While the announcement last week of the prestigious fellowships and grants, such as the Fulbright Scholarship and the Davis United World College Scholars 100 Projects for Peace, featured heavily on Vassar alumnae/i, one senior, Gabriel Dunsmith, also received the Udall Scholarship for his work in the field of environmental studies. In total, eight Vassar alumnae/i received Fulbright Fellowships for the 2014-2015 academic year and five members of last year’s graduating class earned other honors for work in such areas as geoscience and Chinese language study. This recent slew of recipients carries on the tradition of high numbers of award-winning graduates, as at the end of last year, 11 graduating seniors received Fulbright Fellowships. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2013 Vassar ranked fifth-highest in educating Fulbright Scholars as compared to other institutions of higher education.
The Udall Scholarship is granted each year by the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation by the United States Congress to students at institutions of higher education to assist future academic pursuits. Dunsmith is one of 80 students awarded scholarships this year. This foundation is only one of five federally funded foundations created by Congress.
The scholarship, which launched in 1992, is given in honor of long-time member of the House of Representatives Morris K. Udall, who served for 30 years and, after additional action by Congress in 2009, Stewart L. Udall, who represented the 2nd district of Arizona in the House for three terms and served as Secretary of the Interior under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. When Morris K. Udall retired from Congress due to illness, his attempts to foster bipartisanship led to a special session of Congress in which 75 members of Congress from both parties spoke in his honor. This level of commitment to inspiring change is central to the scholarship fund. According to a press release by the College, “The Udall is given to college students who have demonstrated a commitment to careers relating to the environment including policy, engineering, science, education urban planning and renewal, business, health, justice, economics and other related fields.”
Dunsmith’s continued engagement with the connections between environmental and social justice led to his receiving the award. According to Dunsmith, his interest in issues of toxic exposure began when he became aware of a toxic Superfund site roughly one mile from his home in Asheville, North Carolina. Dunsmith wrote in an emailed statement, “An electroplating company had dumped the noxious chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) at their facility for years, but few folks in the area knew of the contamination. TCE has polluted people’s wells, groundwater, soil and air, and has caused significant rates of cancer in the area. For the past several years, I’ve been attending community meetings and advocating for cleanup of the toxic site.”
Dunsmith believes that he received the Udall Scholarship in large part to his activism on campus over the last three years. During his sophomore year, Dunsmith co-founded Vassar’s Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, an off-shoot of the Vassar Greens student organization, and also led a successful effort to get the College to stop spraying a highly toxic pesticide on its land.
Dunsmith hopes to write his thesis on the intersections between contemplation and the environment. While unsure of a specific career path, Dunsmith is entertaining a variety of career options related to environmental justice. Dunsmith said, “My interests range from environmental journalism to herbal healing, from community organizing to forest preservation. Environmental Studies has certainly broadened my career interests, as I’ve been introduced to a host of environmental work while at Vassar.”
He continued, “No matter what I end up doing after school, I want to find ways to make tangible my connection to the land, whether that’s through gardening or hiking, writing or activism.”
While the awarding of this scholarship may appear to only benefit Dunsmith, the scholar explained that the Udall Scholarship will have a broader impact than just on himself. Dunsmith explained, “The scholarship is important because it recognizes the work that young folks are doing across the country to rectify environmental wrongs and push for an equitable, sustainable world.”
He continued, “A large focus of the Udall Foundation is also on Native American healthcare and tribal policy, so it’s also a wonderful platform to connect with Native communities and engage in a lot of the thornier sides of U.S. policy.”
Beyond Vassar’s campus, eight students received Fulbright Fellowships to continue their research in a variety of fields. The Fulbright Program is the international educational exchange program sponsored by the United States government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people of other countries throughout the world. An annual appropriation is made by the U.S. Congress to the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Recipients of Fulbright grants are selected on the basis of academic or professional achievement as well as demonstrated leadership in their potential fields.
Each year Vassar College supports as many as 40 applicants for Fulbright grants and recipients are chosen by the National Screening Committee.