This is a tale of three young women pursuing three very different projects in three far-flung countries.
The connection? All three grew up in Omaha and graduated in 2008 from Westside High School. And all three now are Fulbright Scholars, awarded nearly yearlong grants under the U.S. government's flagship international educational exchange program.
No one can say how unusual it is for three high school classmates to earn awards through the highly competitive program. The U.S. State Department tracks Fulbright Scholars by university, not high schools.
But the awards themselves aren't common. About 1.8 million students receive bachelor's degrees from U.S. colleges and universities each year. Only 1,700 recent graduates got grants through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
Having the three winners in one class is a first for Westside guidance director Melissa Hansen, who has been with the school for 18 years.
“It's quite an honor,” she said. “That Class of 2008 was full of some super-achievers.”
The class owns Westside's highest-ever ACT composite score: 24.7.
Where are the three scholars now?
» Sara Rendell has been interviewing women in Burkina Faso in West Africa, investigating how social and cultural factors affect maternal health care. The country has a high number of women who die during pregnancy or childbirth.
» Lindsey Andersen left last month for Brazil, where she will study how grass-roots human rights groups have influenced that country's efforts to come to terms with past human rights abuses.
» Ana Lopez is in Nicosia, Cyprus, teaching English to middle school students at an inner-city school. Students in the advanced English class she started are drafting a government-funded comic book about bullying. She hopes to eventually release the book more widely in Cyprus and the United States.
It was Mary Lopez, Ana's mom, who made the connection among the three high school friends.
“It really is indicative of how much the world has shrunk ... and how important it is for young people to understand how their country impacts others and how they impact ours,” said Mary Lopez, a retired administrator with the University of Nebraska at Omaha's School of Public Administration.
The three young women who started out together are now taking markedly different paths.
Ana Lopez, 22, graduated last spring from Boston College, where she majored in English and theology and worked as opinions editor for the student newspaper.
She was interested in focusing her Fulbright program on conflict resolution. Cyprus is a divided country, Nicosia a divided city, with a United Nations-patrolled Green Line as a divider. The population to the south is largely Greek, with Turks to the north.
Today's youths, Lopez said, will set the tone for whether the country resolves the division. She initially planned on exploring that concept with her students through personal narrative. But more recently she and another woman decided to have the students write and illustrate a book about bullying — a universal middle school problem.
The students, she said, decided to make it a comic book. They're developing the plot and the characters, guided by input that a team of psychologists is gathering from students. “It's a fictional book based on their reality,” she said.
Lopez is scheduled to finish her program in June. She then plans to go to work at a Boston law firm, where she will explore various areas of the law, a career she's interested in pursuing.
Rendell, 22, spent her summer 2010 service trip volunteering in a hospital in Haiti, which had just been devastated by an earthquake.
Back at St. Louis University, where she graduated from in May 2012, she helped set up a program that allowed undergraduates to serve as patient liaisons at the school's free clinic for the uninsured in north St. Louis.
In both Haiti and St. Louis, she saw the barriers that people face in getting adequate health care.
In Burkina Faso, she's again looking at such barriers, working with an organization that collaborates with the country's health ministry and the U.S. Embassy. Maternal care there is subsidized by the government, but women still die of complications such as hemorrhages and infections that are less likely to be deadly in the United States.
Rendell has been speaking directly with women. To do so, the self-described “language person” learned Mòoré, a regional language. She's also fluent in French, which her family spoke in their home with her Sorbonne-educated grandmother. In Haiti, Rendell learned Creole.
From the women of Burkina Faso she has learning that it's not how much they have to pay for care that gets in the way, but the fact that they have to ask their husbands for the money. “The biggest cultural barrier is who is in charge of the pocketbook,” Rendell said.
Rendell has faced a few cultural barriers of her own. She doesn't mind going without a shower occasionally or washing laundry in a bucket. But she struggles with not having regular Internet access.
She is excited for medical school, though. She plans to start in the fall at the University of Pennsylvania. “Every day I'm faced with all the things I need to learn,” she said.
Andersen, 22, spent time between her graduation from UNL last May and her departure for Brazil as an intern at Freedom House, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that promotes human rights and democracy.
Andersen, who has a degree in political science and international studies, already has studied overseas. Several years ago she traveled to China to study its history, culture and politics.
She also spent a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina, studying human rights and Latin American history and politics. While there she worked at a genocide study center. She also became fluent in Spanish. Last year she interned at the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia.
Now she's learning Portuguese, Brazil's official language. While in Brazil, she plans to work with a number of organizations. Though other Latin American countries with histories of human rights abuses have pushed ahead in dealing with their past, Brazil has only recently moved to establish a truth commission.
After her time in Brazil, Andersen plans to return to Washington, D.C., to work and attend graduate school. She's leaning toward a career in public service and the international realm.
Laura Damuth, UNL's director of national and international fellowships, said the kind of experience that Andersen is getting will set her apart in her field.
“She'll learn a lot, but she'll also be a great ambassador for the United States in that country.”
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