In its 10 years of existence, the Raoul Wallenberg Fellowship at the University of Michigan has become one of the most prestigious self-designed, independent study-abroad projects for students.
From Kenya and India to South Africa and Peru, nine U-M graduating seniors — one each year since 2013 — have had the opportunity to study abroad, immerse themselves in a new culture and go beyond a purely academic experience.
“The Wallenberg Fellowship was designed to be a transformational experience,” said John Godfrey, assistant dean at the Rackham Graduate School. “It has to be independent. It has to be intentional. It has to be self-designed. It has to allow the fellow to develop their resilience, to change their direction, to make choices and to find their way in the world.”
For Godfrey, chair of the committee that plans the annual Wallenberg Medal and Lecture and that established the fellowship, the underlying premise of the program is to enable someone who has an instinctive curiosity and a willingness to engage and learn about the lives of others.
“My experience was fundamentally transformative to who I am, what I do, where I do it,” said Zachary Petroni, the first Wallenberg Fellow. “It’s all about exposure and widening the lens, frames through which one sees the world and understands their positionality therein. How to situate yourself in a new and different setting, with different people, culture, languages, and accomplish a goal therein as well as building long and strong relationships with people.”
Petroni spent his fellowship year in Kenya in 2013. He studied how different approaches to conservation governance influenced conservation outcomes for local populations. In the last seven years, Petroni has spent time in the United States, United Kingdom and Nigeria, and currently lives in Nairobi, where he co-founded an automotive marketplace called Peach.
“It’s been a continuous journey of trying to make sense of where I’m at and what I’m doing, both while I’m in the moment and more broadly,” he said. “But I can say I wouldn’t be here today — literally here, in Nairobi — if it weren’t for the fellowship, nor would I be the person I am today without it.
“We spend far too much time in classrooms thinking we’re ‘learning’ and requiring those structures to be in place for us to be receptive to new ideas. Instead, get up, get out and go do. Sure, you’ll make mistakes, but that’s part of the process. And this process is what learning really is all about.”
Inspired by the spirit of U-M alumnus Raoul Wallenberg who coordinated the rescue of tens of thousands of Jews in World War II, the Wallenberg Fellowship was established in 2012. It is awarded in the spring of each year to a graduating senior of exceptional promise and accomplishment who is committed to service and the public good. The fellowship provides $25,000 to carry out an independent project of learning or exploration anywhere in the world during the year after graduation.
LSA alumna Lily Bonadonna was awarded the fellowship in 2014 and traveled to Peru to study the social causes of tuberculosis prevalence in Lima.
“It was transformational, literally, no exaggeration,” Bonadonna said. “It’s hard to distill down all of the amazing experiences I had that year and beyond. I ended up staying in Peru for one-and-a-half years after the fellowship ended.”
Bonadonna followed community health workers to the homes of people with tuberculosis and conducted extended interviews about their lives and illness. She then learned how “exceedingly difficult” it is to finish treatment for TB in the country, having to conduct at least six months of directly observed therapy in-clinic.
“A lot of the neighborhoods were very strained from resources — some without running water — and you can imagine that in those circumstances, people have to prioritize working over receiving medicines,” she said.
Those conversations had helped her decide to go into medicine and planted the seed for possibly studying infectious disease. Bonadonna started medical school at Wayne State University in 2018 and is now in her last year.
“I am currently applying to internal medicine residencies. I want to pursue a fellowship in infectious diseases afterward, or possibly an HIV primary care pathway,” she said.
“The Wallenberg Fellowship definitely prepared me well for a career mindful of social determinants of health. I consider it a foundational year where my passions really blossomed. The year gave me confidence. It helped me realize I am capable.”
Artistic activism in India
2016 Wallenberg Fellow Meredith Starkman said no single event in her life impacted her as significantly as receiving the Wallenberg Fellowship.
“There was my life before my time in India and after it,” she said.
In addition to facilitating drama and writing workshops in prisons and youth community centers in Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore, Starkman played soccer with other writers, artists and Bollywood actors on a minor league team in Mumbai.
“My friendships led me to act in a number of commercials across the country and a Bollywood film before my year was over,” she said.
Currently, Starkman is an actor, writer and political organizer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her professional — and social life — has been shaped mainly by her year in India, she said. She has written extensively about her time there and it’s become a prominent feature in her art and poetry.
“It’s helped me to make meaningful relationships with other political organizers in New York,” she said. “What I loved most about the fellowship was that it wasn’t stringent about what you were or weren’t allowed to do. The point of traveling and working in the spirit of Wallenberg was to have as full of an experience as possible.”
Henry Dyson, director of the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships, who advises students during the application process, said few fellowships at this level provide the freedom for a self-design program like the Wallenberg does.
“It takes a lot of resilience to go. The students learn a lot about independence and also on really good in-country relations,” he said. “It is about embedding with a community, openness to the world, openness to experience and understanding the lives of other people and being transformed by that experience to become somebody who contributes to the ongoing Wallenberg legacy.”
Be the author of your own story
For Adelia Davis, awarded the fellowship in 2017, storytelling isn’t just something that happens in movies or books. Everyone has their own story to tell.
That is why Davis, a Detroit native, founded the organization Story Shifters, through which she offers volunteer literacy programming in schools, hosts storytelling and literacy workshops, and provides access to a collection of culturally relevant children’s literature.
Davis started Story Shifters after she returned from her self-directed service project in Cape Town, South Africa, as a Wallenberg Fellow. There, she used culturally relevant children’s literature to facilitate collaborative youth programming through reading clubs, field trips, workshops and other activities. The goal was to develop self-confidence and purpose in Black children.
“All of the programming I facilitated ended with the same call and repeat: ‘Repeat after me: I am smart. I am kind. I am beautiful. I am important. I can do anything,'” Davis said. “The joy the students exuded after saying ‘anything’ gleamed brighter than the sun shining through the library windows that summer in the Sunflower Learning Center.”
After each session, her students would also adorn the library with drawings and posters from the reading clubs and self-portraits.
“I would explain to them that there would be times in their lives when they would feel like those statements weren’t true, but no matter what mistakes they would make or challenges they would face, they were at their core always smart, kind, beautiful, important, and can do anything. These affirmations empowered me as well to believe that my dreams and potential do not have a limit,” she said.
Davis currently lives in Chicago and is finishing a clinical social work master’s degree at the University of Chicago. She also recently published her first children’s book, “Nia’s Question.”
“Nia serves as a role model for children not only to ask tough questions but to also be leaders in finding the answers to those questions for society,” she said.
Breaking down social barriers
Stephen M. Ross School of Business alumna and venture capital associate Meagan Malm said learning Swahili, a language widely spoken in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, changed her education path. During her undergraduate years, Malm had the opportunity to travel twice to Tanzania. As the 2018 recipient of the Wallenberg Fellowship, she got to go there once more — to study the role mobile phones play in reducing poverty.
“I found that making a genuine effort to connect with people, I was able to establish rapport with locals fairly effortlessly,” she said. “When someone would learn I spoke Swahili and lived in Kariakoo, they would start to open up. I took time to learn the local language and customs, and they appreciated it. The main takeaway from my Wallenberg experience was the value of authenticity.”
From Chicago to Philadelphia, literacy to advocacy
Carly Marten, 2019 Wallenberg Fellow, currently lives in Philadelphia and works as a researcher at a biomedical research nonprofit. In this role, she focuses on the ethical, legal and social implications of research, broadening the scope to health issues and informed consent at the level of big data.
The work has similarities with her independent project of learning in Ethiopia as a fellow. In Addis Ababa, she followed sexual assault survivors on their journey for justice. Her research focused on questions of health and informed consent at a particular clinic scale.
“My Wallenberg experience was the most transformative, challenging and rewarding experience of my life, and I am confident that it will profoundly shape the trajectory of my future,” Marten said. “I am deeply indebted to my collaborators at the one-stop sexual violence clinic at Menelik Hospital for welcoming me into such an intimate space, and I cherish the survivors whose records we reviewed and who sat down to interview with us.”
Among other learnings, Marten quickly comprehended that women’s health issues such as sexual violence are situated in particular legal, political and cultural contexts, and it takes a long time to appreciate this.
“As such, I benefited from the long-term nature of the fellowship and I look forward to returning to Ethiopia in the future to build on the roots I’ve planted,” she said.
The Fellowship is supported by the Mary Sue Coleman Wallenberg Fellowship Fund, which was established in 2014 by gifts from Bertram Askwith and the Indian Trail Charitable Foundation.
Recent alumni Abigail Meyer, a computer science engineering graduate, and LSA graduate Darius Moore, were awarded Wallenberg Fellowships in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to adjust their travel plans. Meyer’s project is in Greenland and Moore’s is in the Dominican Republic.