When Natalie van Dongen ’18 describes her passion for the environment, she’s not referring to climate change, clean air, or protecting forests. She’s concerned with how one’s environment can influence how other people treat them.
“Certain socioeconomic groups are treated differently based on their environment or place in the community,” she said. “For example, wealthy and white people, frankly, have access to better food systems and more organic food than lower-income and minority groups.”
Van Dongen credits her childhood for her ability to recognize these disparities. She was born in Indianapolis but grew up in the small farming town of Towanda, Illinois, with a population of just 480 at the 2010 census. Though her family never wanted for anything, it wasn’t the case for everyone in Towanda, where the median household income is under $45,000—and big stores with healthy food options are unknown.
“I was incredibly privileged growing up. I still am. And I knew if I wasn’t using that privilege to help others, I’d feel guilty,” she said. “My childhood is one that not a lot have lived. My experience is my own, and there’s a lot that can be done with it.”
In thinking about a college degree and a career, Van Dongen found herself considering the employability of her passions.
“I’m quite outspoken and really care about a lot of issues. When I was looking at what to study, I didn’t know which basket to put my eggs in,” she said. “In today’s world, you can be someone who is outspoken yet not very productive. I wanted to make sure I was putting my time and resources where my mouth is, but more than that, I wanted to do it for others.”
At first, mostly because both parents are Butler Bulldogs, she was adamantly opposed to attending Butler. But like many students, the moment she stepped on campus, she made her choice.
“There’s such a sense of community that’s unlike anything else. It’s like a neighborhood but more than that. I’ve never experienced it anywhere else. It’s a sense of solidarity and camaraderie that’s amazing.”
With the help of her professors, Van Dongen centered her academics on critical communications: The importance of messaging and rhetoric, how they can affect our understanding of the world, and how we can change the ways the world works.
Without them, Van Dongen said, she would never have been able to see a career path from combining her studies and her passions. “My professors identified strengths in me that I didn’t see in myself, and encouraged me to do academic and personal work that would help me explore them. In fact, they made me feel more comfortable in all facets of my life,” she said.
She’s now working for the City of Indianapolis, where she began as a Communications Intern. She helps callers to the Mayor’s Action Center figure out which department handles their questions and requests, giving everyone an equal voice.
Van Dongen’s Instagram profile features a quote from Paul Farmer, international health and social justice activist. “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”
Now that she’s a Butler graduate, Van Dongen is out to correct the imbalance.