Recent Vassar fellowships foster worldly wisdom abroad

by Sam Pianello
by Sam Pianello
by Sam Pianello

Your plans for next year could have been determined as early as Aug. 20, according to the ‘Important Dates’ found on Vassar’s Fellowships and Pre-Health Advising website. Students who apply for these fellowships are competing not only to gain an unforgettable experience, but also to further their own knowledge of a unique topic important to them.

Already this year, ten Vassar students and alumni, graduating from as far back as 2004, have been granted scholarship and fellowship opportunities.

Ellie Opdahl ’15 graduated as a biology major, and is currently a Research, Restoration, and Educational Outreach Post Baccalaureate Fellows for the newly established Vassar Conservation and Environmental Engagement Cooperative (VCEE-COOP).

In an emailed statement Opdahl explained, “In brief, we are working on creating a stronger conservation network in the Hudson Valley by establishing research projects, environmental education, and outreach activities on the individual, local, and regional levels.” Applying for the fellowship was a way for Opdahl to continue exploring her major. “I knew I wanted to pursue conservation biology in some form, but I wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to take,” she said. “I was applying for a number of jobs, and thought that the fellowship offered a lot of valuable opportunities for me to narrow down my interests.”

Fellowships such as Opdahl’s play an important role in spreading Vassar’s name and reputation around. Director of the Office for Fellowships and Pre-Health Advising, Lisa Kooperman, said in an emailed statement, “When folks receive awards they become part of the network of recipients, in addition to our alumni network, so yes I would say that these opportunities create lasting relationships that provide many opportunities.”

Vassar encourages students from any academic background to apply for fellowships. “Any and all majors are eligible for a variety– some fellowships are geared toward specific career paths (Goldwater-Sciences, Udall- Environment) and others are wide open like the Fulbright,” Kooperman said. It mainly depends on who the fellowships are looking for.

Updahl added, “I think fellowships are looking for recent graduates who are up for anything, willing to learn, and are excited about their position.”

Some of the fellowship recipients for this year will be traveling among specific groups of people to do research, while others have found organizations to work with. Sahara Pradhan ’15 won the 100 Projects for Peace Prize for her project entitled “Ghar Jaun” (“Let’s go home”).

“Ghar Jaun,” outlined on the Fellowships website, is an internship program for unemployed Nepalese youth who have no other career options than the harsh and unpredictable working conditions of migrant laborers. “The program will empower these young people and provide them with successful entry into the local workforce as young professionals,” according to the website. Her project will work with the Socio-Economic Welfare Center for Energetic Women (EWC), a thriving grassroots NGO.

English major Jelena Borak ’15 is using her Watson Fellowship to investigate “Peace of Mind through Storytelling.” Throughout the 2015-2016 year she will be traveling through Ireland, Belgium, Cyprus, South Africa, Nepal, South Korea and Thailand, speaking with locals about post-war reconstruction.

In her application for the fellowship she wrote, “I will explore how storytelling-or giving testimony of one’s own experiences-functions in a post-conflict society, and its possible role in healing divides between old foes, eventually leading to personal and societal healing.”

She went on to say, “By conducting interviews, documenting stories of grief and hope, and observing the transformation of relationships in these communities, I hope to discover what place storytelling has in peacebuilding efforts.”

For some, fellowships provide a door to experiences they may not have had without the fellowship. Elijah Ness ’17 in an emailed statement explained, “I wanted a chance to study abroad for both of my majors (Urban Studies and Chinese) and so I looked into summer semester options. They are expensive so I applied to the Ann Cornelisen Fellowship to fund the Qingdao program.” In order to fund his study abroad, Ness said, he needed the fellowship. “I would not have been able to go abroad this summer without the fellowship,” Ness went on to say.

In China, Ness attended the Chinese Language and Culture Intensive Summer Immersion Program at Qingdao University. When asked if he thought his future was impacted by his time in Qingdao, Ness said, “Potentially. There are a lot of factors that go into career choice but I liked my time in Qingdao and can see myself working there sometime in the future.”

Borak plans to get as much as she can out of her experience as a Watson Fellow. In her application she said, “By observing the development of intercommunity relationships, I’ll also get an opportunity to build my own connections with the people and culture, becoming a participant in my surroundings during this seven-country journey, instead of a mere observer.”

Similarly, Opdahl believes her fellowship is merely another way to connect with her biology major. “I do think that my fellowship will help me in my future career path. Conservation biology is an enormous field, and this fellowship has already allowed me to experience many facets of it”

She went on to say, “I’ve been gaining so many valuable skills from display making to activity coordinating, and what I learned here will definitely be beneficial in the long run.”

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