Published July 31, 2017
Abby LaPlaca and Kayleigh Reed would be exceptional UB students even if they were not writing their own stories on the power of global scholarship.
Called the “epitome” of a Fulbright winner before she left, LaPlaca was an award-winning Latin dancer, UB Presidential Scholar and student speaker at the 2015 University Commencement.
Boren Scholarship winner Kayleigh Reed’s university success story grew from the time a high school guidance counselor told her she wasn’t cut out for the academic bigtime. Since then, she has compiled a 3.878 grade-point average, become a pathfinder in UB’s Asian Studies Program, earned the distinction of “rising star” in UB’s Classics Department.
Consider their latest incarnations. Returning from international fellowships — LaPlaca in January and Reed in May, each with stories of challenges as well as pleasant memories — they are vivid examples of the transforming powers of a Fulbright, Boren, Marshall or any of a number of prestigious awards championed by UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships.
It’s not easy, and it’s not for the faint of heart. But count LaPlaca and Reed as two examples of why those in Fellowships and Scholarships urge UB’s outstanding students to enter the demanding application process for these marquee scholarships and fellowships.
“These trips are not vacations to the beach,” notes Elizabeth Colucci, coordinator of UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships.
“These students are not afraid of putting themselves in uncomfortable situations. If you are afraid of doing that, you are probably not going to apply for these awards. But for those students who go through the challenging process, do the fellowship and survive, you tell yourself, ‘I can do anything.’”
Colucci’s office has had clear and measurable success. This year, UB produced seven Fulbright winners, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, as well as an alternate. The university has never had more than three in a single year.
And two UB students this year were awarded Boren Scholarships, which support international study for undergraduate students with an emphasis on learning foreign languages. UB has only had three Boren winners during the past five years.
It’s a road that brings an academic adventure that can change students’ lives, refocus how they see themselves, their country and the world, and give them experiences other UB students can only imagine. And — as LaPlaca and Reed make clear — the impact it leaves is as individual as the scholar.
“Oh yeah, I would do it again,” says Reed, who will start her senior year this fall majoring in English, Asian studies and classics. Reed, who just turned 21, will tell you straight away her Boren voyage launched her on an unlikely transition from a life of “daytrips to Canada to 12 months in India.”
“I learned so much from it,” she says. “I learned so much from other people who led lives that were completely different from mine, and that was so refreshing. I feel like so many people from Buffalo are living in a bubble. And for a long time, I did, as well.
“I wanted to go abroad because I felt it was important to see the world.”
That unqualified answer that she would do it again carries a lot of weight. Her 12 months in India were difficult, to say the least. Take the extreme disillusionment and sometimes outrage she felt over the culturally embedded discrimination in India and how it impeded her research plans. Then add some serious illnesses, including a hospital stay during which she was “just too overwhelmed to be scared.”
Reed spent most of those 12 months in the Indian cities of Delhi, Lucknow and Calcutta. She also spent many hours sitting at Sufi shrines on the outskirts of Varanasi, where she interviewed rural women who had come to pray, some staying with their families as long as 40 days. Many clearly had never seen an American before. They were puzzled when Reed told them there was no caste system in the U.S. They would not talk to her without the permission of the male head of household.
Reed said she had been nervous going to Madison, Wis., for the pre-fellowship training. So it came as no surprise that there were times when she looked around her surroundings in India and asked herself, “Oh God, what have I done?”
“I had never seen poverty, really,” Reed says. “I’m talking about people living on the street their whole lives. Their whole lives. Not like children walking around on the streets. These were people defecating into gutters because that was all they had. Where else? Out in the open in front of everybody. Women walked around barefoot because they didn’t have money for shoes.”
Reed spent several days in a hospital after suffering a painful, debilitating gastro-intestinal problem triggered by the water. She drank a customary drink called Rooh Afza that Indians mix to recognize Ramzan, the Urdu name for Ramadan. While visiting a Muslim teacher’s home, a child offered Reed and a friend a homemade version of the ceremonial drink. To refuse would have been a major insult. She quickly got very sick. She spent hours in a hospital surrounded by people who did not speak English, an experience that left her feeling “isolated.” Yet, she felt fortunate to have been in a private hospital where she received very good care.
Most others in India aren’t so privileged, she says. When she was teaching English to children in Calcutta, an epidemic broke out. “I would hear about someone’s mother being sick,” she says, “and then that child is gone. ‘His mother is sick,’ they would tell me. ‘He has to take care of her.’
“The child is 10 years old and is now taking care of his mother. For a year, sometimes two, because his mother is dying of tuberculosis.”
Reed, who studies intercultural communication, also remembers how her host mother in Varanasi would not touch the servants in her home. When giving them money, she would hold it over their hands and drop it. If anything fell to the floor, the servants picked it up.
All those experiences are only part of the story. As jarring and formative as India’s renowned poverty and enduring religious customs were, Reed took away a deep appreciation of the spiritual joy and deep family commitment of many she met.
“I think the most joyful moments arose from spending time with my host family, new Indian and American friends, and my teachers,” Reed says. “Getting chaat with my program staff, exploring temples and mosques and monasteries, going to dinner parties and practicing my Urdu, that kind of thing.”
Chai breaks, sometimes as many as five or six a day, gave her opportunities to “slow down, talk to the people around me and enjoy life.”
“I grew up a lot,” Reed says. “A friend of mine compared it to the story of the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama. The legend about him is that he lived in his castle his whole childhood and young adult life. His father, as the king, would not let him leave so that he wouldn’t see poverty, suffering, illness and death.
“One day he decided, ‘I’m going to leave. I’m going to leave the castle and my father can’t stop me.’ He left the castle, and then he realized all the suffering that was in the world.
“I think that kind of happened to me.”
LaPlaca, 24, could recount climatic exploratory experiences before she won her Fulbright Scholarship and spent 12 months teaching English to students and teachers in Panama City. But where does she start now?
She climbed Volcan Baru, an active volcano and the highest peak in Panama. After 12 hours of hiking, she stood at one of the few places in the world you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the same view.
She flew to Uruguay, near the tip of South America, where she encouraged other Fulbright scholars to have the courage and faith to “say yes” to life, even when something sounds off the beaten path. You never know where it will lead or whom you will meet, she told her colleagues.
The first few months were “incredibly difficult,” LaPlaca says. “My lowest days were the lowest I have ever been in my life, where I just didn’t want to have any social interaction.”
It took time to build relationships with the teachers who could invite her into their classrooms, and to earn the trust of the teachers she wanted in her seminars. She didn’t have a job description: Fulbright scholars are given the challenge and the opportunity to determine their own path.
LaPlaca had a daily 50-minute commute from her apartment — often in 90-degree temperatures and high humidity — that included “walking and taking buses and walking and walking more.” The garbage smells along the way became landmarks indicating when to change her route.
Then there were the accepted ways Panamanians deal with women. She’d note the most creative catcalls, sent by drivers careening through the chaotic traffic, and then share them with her teachers and fellow researchers.
But there was a distinct turning point when she started to feel like she belonged. It started on her first trip into the jungle, and really came together when she went back, this time deeper into the jungle.
LaPlaca met a young Panamanian man who worked for a U.S. nonprofit called Courts for Kids that builds basketball courts or soccer fields for small, indigenous Panamanian communities. She went with him for the weekend, staying with his family, riding around in motorized canoes and watching the elaborate and painstaking body painting customary for the native Embera people. She loved it. It spoke to something basic inside her about being needed and accepted, and earning that acceptance.
Soon there was another opportunity to go back into the jungle, this time even further, toward an area in Colombia where U.S. Embassy officials told her she should not go. She was two and a half months into her fellowship and still feeling like she was not accomplishing what she wanted.
This was a Peace Corps project “completely off the grid.” She took a bus to the end of a road in Panama and walked down to the water. A boat took her along the coast and then a pickup truck took her further into the jungle. She got out and walked down to a river, which she forded with her bag over her head.
“It was incredible,” LaPlaca says. “It was this little community of maybe 250 people in the middle of the jungle. Their houses were these traditional houses made of thatched roofs and completely open wooden planks. They bathed in the river. In general, the women went topless, and they had this beautiful body paint, which I learned how to make and use. It was amazing to help with that. They cooked plantains and sardines and other fish they caught in the river. We stayed in their houses. And we helped them build this basketball court. There was no cell service, obviously no internet. There wasn’t even any electricity.”
LaPlaca was supposed to leave after only a few days, but she got very sick — too sick to take the boat back to Panama City.
“My host mother there made me this herbal tea. And I drank it and took a nap, and two hours later I was completely healthy. After throwing up all day and feeling so sick and being out-of-my-head feverish, I drank this tea she gave me and was completely better.”
She ended up staying nine days.
“We walked down to the river, and the woman taking care of me brought her two little children. We just sat in the river and washed the laundry on the rocks, and the kids were picking mangos, and they would just peel them and give me pieces. And it was just this sunny, beautiful afternoon under the trees.
LaPlaca called it one of the best afternoons of her life.
“I needed to be cut off from contacting home, contacting people back here. It made me feel like I had a purpose again, for me to be connected to the service project.”
She experienced a strong, profound sense of connection with the people in that village, something that will always be part of her.
“That trip formed a deeper and different connection,” LaPlaca says. “It happens when you spend time with people, but under more intense circumstances, when you both have a mission and a purpose going forward.”