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Sombrilla

The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Feature

Ambassadors of Goodwill

Rotary scholars travel the globe practicing 'Service Above Self'

Part of UTSA’s vision is to “prepare citizen leaders for the global environment.”

Part of the vision of Rotary International, a worldwide service organization of more than 1.2 million members, is advancing world understanding and goodwill through its international scholarships.

Rotary International

Seems like a perfect match. And it pretty much has been

UTSA has been highly successful in having many of its applicants— eight since 2004—chosen for the prestigious Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarships. They have represented UTSA and the Rotary in Scotland, the Netherlands, Uganda, Botswana and Jordan, among other countries.

The Rotary Foundation, which administers the scholarships, is the world’s largest private sponsor of university-level international scholarships. Since its establishment in 1947, nearly 38,000 men and women from about 100 nations have studied abroad under the auspices of Ambassadorial Scholarships. The awards include a flat grant valued at $26,000 for transportation, tuition, and room and board.

“The focus is really on the word ‘ambassadorial,’ ” said Jane Findling Burton, retired assistant vice president for alumni programs at UTSA and a San Antonio Rotarian. “Scholars are expected to be ambassadors of their country. They meet with Rotary clubs in their host countries, and when they return, they’re expected to share their experiences with Rotary clubs here.”

Applicants must be sponsored by a local Rotary club and have a connection to the organization. The competitive process moves to a district level and ultimately to Rotary International. If selected for the scholarships, students can study any subject of their choosing at a Rotary-approved university and country.

“The Rotary is interested in placing scholars not just in places like Europe, but in developing countries as well,” Burton said. “They’re interested in geographical and cultural diversity."

Once abroad, scholars continue their association with Rotary. Each scholar is assigned a sponsor and host Rotarian counselor to enable the student to get the most out of the cultural exchange.

“It’s really a fantastic scholarship,” Burton said, “and UTSA should be very proud of our students who have earned the honor.”

Three of the more recent UTSA students to be named Rotary Ambassadorial Scholars, all graduates of the Honors College, are Rafael Veraza, Rawan Arar and Mitra Miri.

Ann Eisenberg, associate dean of the Honors College, encouraged all three to apply for the scholarship.

“I knew they would grow in new ways,” Eisenberg said. “All three were outstanding students and wonderful public servants while they were studying at UTSA, but I thought the time abroad would broaden their understanding of the issues that concerned them. All of them truly became global citizens through the Rotary experience.”

Rafael Veraza

Rafael Veraza (Photo by Keith Dannemiller)

Rafael Veraza

A native of Mexico City, Veraza had established himself as a humanitarian long before applying for the Rotary scholarship. As an undergraduate, he and other UTSA students spearheaded a campaign to raise funds for medical treatment for a 7-year-old boy from Mexico who needed a heart transplant. Veraza was also a member of the Lancy Scholars program, a summer research program focusing on health disparities. His work there led to his being published in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Science.

As a pre-med biology student in the Honors College, Veraza’s goal was to become a doctor and public health professional. When he heard about the Rotary scholarship, he was intrigued.

“The motto of Rotary, ‘Service Above Self,’ really caught my attention, and I felt very strong about what they believe as an organization,” Veraza said. “And the humanitarian aspect of the scholarship, to be an ‘ambassador of goodwill,’ was something I found very appealing and something I always had enjoyed doing—serving others and volunteerism.”

After graduating from the Honors College in 2008, Veraza traveled to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana in southern Africa, as a Rotary scholar. There he took public health courses at the University of Botswana, was involved in a research project that examined environmental health risks of mercury exposure, volunteered at an HIV pediatric clinic and became actively involved in local Rotary service projects.

“The most rewarding experience was getting to know people in Africa, my roommates, people in the streets, nurses, doctors, the cleaning lady, my host family,” Veraza said. “Not only getting to know the Batswana [people from Botswana] but also learning about African culture and the beautiful way of enjoying life among Africans overall. Also getting to know and becoming friends with the different Rotarians who hosted me and helped me throughout my whole year there.

“Volunteering as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in an area of the world with an extremely high prevalence of HIV, and working directly with AIDS patients and HIV-infected people in southern Africa was an experience that made me a more humane person, it made me appreciate life more and it encouraged me to dedicate myself to a career in the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS.”

Veraza visited numerous Rotary Clubs in Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. In each place, the same theme of service was prevalent, he said. “Clubs were always doing or planning activities to help others.”

Today, at 23, Veraza is pursuing a master’s in public health at Emory University School of Public Health in Atlanta. His goal is to eventually earn a joint M.D.-Ph.D. and devote his life to public health issues, specifically AIDS research. The Rotary scholarship, he said, especially the volunteer opportunities, expanded his understanding of public health, human dignity and service.

Rafael Veraza

Rawan Arar (Photo by Jayci Giaccone)

Rawan Arar

Rawan Arar, a 2008 Honors College graduate with a degree in sociology, is now a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar studying and living in Amman, Jordan.

Her academic interests included women’s and gender issues, as well as legal studies, and the Rotary scholarship allowed her to continue those pursuits.

“I am in Jordan as a peace and conflict resolution scholar,” said Arar, an Arab American of Jordanian descent who grew up in San Antonio. “I take classes in the international relations department at the University of Jordan, studying peace, diplomacy and Middle Eastern politics.”

Arar, 24, is writing her graduate thesis on economic conditions among Iraqi refugee women living in Jordan, and she is shooting a corresponding film documentary.

As a Rotary scholar, Arar volunteers within the community, doing work in refugee camps, teaching English and working in a school for special-needs children.

“One of my most important jobs here in Jordan is to serve as an ambassador for Rotary, Texas and the United States,” she said. “I’m here to help answer questions and combat unfounded stereotypes.”

Arar credits her UTSA professors, especially Eisenberg of the Honors College, with sparking her interest in global issues. Prior to her Rotary involvement, she was awarded an Archer Fellowship and interned at the U.S. Supreme Court in the Office of the Administrative Assistant to the Chief Justice.

“Living in D.C.,” she said, “I met people from all over the world, which motivated me to explore study-abroad options. After reading more about the Rotary Club, I was in awe of all the amazing things Rotary does for our local community and the world.”

Upon her return to the United States this summer, Arar will continue work on her master’s in women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin. And she hopes to one day study law. “I believe that law can help change the world for the better,” she said. “Law can give a voice to those who don’t have a voice.”

Until then, she added, she’s gaining “the experiences of a lifetime” living and studying in Jordan.

“I am thankful every day I wake up and every day I go to bed,” Arar said. “Rotary has given me a gift, an opportunity that will shape my life, ambition and outlook on the world forever."

Rafael Veraza

Mitra Miri (Photo by Karen Lenz)

Mitra Miri

Like Veraza and Arar, Austin native Mitra Miri was an academic star at UTSA. As an undergraduate, she spent one summer at Harvard, another summer with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México’s Instituto de Neurobiología in Querétaro, Mexico, and a third summer in Washington, D.C., engaging in political science studies as an Archer Fellow.

Armed with a biology degree from the Honors College, Miri left for Uganda as a Rotary scholar in summer 2008. Instead of a course-based curriculum at a university, however, her scholarship was converted to a research-oriented grant.

“Following some persistence and luck, I landed a position under the mentorship of the director of research at the Makerere Infectious Diseases Institute in Kampala,” Miri said. “During my year there I worked with Ugandan doctors and students to evaluate and compare methods currently used to diagnose tuberculosis among immuno-compromised and septic patients. Additionally, I worked with the director to establish a [medical] research lab.”

Miri used part of her Rotary scholarship money to donate the first piece of equipment to the lab, a much-needed ELISA reader, an instrument used mainly in immunology to detect the presence of an antibody or an antigen in a sample.

And like all Rotary scholars, she became active in service projects—from digging water wells to constructing community health centers—through her host club. Working with a fellow Rotary scholar, Miri helped establish a fund for insecticidetreated net distribution to two rural schools located in an area of Uganda particularly hard hit by malaria.

Miri lauded the benefits of that local connection.

“As a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, I was given a unique, valuable and immediate inroad to Ugandan culture and daily life,” she said.

Her ties to Rotary and Uganda continued even after her ambassadorial year ended. In March, she returned to Uganda to work at a rural primary school and orphanage in Mpigi.

“Due to the hard work and planning of [a friend],” Miri said, “we were able to distribute over 300 laptops to students at the school. We held a weeklong introductory training session on computers for the teachers, most of whom had never seen a laptop.”

Miri, now 25, is pursuing a doctorate in neurobiology at Yale University. She recently won a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship to fund her graduate studies for 2010–13.

But the Rotary scholarship and Uganda are never far from her heart.

“It’s hard to capture in words what being a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar has done for me,” Miri said. “Quite simply, Rotary gave me the chance to take a chance. They supported me in my quest to truly experience another culture, forge friendships, break down misconceptions and build bridges paved with an open mind and heart.”

—Joe Michael Feist

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