Plastino Scholars share global research experiences
UD benefactor David A. Plastino, center, with 2009 Plastino Scholars, from left, Ariel Wilson, Mary Paolantonio, Laura Schwartz and Rita Chang.
UD benefactor David A. Plastino, center, with 2008 Plastino Scholars, from left, Amy Weniger, Gina Siddiqui, Victoria Clark and Joshua Kling.
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8:56 a.m., April 20, 2009----Now in its third year, the Plastino Scholars Program at the University of Delaware is providing life-changing experiences for undergraduate participants conducting self-designed research and service projects around the globe.

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Four Plastino Scholars shared their overseas experiences during a dinner held Wednesday, April 15, in Bayard Sharp Hall. The event also introduced the 2009 Plastino Scholars and provided a look at the prospective research projects they plan to carry out this summer.

Established in 2007 by a generous gift from UD alumnus David A. Plastino, the fellowship program encourages independent fieldwork by undergraduates who have demonstrated a passion for an area of study outside the traditional academic setting.

Presenting the results of their fieldwork experiences as 2008 Plastino Scholars Program recipients were Victoria Clark, Joshua Kling, Gina Madeeha Siddiqui and Amy Hope Weniger.

Clark, a double-major in English and bassoon performance from Newark, Del., who is in the Honors Program and will graduate in spring 2010, spent four and one-half weeks at Cardiff University, in Wales, where she researched the Welsh bardic tradition.

Drawing on her own Welsh heritage, Clark chose her program to satisfy a desire to intertwine music and literature with culture in a setting where interdisciplinary research and teaching is mandatory.

“While I was there I learned the language, and it is amazing how musical it is,” Clark said. “The country is absolutely gorgeous and I met some wonderful people.”

Clark hopes to use her interdisciplinary studies to advance her plans to change educational standards in the United State and would like to teach cross-listed classes at a collegiate level.

Kling, a senior hotel, restaurant and institutional management major form Clifton, N.J., capped a wine education tour of famous old world vineyards in France and Italy with a trip to Las Vegas, where he passed an examination to be a certified sommelier.

The opportunity to pursue his passion and discover that working in this area is something he really wants to be doing has had a profound impact on his academic experience, Kling said.

“Although I never met Mr. Plastino until tonight, his generosity has had a profound influence on my life,” Kling said. “What the whole Plastino Scholars experience has taught me is that if I get the chance, I want to do something like this for someone else, to give back what was given to me.”

Siddiqui, a senior in the Honors Program from Clifton Va., and a double major in international relations and economics, conducted needs-based assessments on global health issues in Pakistan and Chile.

To study how different areas with industries and socioeconomic backgrounds are served by a universal health care system, Siddiqui visited La Serena, Santiago, Temuco and Chiloe, Chile.

Also on the agenda was a visit to the Mapuche ni Lawentuyun clinic near Temuco. The clinic administers traditional medicine as practiced by the native Mapuche Indians, with an administrative structure based on Mapuche hierarchy, where all the treatments provided are administered by traditional “machis,” or healers.

“I was fortunate to meet the founder of this clinic and gain her insights on the effects of this form of healing,” Siddiqui said. “I also got to see machis performing their healing ritual with herbs and drums.”

During the summer of 2008, Siddiqui worked with Aga Khan University's Urban Health Programme in Karachi, Pakistan, where she visited squatter settlements and learned about the clinical services available to this group.

Siddiqui said she became especially interested in a settlement on the coast called Rehri Goth, a fishing community that has been around for over 300 years.

“It was incredible to me that these people had been living the same way for so long, neglected by every power structure that had ever ruled there, with their existence predating so many of them,” Siddiqui said. “At the end of my stay, I developed a program called Income Generation Encouraging Health Learning (IGEHL) for the residents of Rehri Goth, and I explained it to the team I worked within the Urban Health Programme. They loved the idea and are implementing a pilot version of the program soon.”

“I consider my project with Pakistan to be a long-term commitment,” Siddiqui said.

The Plastino Scholars Program afforded her the opportunity to understand what people needed and to provide education in health issues, where the students in the area will eventually teach others about what they have learned.

“Even if I don't see some of these people again, there is a connection, and some remnant of our relationship will always be there, Siddiqui said. “I can still make a difference in their lives.”

Weniger, a junior from Boothwyn, Pa., who is in the Honors Program and majoring in biological sciences, with minors in biochemistry and psychology, participated in a four-week program which included serving the Sacred Valley and Cusco communities in Peru. Participating in a ProWorld internship, Weniger assisted at birthing centers and also taught preventive health care in school two days a week in indigenous communities.

“The experience was amazing. I worked in a clinic in a community in southern Peru, where I administered hepatitis B vaccine,” said Weniger. “I vaccinated over 700 children, and I also was part of a clinical outreach program.”

While it was not unusual to work with up to 30 students as a time in the classroom, Weniger said it was much different in the rural areas, where a hospital clinic was set up to treat whole families at one time.

“The staff included an ophthalmologist, a gynecologist, a general practitioner and a biologist, and families were able to get the medicine they needed at no charge,” Weniger said. “While some of the regional dialects are different, you can still communicate with people through compassion and empathy. It was incredibly rewarding and the people were so appreciative. I can't wait to go back after I complete medical school at Thomas Jefferson University.”

Cynthia Schmidt-Cruz, associate professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies and faculty director of the Plastino Scholars Program, said she had been very impressed by the quality and commitment of the students who apply and are accepted to the program.

“There are not many universities that have a program like this where students can design their own projects,” Schmidt-Cruz said. “It's an honor to be director of a program that offers students such a rare opportunity to follow their passions.”

Tom Apple, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said that being a participant in the Plastino Scholars Program is a great way for students to fulfill a dream while enhancing their academic achievements and career possibilities.

“The students are very excited about all this,” Apple said. “Because of David Plastino's gift, they are gaining experiences that they will remember for the rest of their lives.”

Scholarship initiatives supported by Plastino at UD also include funding the summer salaries and research expenses of six undergraduates and biochemistry majors through the Undergraduate Biochemistry and Chemistry Research Fellows Program. The funding is an important component of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry's progress in expanding research opportunities for undergraduate students.

A 1978 graduate in the College of Arts and Sciences with an undergraduate degree in chemistry, Plastino received his MBA from the University of Michigan in 1981 and joined the investment baking firm of Goldman, Sachs & Co., where he was vice president of investments. In 1994, Plastino joined UBS Financial Services as a senior vice president and is still with the company at its Philadelphia office.

An active supporter of the Linda Creed Breast Cancer Foundation and the National Prostate Cancer Foundation, Plastino is a past treasurer and board member of the Lower Merion Township (Pa.) Scholarship Fund.

Plastino said that the idea for the UD program came when his daughter, Sarah, participated in a similar program at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the Burch Fellows Program, which was established by Lucius E. Burch III.

“The program took a while to become established at UNC, but now it is a real honor for students to receive the fellowships,” Plastino said. “I hope that being a Plastino Scholar will also have the same recognition at UD.”

The main goal of the program at UD is to give students the opportunity to explore their passion and hope that they will someday want to do the same for others, Plastino said.

“There were people who have influenced my life in a positive way, and I knew that this was something I wanted to do if I ever got the chance,” Plastino said. “We love to receive, and it also gives us a lot of pleasure to do something like this for others. It's wonderful when somebody says a program like the Plastino Scholars changed their life.”

2009 Plastino Scholars

Selected for research grants based on their academic and scholarly initiative, were Rita Chang, Mary Paolantonio, Laura Schwartz and Ariel Wilson.

Chang, a junior in the Honors Program, and Dean's Scholar in the College of Human Services, Education and Public Policy, has created her own major, “Social Responsibility in the Textile and Apparel Industry.” With Chang as its president, the UD Fashion Merchandising Club, a registered student organization, has grown from five to 306 members.

For her Plastino Scholars experience, Chang will travel to Taiwan as part of a customized unpaid internship with Nike Taiwan, where she will work on several corporate social responsibility projects focusing on environmental sustainability and labor practices in regard to migrant workers. Plans for Chang include attending law and/or business school and working in the area of corporate social responsibility, particularly in the area of ethical purchasing practices.

Paolantonio, a junior marketing major from Wayne, Pa., believes that her World War II submarine commander grandfather's love of the sea and desire to explore new horizons lives on in her aspirations. Her Plastino Scholars experience will include sailing, scuba diving and a marine biology expedition with the Sea Trek BVI program in the British Virgin Islands. Besides living with other students aboard a 45-foot catamaran, which she will get to skipper for a day, Paolantonio will participate in more than 20 dives while earning open water and advanced open water certificates.

With the option to earn specialty certificates in research diving, wreck diving and search and recovery diving, Paolantonio will participate in a sea turtle tagging and monitoring project with the results being given over to the British Virgin Islands government. After graduating, Paolantonio plans marketing career in the sports/entertainment industry.

Schwartz, a first semester senior in the Honors Program from Annandale, N.J., is working towards an Honors degree with a double major in international relations and Spanish, with a minor in African Studies. In January, Schwartz hooked up to work with a volunteer organization to work with HIV/AIDS patients in a Zulu village in South Africa.

For her Plastino Scholars experience, Schwartz will intern with the Institute for Field Research Expeditions, spending a month each in Kenya and Ghana, where she will engage children and adults in educational activities and training to increase HIV/AIDS awards and help stop the epidemic.

According to the UNAIDS 2008 report on the global AIDS epidemic, some 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live with AIDS. During her time in Africa, Schwartz intends to gather the stories of people affected with HIV/AIDS and compile the testimonies into a book with the proceeds going to the Institute for Field Research Expeditions.

After graduating from UD, Schwartz is considering getting a master's degree in education and either teaching in Asia or South America or working for a HIV/AIDS non-governmental organization.

Wilson, is a junior marketing and management major with a minor in international business major from Baltimore. Through her studies, she said she became increasingly aware and concerned about humanitarian issues relating to manufacturing, especially concerning the millions of children working in hazardous conditions.

For her scholarship program project, Wilson will participate in a program sponsored by Volunteering Solutions, where she will spend her first week in Delhi, India, learning Hindi culture, language and history before working in a shelter for street children. In pursuing her study of child labor, Wilson will help educate, feed, take care of and play with street children. After returning to UD following her Plastino Scholars stint in India, Wilson plans to take use the experience to generate awareness about the problem of child labor.

Career plans for Wilson including working in marketing for a responsible company and helping to find solutions for humanitarian problems within the manufacturing industry.

For more information on the David A. Plastino Scholars Program, visit this Web page.

Article by Jerry Rhodes

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson