in Switzerland and the United Kingdom. His father knew of Tom Cech ’70, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, and remembered that he attended a liberal arts college. Both of Van Heeke’s parents encouraged him to look into U.S. colleges, most specifically Cech’s alma mater. 

“It’s kind of wild that I never visited Grinnell before attending,” Van Heeke recalls. “But I had a good vibe about the place from what I read online and through mailed materials. When I arrived in Grinnell, I immediately knew it was the right choice.” 

Tom Van Heeke ’12, right, and his wife, Lauren O’Hair ’12, are pictured on a peak in Lassen National Park in California last summer.
Tom Van Heeke ’12, right, and his wife, Lauren O’Hair ’12, are pictured on a peak in Lassen National Park in California last summer. 

During a new student welcome address, Van Heeke was struck by a statement that most students choose Grinnell despite its location, which cultivates a uniquely intentional community. And while Van Heeke himself is a fan of the big sky and small-town vibe, he saw this phenomenon playing out. “It created an interesting and thoughtful cohort of students with whom to experience being 18-22 years old together. These friendships continue, and I often connect with people I met those first days at Grinnell.” 

A political science major at Grinnell, Van Heeke went on to obtain his master’s in public policy at the University of Michigan. This launched a career focused on environmental public policy. Van Heeke always had a passion for social justice, but Grinnell “got me to the starting line of my career by giving me a set of convictions around how the world ought to be tempered by the reality about how the world is.” 

He was influenced by the faculty members in the political science department along with history professor Sarah Purcell ’92. “I have spent a lot of my career writing for a living,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t have gotten my foot in the door as a policy research analyst if Sarah Purcell hadn’t torn apart my first essay drafts.”  

As 2012 class fund director along with Samantha Braman ’12, Van Heeke still serves the alma mater that prepared him so well. When the CFD position opened in 2015, Van Heeke said it felt like a natural extension of what he was already doing as a volunteer for the admission office through the former Grinnell Regional Admission Support Program (GRASP).  

Already friends in college, Tom and Samantha work well together, taking turns writing appeal letters and divvying up outreach responsibilities. “We are both in the same boat with busy lives,” he explains. “So together we find ways to keep the CFD work afloat.” He appreciates experiencing the impact of their work. “It’s tangible. You can really see the dollars raised and where they go.” The most meaningful fund supported by members of his class is named for a classmate, Armando “Mando” Montaño ’12, who was killed tragically soon after graduation. The fund supports the Writers@Grinnell program in memory of Mando’s dedication to nonfiction and fiction writing, journalism, and the creative process.

Now residing in Detroit with his wife, Lauren O’Hair ’12, Van Heeke is a policy analyst for Rivian, a California start-up that fills a much-needed niche manufacturing electric SUVs and trucks. He feels fortunate to be with a company making “exciting and impactful products for the right reasons.”  

Starting his career at Frontier Group, an environmental think tank for grassroots campaign groups, Van Heeke focused on local transportation and environmental issues. He then took a job with GM working on policy considerations related to urban mobility and the company’s response to climate change. 

“I would never have imagined at 23 I’d be working in the auto industry, but it’s crucial for the industry to make these changes to hit climate goals,” he says. Ironically, while at GM, he would bike to work because he didn’t own a car. Now he works remotely, but his preferred mode of transport is still a bike. They also own a hybrid electric vehicle and encounter charging challenges with no garage or off-street parking. “We are trying to shrink our footprint while also living the reality of the barriers facing most people considering this cleaner alternative.” 

Thinking about his Grinnell days, Van Heeke feels fortunate to have had this particular undergraduate experience. “I’m a better person today because of people I met at Grinnell, both professors and students,” he concludes. “In college, you are so malleable, and who you are surrounded by is so critical.”

— by Melanie Drake ’92

For your information:

Learn more about becoming a class fund director by contacting Mary Zug, assistant director of annual giving, at or 641-269-4554, or visiting the CFD web page.

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