Scholar Spotlights

Leslie Lang : 2005 Scholars Team Up 4 Health

Editor’s Note: Periodically, we check in with our alumni scholars—or vice-versa—to modify their contact information, and to provide us an update on their lives. Sometimes, it’s a quick sentence or two, sometimes it’s a longer, deeper meditation. The update from Leslie Lang clearly landed in the latter category - and has the added virtue of also updating us on fellow Strauss scholar Daniel Zoughbie – so with her permission, we decided to publish Leslie’s  e-mail as a Scholar Spotlight.

Upon returning to the Bay Area after spending six years on the East Coast, one of the first items on my to-do list was to get in touch with the UC Berkeley students who were running the Social Welfare Language Access Program I had started with my Strauss Scholarship back in 2005.

I was excited to meet with the students and learn that the program I had started seven years ago was still serving non-English speaking social services recipients and had become an important stepping stone for students pursuing a career in social welfare. 

As I shared my background with the students, I realized that my story not only told of how the program came to be, but also how I arrived at where I am today – having moved back to San Francisco to work for Microclinic International, or better known among the Strauss community as the Global Micro-Clinic Project.

Daniel Zoughbie and I met in Berkeley back in 2005. That year the Strauss Foundation selected two UC Berkeley scholarship recipients, and Daniel introduced himself to me as the other awardee shortly before school let out for the summer preceding our senior year.

Daniel was setting off for the West Bank, where he would be implementing his Strauss project to address the diabetes epidemic through the creation of community-based microclinics.

I was preparing for my own adventure to Sierra Leone, where I would be interning at a war crimes tribunal to address a decade long civil conflict made famous through the film Blood Diamonds.  

Following our summer ventures, we returned to Berkeley for our senior year where we continued to implement our projects and engage in an ongoing conversation about our work and our future aspirations after college. 

Following graduation, I went to work at the World Bank through the John Gardner Fellowship before attending Harvard Law School. 

Daniel received the Marshall Scholarship and moved to the UK to pursue a master’s and doctorate at Oxford. While Daniel was at Oxford, he slowly grew his Strauss project into a global nonprofit, and I had moved to New York to work in corporate law. 

Unbeknown to Daniel, I had started to look for a career jump back into international development when one day he called with a proposal – would I be interested in working for Microclinic International, and would I be able to move to San Francisco? 

Today I am working hard alongside Daniel, who I had met through the Strauss Scholarship seven years ago, and together we continue to share Donald and Dorothy Strauss’s mission of “vision, ideals, and leadership” through a project the Strauss Foundation so generously supported during our college years.  

 

 

James Frkovich - In His Own Words

Editor’s Note: Periodically, we check in with our alumni scholars—or vice-versa—to modify their contact information, and to provide us an update on their lives. Sometimes, it’s a quick sentence or two, sometimes it’s a longer, deeper meditation. The update a few months ago from James Frkovich clearly landed in the latter category, and with his permission (he chose not to change or delete any of it; we opted to remove his e-mail address), we decided to publish his e-mail as a Scholar Spotlight.

My name is James Frkovich and I was a 2008-2009 Strauss Scholar. First I would like to ask that my email be updated in your records. Secondly, I would like to give all the board members an update on where I am, and give my sincerest thanks for the experience that the Strauss Foundation gave me.

I am currently a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marine Corps and stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I am an infantry officer and am currently serving with the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. At the end of the month I will go on my first deployment to Afghanistan and serve as an adviser to a Company of Afghan Police in Southern Helmand Province.

Its now been almost two years since I graduated college, and looking back I can say without a doubt that being a Strauss Scholar and working on my project was the most worthwhile experience that I had while I was in college.

I still keep in touch with many of the students that I worked with on my project in Northern Uganda and periodically receive emails from the clinic that I worked at. It sounds like the project had a decent impact and that the nonprofits we worked with are still working and growing.

As for myself, the experience greatly affected my life, and helped me greatly in my job as a Marine. Seeing the aftermath of a long brutal war in Northern Uganda gave me a passion for developing strategies to use military assets to protect civilian populations in war.

Of all the experiences I had, most vividly, I remember standing in an Internally Displaced Person's Camp called Pabo, where over 20,000 people had been displaced from their homes and thinking to myself "this is what happens when we in the military screw up our job." 

However, my life was also greatly affected beyond the academic realm. My work in Uganda greatly influenced my decision as a Marine to volunteer to be an infantry officer as I felt that I couldn't rightly argue for greater population security in African Wars and not be willing to stand on the front line as my own nation was fighting in Afghanistan

Furthermore, the decision that I would serve my first tour as an adviser was heavily influenced by the fact that I was one of the few infantry officers of my rank to have experience working and leading projects in a different country, and again I have the Strauss Foundation to thank for that.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I don't know how I would ever be able to do the job I am about to do if I had not had my experience as a Strauss Scholar.

The challenges in Southern Afghanistan are immense, and talking to adviser teams that are currently working in Afghanistan I feel like I could be talking to fellow Strauss Scholars, as the challenges and lessons learned are remarkably similar.

Thus, I feel greatly indebted to the foundation. My experience as a Strauss Scholar gave me a passion and let me live it out. While in Afghanistan I will be patrolling villages and attempting to protect the people while training a viable, competent police force.

Its going to certainly be the biggest challenge of my life, but I'm certain that because of my experience as a Strauss Scholar much more prepared for it than I ever could have been any other way. So again, thanks to everyone at the Strauss Foundation.

You offer a unique and amazing opportunity and I know that I have certainly been greatly affected by it. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help current Strauss Scholars.

Sincerely,

James Frkovich

 

Eli Winkelman: An Idea As Basic As Bread

Photo of Eli Winkelman.

By Tom Reeder

Even as a young girl, Eli Winkelman enjoyed baking.  "In high school I baked cookies and walked around handing them out to friends," says Eli, a 2006 Strauss Scholar.  Back then she had no way of knowing the impact her kitchen skills would have on her life – and on countless other lives as well.

After living in Israel for a year, Eli returned to her studies at Scripps, one of the Claremont Colleges.  She began baking challah for a Jewish student organization.  Challah is pronounced (approximately) "HALL-ah", but with just a hint of a "k" sound at the beginning. 

It is rich, braided bread that has been associated with the Sabbath and other traditional observances for many centuries.  In addition to its symbolic significance, it also happens to be delicious – it often has sesame or poppy seeds on top.

eli bread

News spread that Eli was baking challah at a certain time every week, and others came to learn from her.  Within a month there were 15 regulars, and they shared a common complaint:  Their friends were eating all the challah they made. 

"We saw that there was a demand for our product," Eli remembers, "and I thought that we should meet that demand in a way that did something good for the world."

A friend of Eli’s was trying to raise awareness and activism about the appalling conditions in the Darfur region of Sudan.  "So she had a cause," Eli says, "and I had a project and it was a perfect match." 

By charging a few dollars to "starving" fellow students for loaves of challah, resources were generated to provide relief for those who are literally starving in Darfur.  In addition, discounts were given to students who promised to write a letter to their congressional representative, or perform some similar act of advocacy.

Eli Emory table

Eli’s project, dubbed Challah for Hunger, quickly proved successful at the Claremont Colleges.  She reasoned that if it worked on her campus, it would work on other campuses around the U.S.  She applied to the Strauss Foundation for funding to expand CfH; within the year, chapters were established at University of Texas and several other schools.

"Strauss is important to me," Eli says, and not just for the financial support she received.  There was also the benefit of connecting with other Strauss Scholars:  "Catie Bereznay (an ’06 Scholar at Loyola Marymount) started a farmers’ market on her campus as her Strauss project.  She invited me to sell challah there, and I loved it!"  Eli adds that Jacob Cohen (a 2010 Strauss Scholar at Pomona College) co-wrote Challah for Hunger’s strategic plan with her.

Five years on, there are now over 40 chapters in the U.S., from Vermont to Florida, from Yale to Eugene.  Four universities in Australia have recently joined the project, giving it international scope.

Each chapter donates 50% of its profits to the CfH cause, which is the American Jewish World Service’s Sudan Relief and Advocacy Fund.  Local chapters are free to decide where the other 50% is given; typically the choices are food banks or other hunger-relief organizations in their neighborhoods.

In its relatively brief lifetime, Challah for Hunger has raised over $200,000 for humanitarian efforts.  Former President Bill Clinton learned about CfH while visiting the campus during Eli’s senior year; he subsequently highlighted her and the project in his book Giving

More information about the chapters, including new challah flavors – peanut butter and chocolate chip, anyone? – can be found on the organization’s website, http://www.challahforhunger.org/.

"One of our volunteers once described challah-making for CfH as a modern-day quilting bee," Eli replied when asked about the enthusiastic response of volunteers.  It’s a satisfying feeling, she notes, to put a lot of "energy and intention into the process, and at the end, you can look at what you’ve produced and say proudly, ‘I made that’."

It’s also gratifying for Eli and friends at CfH to know that the product is having a positive result for other human beings.  Eli notes that for some of her peers, "the problems of the world are overwhelming, so sometimes it’s easier to ignore them.  But you don’t have to have all the answers or all the time or all the money to do something nice and good for someone else."

Over the years, the Strauss Foundation has funded some good ideas that involve sophisticated technology and engineering.  But sometimes a good idea is as basic as bread. 

Tom Reeder worked as a television writer for 30 years, writing for such sitcoms as "Cheers," "M*A*S*H," "Frasier," and "Barney Miller," and now blogs at http://tomreeder.wordpress.com/


Zuhairah Scott: In The Business of Doing Good

Photo of Zuhairah Scott.

By Tom Reeder

Identify a problem, and then go to work on a solution.

That general idea motivates every Strauss Scholar, and the career of Zuhairah Scott is a notable example. "Being an empathetic person who was often confronted by poverty, crime and other social ills growing up," she says, "I felt a need to do something about it."

Leaving her home in Newark, New Jersey, to attend UCLA, Zuhairah was drawn to a fledgling program called SHAPE (Students Heightening Academic Performance through Education). Its objective was to increase the number of African-American students eligible to attend UC schools by providing free tutoring, peer counseling, workshops and mentoring. As a 1998 Strauss Scholar, Zuhairah worked tirelessly, encouraging 13-to-18 year-old students to participate in the program, as well as recruiting and training volunteer tutors.

zuhairah playground

SHAPE’s success, Zuhairah says, "was made possible by a dedicated group of student activists, not just me," adding that "SHAPE simply provided a means by which they could have direct impact."

Acknowledging what she called the Strauss Foundation’s "very generous award for financial support," Zuhairah reports that more than a decade later, the SHAPE project is still going strong. In fact, according to a 2009 report from UCLA’s Afrikan (their spelling) Student Union, "SHAPE continues to increase the percentage of UCLA eligible minorities."

Following her graduation with honors from UCLA, Zuhairah earned JD and MBA degrees from Harvard University. She went to work for MacFarlane Partners, a real estate firm with a unique investment philosophy that Zuhairah describes as "double bottom-line: make money and do good." It’s business, not charity – the firm focuses on investing in areas that serve low-income communities, turning a profit for investors, while at the same time improving neighborhoods.

As an example, she cites a shopping center in the Los Angeles area. It had been neglected for many years and area residents were avoiding it because it had become unsafe. After MacFarlane Partners made a substantial investment and revitalized the shopping center, the neighbors came back – within nine years, the property generated a 30% return on the original investment.

Zuhairah fiance

Her business skills, combined with the passion for public service she demonstrated early on as a Strauss Scholar, have led Zuhairah into a number of current projects. "I guess you could call me an entrepreneur," she says with a smile. And she’s not just talking about the real estate investment company, SIC Ventures, LLC, which she co-founded recently. (It focuses on multi-unit properties in the Mid-Atlantic region.) Here are some of the other irons she has in the proverbial fire these days:

Zuhairah is one of the founding members of a camp in New York called the Be Girls Camp. Its goal, Zuhairah explains, "is to create a safe space for young minority girls between the ages of 12 and 16 to have honest discussions about relationships, sex, and just being girls!" She notes that the camp was created in response to grim statistics: HIV/AIDS is the number one killer of African-American women between the ages of 24 and 35.

Another company founded by Zuhairah and some friends from Harvard, called Be Media, creates videos with an emphasis on social pressures and the personal conflicts that arise from them. The projects create content that "challenges the viewer to think about who they are, and who they really want to be."

Zuhairah is also writing a book about the basics of personal finance, to benefit what she calls "financially clueless urbanites". She points out that financial literacy is a subject rarely taught in schools, and she hopes that her book will enable young adults to save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars by making informed decisions about their resources.

zuhairah india

Even with all these works-in-progress, she still took time recently to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in India, proudly noting that her team built five houses over a two-week period.

How she manages to find enough hours in a day is anybody’s guess, but when asked why she devotes so much energy to public service, her answer is a candid self-assessment: "I am very action-oriented and results-driven. Doing-good-for-good’s sake has never really been my end goal; the goal has been to make sustainable, impactful change in the lives of others."

Since that is essentially the Strauss Foundation’s goal, too, its partnership with Zuhairah Scott has proven to be an excellent investment.

Tom Reeder worked as a television writer for 30 years, writing for such sitcoms as "Cheers," "M*A*S*H," "Frasier," and "Barney Miller," and now blogs at http://tomreeder.wordpress.com/


Amanda Cundiff: Inspiration in a Rainforest

Amanda Cundiff

By Joseph N. Bell

The Strauss scholarship has legs.

That's a quality deeply sought and remarkably demonstrated in our first ten years.

A classic example is Amanda Cundiff, who won her Strauss scholarship in 1999 and credits it today as a major catalyst and core element in a life focused on environmental science and management, currently in the U.S. Forest Service.

"I was immensely proud," she says today, "of the project I was able to complete through the Strauss scholarship. In addition to the skills I honed through the creative process and through project management, the experience has paid multiple dividends in subsequent opportunities."

The roots of Amanda's immersion in the environment were planted when she was 16-years-old in Yellowstone National Park where Amanda spent her summer vacation clearing fallen trees on a trail crew as a volunteer in the Student Conservation Association.

Amanda Cundiff outdoors.

This deep interest accompanied her to UC Berkeley where she continued to use vacation time to explore differing ecosystems. All this activity reached an emotional climax in the summer of 2000 when Amanda spent two months in Panama doing research for a Berkeley ecology professor and nurturing her interest in the neighboring rainforest.

It was there she created a character she named Rhonda who shared Amanda's passion and became her alter ego in a play Amanda wrote called "Rhonda in the Rainforest."

That play became the centerpiece in Amanda's Strauss scholarship proposal called The Children's Environmental Education Project.

Amanda finished writing a draft of the play early in her senior year, then returned to the rainforest for two weeks over Christmas break with her professor and three assistants. They were all given parts in the play for readings in the evening while Amanda listened and rewrote.

Back home, she cast the play with student actors, sketched ideas for costumes and sets, and registered the "Children's Environmental Theater Troupe" as an official group so she could hold rehearsals on campus. Then she was ready to put the show on the road. It turned out to be a tough sell with school principals who feared a lack of interest. Ecology was seen as less than a burning issue in those days. But when a group of teachers at a single school got behind it, word-of-mouth did the rest.

Amanda Cundiff in Washington, DC

Within the next few months, Amanda's play was performed at 17 different schools in Oakland and Berkeley before more than 3000 children. Every performance was rich in audience participation that reinforced the environmental ideas learned during the play. And although Amanda graduated and moved on, the experience of writing her play went before her, paving the way.

"I wrote an essay about my Strauss project," she says, "that I submitted as my application for a Fulbright Fellowship. I would not have received the Fulbright without that story. And it served the same purpose in my acceptance by Green Corps--the premier field school for environment organizing."

These achievements, in turn, took her to an advanced degree in Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara and her post with the U.S. Forest Service, where she is currently involved in research on the impact of climate change on private forest land. Looking back, Amanda says: "The Strauss has opened a lot of doors for me. It taught me how to write proposals and then see a project through.

"But most of all, it added greatly to the values I have today that have enabled me to use the Strauss experience in so many productive ways."

 

Vivek Mehta: Concern About Obesity Propels Him From Strauss Project To Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Med School

Photo of Vivek Mehta.

By Joseph N. Bell,

It's hard to believe that Vivek Mehta ever lacked confidence.

His remarkable academic record landed him on USA Today's 2005 College Academic First Team, regarded as the top 20 undergraduate scholars in the nation. Vivek was the only California student to be chosen for this honor.

It is typical of this modest young man that his first thought was to express gratitude "to all of my mentors who have helped me throughout my undergraduate career."

But that's just a start on Vivek's résumé.  By way of balance, he captained his high school football team to two conference championship games in a row.

And in his spare time, he won a coveted award as the most outstanding first year undergraduate student at UC Irvine, devoted hundreds of hours to a local free medical clinic, and traveled to Mexico every five weeks as a volunteer with a group of doctors who provided medical help to people who had none.

Still, despite these achievements, Vivek points to his Strauss Foundation Scholarship award in his junior year at UC Irvine as "the first time I ever had an opportunity to impact my community. And it does so much for one's confidence.  What you are doing is very real. You see problems, and you do something about them."

The problem that most attracted Vivek when he sought a project for his Strauss application was obesity, especially in children where the rate of obesity has doubled in the past two decades and has now reached 15% --a problem to which Mexican-American children are disproportionately vulnerable.

That was especially clear to Vivek in his volunteer work at a non-profit, comprehensive medical facility in Costa Mesa called Share Our Selves (SOS).  So Vivek set out to do something about it--and won a Strauss scholarship in the process.

His project was called "Estoy Bien" ("I Am Well"), and the target participants were SOS patients who suffered from diseases especially impacted by obesity. Helping these patients led Vivek directly to the people he wanted most to help--the children.

"While adults were receiving outstanding medical care for a variety of chronic illnesses," he says, "the children were almost ignored." So Vivek set up a series of seminars on nutrition that reached out directly to children.

Interactive props that turned nutrition into fun and games proved remarkably effective. Participants lost an average of four pounds in the five-week session, and some lost as many as 11 pounds.

Vivek carried this success with him when he graduated from UC Irvine. "The Strauss project gave me confidence to work in areas not normally accessible to students, and it helps me now to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities offered to me. The level of these opportunities doesn't matter. The Strauss experience covers them all."

Vivek has been finding multiple ways to put the Strauss experience to work since his graduation from Irvine. His first post-graduate year was spent in India doing research on premature births. Then, in 2007, he enrolled in Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, once again carrying his Strauss experience with him to the department of neurosurgery "where I'm working on the outcome of surgery, how to make it safer."

He is also "exploring the question of how obesity affects the outcome of surgery" and is already suspicious that "it can be very dangerous coming into surgery obese."

So all those hours of promoting proper nutrition in Costa Mesa on his Strauss scholarship is now bearing fruit in one of the most distinguished medical schools in the world.

And from that place, Vivek wants it known that "maybe the best continuing result of a Strauss scholarship is the wonderful network it offers us to share ideas with past and present winners."

 


 

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