September 2015 Features

Around the World

DelyNow that they’ve graduated, four award-winning members of the Class of 2015 are literally making their way in the world as, among them, they journey to a total of 13 countries on four different continents.

With funding from the Watson Foundation and the David L. Boren Scholarship program, the quartet of newly minted alumnae are spending their post-baccalaureate year in an impressive array of pursuits.

In Tanzania, Rebekah Adams ’15 is learning Swahili, and in Kazakhstan, Mikayla Holland ’15 is mastering Russian. Meanwhile, in far-flung countries around the globe, Camilla Dely ’15 and Ekaterina Vlasova ’15 are, respectively, exploring the interplay between culture and women’s artistic practices, and investigating the impact of mind-body practices on health.

The Watson Fellowship provides a rare window of time, pre-career, for recipients to engage their deepest interest on a worldwide scale. Given a one-year stipend, fellows conceive original projects and execute them outside the United States; they decide where to go, who to meet, and when to change course.

Sponsored by the National Security Education Program (NSEP), David L. Boren Scholarships provide U.S. undergraduates with resources and encouragement to acquire language skills and experience in countries critical to U.S. security and stability. A major federal initiative, NSEP is designed to build a broader, more qualified pool of citizens with foreign-language and international skills. In exchange for their funding, Boren recipients agree to work in the federal government for a period of at least one year.

The Smartest Risk

Growing up in South Africa, Camilla Dely ’15 (above) never thought much about a life in the theater.

“In South Africa the arts are poorly supported by both the public and the government, and it was only when I came to the United States that I was exposed to the world of theater outside of Broadway touring productions,” she explains.

But in 2012, when Dely had the opportunity to study clowning with Bryn Mawr alumna and independent theater artist Charlotte Ford ’02, it changed her life. “Studying clown with Charlotte has remained one of my most challenging and rewarding adventures. I learned lessons that proved vital to me as a performer and that have influenced me far beyond the theater,” she says. “I believe that to fail on stage is a truly incredible thing because it demands an enormous amount of vulnerability. For me, taking risks in performance has made making smart risks in life possible.”

Dely’s latest smart risk comes in the form of a Watson Fellowship, which is taking her from Sweden to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, and Brazil.

A theater major at Bryn Mawr, Dely is spending her Watson year examining the particular societal structures that shape women’s lives and art in each country she is visiting. For each stop, she has identified a specific woman whose artistic work and life particularly inspires her and who, she hopes, will serve as a starting point for her investigation. Through them, she hopes to connect with other women artists who, though working in the same culture, have built their lives in very different ways.

“To me, being an artist means a repeated plunge into the unknown, demanding curiosity, rigor, and, above all, courage,” says Dely. “Every woman making theater in the world is working in a system of specific cultural and social conventions that shape how she is able to create her art and build her life as a woman.”

The Melting Pot

HollandMikayla Holland ’15 took up Russian with the goal of reading her favorite novels in the original. “I came to love Russian culture through literature like Crime and Punishment and The Master and Margarita,” she says.
“After enrolling in Beginning Russian,” she explains, “I discovered that few things fascinated me like the complex grammar and sheer aural beauty of the Russian language.”

This year, as a Boren Scholar, Holland is honing her Russian at Al-Farabi National Kazakh University. There she is studying in the Flagship Language Program, which includes intensive classes for second-language learners, direct enrollment in the university, homestays with Kazakh families, and an internship at a local organization.

“Central Asia is a fascinating melting pot of cultures, connecting Asia, Russia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East,” she explains. “Learning to navigate the cultural complexity of the region will improve my cultural fluency. In addition, the different accents, dialects, and languages will present their own challenges linguistically that will make my mastery of Russian more flexible, adaptable, and fluent.”

Her studies, especially an academic year abroad in Moscow during the 2013–14 school year, kindled a late-blooming fascination with politics and current events, and a recent vacation to Kiev, Ukraine, during the violent protests there only increased her interest.

“Understanding volatile political situations such as the one in Ukraine requires on-the-ground knowledge, extensive reading in several languages, and an understanding of the historical and cultural context of the situation,” says Holland. “I began to realize that I could do more with my training than translate texts in a university; I could use my skills to help fight crime, stabilize relations between the United States and Russia, or help immigrants in need find better lives for themselves.”

The Lesson of Her Journey

Katia Vlasova“From childhood, my fondest memories were of spending summers in the countryside of St. Petersburg, immersed in a serene Russian forest in the summertime,” says Ekaterina Vlasova ’15. “Tagging alongside my mother, I would venture into the seemingly endless space of silence and stillness, amidst the immensely tall pines and birch trees.”

Now, biology major Vlasova has received a Watson Fellowship to examine the role such moments play in our physical health. During her Watson year, Vlasova is staying in communities of contemplation and healing in Germany, Japan, Thailand, Bhutan, India, and Peru. “We must shift from the treatment paradigm to that of prevention,” she explains. “By engaging with mind-body practices within contemplative communities, I hope to learn how other cultures of healing approach questions of illness and health, and how mindfulness can be used as a form of preventative medicine.”

Although fueled by her time at Bryn Mawr, particularly in the Contemplative Traditions 360° course, Vlasova’s interest in the topic had its roots in her early life. “My love of biology and fascination with understanding health first began with the close connection I feel to nature, which was always encouraged by my mother, a devoted botanist,” she explains.

Vlasova remembers her mother’s struggle with cancer—not just with the illness itself, but with the resistance she encountered when she studied alternatives to traditional Western treatments. “The lesson of her journey was not lost on me,” her daughter explains. “The lack of support came not from lack of care but from the stubborn refusal to consider alternative philosophies toward healing with an open mind.”

A Shot of Redemption

BWRebekah-2As a 16-year-old living with her family in Kampala, Uganda, Rebekah Adams ’15 got a firsthand lesson in how ethnic affiliations can be manipulated to stoke social divisions.

In 2010, a fire, origins unknown, broke out at the Kasubi Tombs, near her family’s home. That fire devastated the royal burial grounds of four Bugandan kings and inflamed already heated tensions between the Buganda people and the government. Later, as security forces cleared the site for a presidential visit, riots broke out.

“Development is crucial to regional stability, but social division—as erupted in the aftermath of the Kasubi Tombs fire—threatens this stability,” says Adams, who has been awarded a Boren Scholarship to study Swahili in Tanzania. “Ethnic diversity, however, is not the cause of division; socioeconomic inequality and political marginalization stemming from divisive colonial ruling policies is the cause for conflict.”

A sociology major and Africana Studies minor, Adams studied at the University of Cape Town during a semester abroad and, funded by the Teresita Sparre Currie ’43 Memorial Scholarship, engaged in community development work in Dalun, Ghana.

And, of course, her academic studies deepened her understanding of the region. “I was astonished,” she says. “Although I had spent nearly 15 years in Uganda and Kenya, I knew only a very incomplete history of the continent. My experiences in East Africa finally made sense.”

“When I got to Bryn Mawr,” Adams explains, “I was terribly homesick. Swahili became my tool to reconnect with home and presented an important chance for redemption for me. My biggest regret after living in Uganda my whole life was that I never learned Luganda. Learning Swahili gave me the chance to fix that.”

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