Lang Opportunity Scholars

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Photo courtesy of the Lang Center

“I was really nervous,” Adam Bortner ’12 said, about presenting his Lang Opportunity Scholarship proposal in front of a panel of seven. “A lot was riding on this. I might have access to these resources to really do some good in the world.”

“I was just so overjoyed when I got that email,” he said.

All six of this year’s new Lang Scholars surely have at least this in common, though their goals are vastly different. The scholarship provides funding and other support for students to develop a project over the course of their junior and senior years. From Bortner’s digital storytelling initiative to Sarah Schueb’s sustainable agriculture project based in San Francisco, Peru, the class of 2012 Lang Scholars are just beginning those projects.

Once the excitement of being awarded this honor dies down, however, the real work sets in; work that is intimidating but will be, they expect, fulfilling. “As I’ve done more and more research, it’s seemed more and more daunting. I was really starting to panic over break,” Tom Liu said.

Liu’s project will attempt to bring low-cost cataract surgery and health care information to rural China. Most people who suffer from cataracts are those with the least access to treatment, Liu said; “The access to health care is not evenly distributed.”

Bortner’s digital storytelling project also deals, indirectly, with health care. He spent last summer as a Chester Community Fellow working at the AIDS Care Group. Through telling the stories of people living with HIV/AIDS, he hopes to lessen the stigma of the disease.

“It made me realize the importance of knowing people, and not just treating their sickness like something within a machine, as if their body was just a machine. You have to really look at people with their human dignity all intact,” Bortner said.

All six scholars are starting to dig deep into the process of finding internships for the summer, to help them build skills they will need in implementing their projects. Bortner spent the end of his winter break at a digital storytelling workshop, where he learned how to facilitate “story circles” so that patients could tell their stories as a group, spreading awareness and a sense of community.

Rebekah Judson’s Digital Literacy project seeks to spread community awareness through a better implementation of technology in schools. She spoke to the Gazette about how she hopes to help close the “digital divide” in underprivileged schools in South Bronx in both her year spent serving that community through City Year and her Lang project.

Judson wants both to increase middle school children’s digital literacy and to make their community more vibrant by “mapping” it on the internet, so that outsiders become more aware of their neighbors.

Stephanie Rodriguez is also trying to add vibrancy to Chester communities by introducing young women to their creative side. She plans to open a Writing Center that will include classes in creative writing and basic writing skills and start a poetry slam team, which she hopes will give young women a sense of pride in their community.

“There’s a lot of historical value in Chester they don’t know about…I want to make them feel that they love Chester,” Rodriguez said.

Scheub and Lizah Masis are going international for their projects. Scheub plans to split her summer between learning about sustainable agricultural practices in the U.S. and going to Peru, to experience the culture and improve her Spanish. She plans to build on Diego Garcia Montufar’s 2009 waste management project: she wants to teach the community of San Francisco, Peru how to use their compost to create a more successful agricultural system.

Masis, on the other hand, will build on her personal experience in her community of Mt. Elgon, Kenya. She plans to help women take out micro loans to help them support themselves, after conflicts in the region left the women without the traditional male providers.

Masis’s own mother used such a loan to open up a shop so she could provide for their family — that was Masis’s inspiration. “Before that,” Masis said, “we survived on the bare minimum.” She is currently participating in workshops dealing with how to lend money and teach the women about finance and business.

Most evident in all six scholars is the personal connection and investment they have made so early in the process. “I realized I was more passionate than I expected to be,” Judson said of developing her Digital Literacy proposal. “I threw all of my big ideas in.”

Rodriguez, who was inspired to start the Writing Center by Dare to Soar as well as her own experiences with writing, was fervent about the importance of helping the young women of Chester. “I grew up in a very similar situation to the students of Chester. I was in middle school and that moment [discovering writing] made me choose scholarship. It’s a hard choice to make when you’re young and you have to protect yourself, and the only way you know how to do that is to give up education and take on…an attitude, a tough identity,” she said.

Without her eighth grade creative writing teacher, Rodriguez said, “I wouldn’t be at Swarthmore today.” Creative writing is a way to connect young women to education, to promote self-expression and to curb violence, she said.

Masis’s micro loan project seeks to serve the women of her Kenyan community who cannot provide financially for their children. A conflict over land begun by the nationalization of one side of Mt. Elgon lead to the arrest or killing of many husbands, brothers and sons.

“The need is evident,” Masis said, “there is no single financial institution. There’s no bank, there’s no nothing.”

Seeing the potential to create hope is something the Lang Scholars also have in common. Bortner has done this through the sharing of his 3-5 minute digital stories of HIV/AIDS patients created in Chester last summer. He called the process therapeutic for the patients, and said the work of making them was “meaningful and important” both for himself and for the Chester community.

Bortner’s defining experience so far was a patient, who upon bouncing back from Intensive Care soon after their digital story was released said to him, “You’re my son, now.”

Scheub’s and Liu’s projects draw on their personal experiences as well. Liu lived in China until the age of five and wants to increase his awareness of his cultural heritage. Scheub lives in rural Ohio and has a passion for both farming and animals; she hopes use her knowledge and interest in agriculture to benefit the people of San Francisco, Peru, while preserving their indigenous culture.

Liu was inspired by his involvement in Global Neighbors, which tackles health care issues in China, while Scheub looks to Heifer International, which donates animals to profit villages, for a successful model for aid.

The 2012 Lang Scholars are just starting to find their footing for the first leg of their projects, a summer internship and a plan of action. All are faced with the task of making the world a better place, a task both daunting and uplifting.

“Up to this point most of the work I did was in the classroom or through a textbook. I am hoping to expand my perspective on how things work in the real world,” said Liu.

This will mean forming contacts, making partnerships with non-government organizations and communities, and the kind of hands-on work Liu and the other scholars are looking to do. All of the scholars hope to make their projects sustainable — so they can continue to help these communities long after they’ve graduated.

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