KINGSTON, R.I. – May 8, 2013 – A study abroad program in Rome changed Molly Wood’s life. Sure, the food and wine were great, but it was the Somalia refugees peddling socks and tissues that left the biggest impression.
Why did most people ignore them? They were invisible, and that bothered her, so much so that the University of Rhode Island student decided to make it her mission to improve the lives of refugees and others who need humanitarian aid.
She’ll get one step closer to that goal next fall when she travels to Tanzania to study Swahili, thanks to winning a Boren Scholarship, one of the most prestigious study abroad awards offered to American college students.
Wood, 22, of Wakefield, received a total of $27,400 – $7,400 for an intensive eight-week course this summer through the African Languages Institute at the University of Florida and $20,000 for the academic year to study in Tanzania, first on Zanzibar and then at Dar es Salaam.
“It’s all incredibly surreal at this point,” she says. “I don’t even know where to start. It’s a dream come true. I can’t believe in three months I’ll be in Tanzania.”
Especially since she doesn’t speak a word of Swahili and has never stepped foot in Africa. She will study at the local universities and hopes to live with a Tanzanian family to immerse herself completely in the language and culture.
A high school social studies teacher “blew the world open” for Woods years ago when she took a course about the Rwandan genocide and other international atrocities. She knew then, at the tender age of 15, that she wanted to study global politics in college.
She enrolled at URI in 2009, after graduating from South Kingstown High School. By her sophomore year she was studying in Rome. As a “suburban Rhode Islander,” she had never met a refugee, never mind one roaming cobblestone streets trying to make a living selling something as mundane as coloring books.
“They were just trying to survive,” says Wood. “That was a real eye-opener for me.”
When she got back, she applied as a student intern at the International Institute of Rhode Island, a Providence-based nonprofit organization that helps refugees build new lives. At first, she taught English to men and women from Nepal, Sudan, and Eritrea and then started helping mostly Liberian refugees bring over family members.
“I learned about the difficult and time-consuming process that resettlement in America entails,” she says. “But I also learned about the resources and support that the Institute gives refugees.”
Initially, she had planned on majoring in Italian and political science, but after her time in Italy Wood replaced Italian with Africana Studies, taking courses about race and gender, international law and politics in Africa. A senior, Wood is spending her fifth academic year in Tanzania and will officially graduate from URI in 2014.
Wood’s experience in Italy opened her to the politics of global immigration and sparked her passion for Africa and the African diaspora, says Brian S. Krueger, chair of URI’s department of political science.
“Where some students with Molly’s interests and career goals may think the obstacles too great or the road too long, Molly demonstrates the drive and courage to follow her passion,” says Krueger. “Translating her big thinking into big action, she represents the best URI has to offer.”
The Boren Scholarships are among the most competitive study abroad awards in the country. Sponsored by the National Security Education Program, the awards provide undergraduate students the opportunity to study overseas in places critical to American interests and underrepresented in academic abroad programs, which, in addition to Africa, include Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
The selection process this year was rigorous: 161 awards were offered from a pool of 947 applications. Wood is among the eight URI students who have been awarded Boren Scholarships in the past 13 years.
For students interested in federal public service the Boren can catapult their careers, says Kathleen Maher, assistant director of the URI Honors Program, who oversees the campus nomination process for the Boren and other national fellowships. Gaining proficiency in a language to complement expertise in an academic discipline is a powerful combination, she says. Among URI’s former Boren scholars one holds a high-ranking position in the Department of Homeland Security and another has a lead role in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Wood hopes to volunteer for the Peace Corps or work at the U.S. State Department after her Tanzanian adventure.
“I am incredibly interested in learning about different cultures,” she says. “Africa is especially interesting to me. I’m attracted to the nurturing aspect and community feel of the cultures. There’s definitely a feeling that people take care of each other no matter what.”
And language, she says, is the best way to create that personal connection. “Being able to communicate with someone in his or her native language is by far the most satisfying way to experience a new culture,” she says. “It’s kind of like being accepted into an entirely new community.”
For Wood, it’s crucial to follow her passion. Her work and studies might not bring a corporate salary, she says, but they are enormously fulfilling and remind her that she’s making a contribution to world peace.
“I’m positive I won’t make a lot of money in my life,” she says. “But I’ll be happy in my work.”
Pictured above: Molly Wood, a 22-year-old Wakefield resident and University of Rhode Island student who won a prestigious Boren Scholarship to study Swahili in Tanzania next year.
This award is among eight coveted national scholarships won by URI students this year. They were awarded two Fulbright Scholarships, three NOAA/Hollings Scholarships, a Whitaker Scholarship, a Truman Scholarship, and a Boren Scholarship.
Photo by Michael Salerno Photography