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Students in experiential learning program discuss their life-changing journeys

​The 2019 Plastino Scholars, from left, Olivia Mann, Daniel Schaefer, Drew Sanclemente and Mickey Nguyen, with David Plastino shortly after finishing their presentations about their experiences.

A Buddhist orphanage in Vietnam. Mount Kilimanjaro. The rural United States.

Every year, a new group of University of Delaware Plastino Scholars ventures off campus to different parts of the globe with hopes of transforming society through independent projects. And when they return home, they often realize they were transformed along the way.

On May 2, at the annual Plastino Scholars Dinner, the 2019 scholars presented the details of their transformational journeys along with their personal and academic discoveries to a room full of proud parents, friends, faculty members, advisers and the newest cohort of Plastino Scholars who will follow in their footsteps during the coming year.  

“Their journeys each year allow them to explore diverse cultures, broaden their perspectives and cultivate empathy,” said John A. Pelesko, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “These journeys are about personal discovery and life-changing lessons.”

Created in 2007 by a generous gift from UD alumnus David Plastino, who earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1978, the program provides support to undergraduate students interested in pursuing self-designed, off-campus experiential learning opportunities. To be considered, students must propose an experience that will allow the pursuit of a passionate interest that goes beyond the scope of an academic course, normal summer job, internship or enrichment program.

Here’s a glimpse at what the outgoing scholars, all members of the Class of 2019, achieved during their excursions:

Mickey Nguyen

Motivated to better understand the role spirituality can play in patient care and overall happiness, Nguyen, who is earning an Honors degree with distinction in neuroscience, spent two months at a Buddhist orphanage in Vietnam where she was able to dive into Buddhist philosophy. By studying and interviewing orphanage staff and children, she observed how despite the hardships the children faced, they were generally happy living in a deeply spiritual environment filled with love and compassion.

“What I learned most from my Plastino Scholar experience was how I could bring those Buddhist philosophy concepts of patience and compassion and empathy into my future practice as a physician because that’s how I want to respond to suffering,” Nguyen said.

Drew Sanclemente

For Sanclemente, an Honors exercise science student, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was much more than a bucket list item. To her, the mountain was a physical representation of the difficulties she faced throughout her life.

“This wasn’t just about climbing a mountain, it was about climbing over my mountain because getting over a physical barrier helps you get through emotional barriers as well,” she said.

One of her ultimate goals was to collect data focused on making the mountain more accessible to others so they could utilize it to overcome traumatic experiences, just as she had. While in Tanzania, Sanclemente also worked with non-government organizations, interacting with survivors of sexual violence. Inspired by her Plastino Scholars experience and the philanthropy she received during her time at UD, she established a scholarship in Tanzania to help survivors of sexual violence get the support they need. She hopes to become a physician after graduation and help put an end to sexual violence forever.

Olivia Mann

After stumbling upon several disturbing national polls, one that showed that we, as a society, are losing track of history especially of the Holocaust and genocides, Mann, an Honors student in art history and history, set out to Arizona, Nebraska and Tennessee to explore how these topics are taught and studied in rural and predominantly Christian areas. She was particularly interested in how Americans, on a local level, can counter ignorance by expanding mandatory Holocaust and genocide education throughout the 40 states where it is not currently required.

“With the resurgence of white supremacy, ethnic genocide and race-based discrimination, now more than ever, we need to recognize repeating patterns so that we can prevent the horrors of the past from happening again,” said Mann as she reflected on what she took away from her experience.

Her research concluded with numerous findings in each state, such as how empathy is generally lost when the Holocaust is taught as a solely historical event out of fear of discussing politics. Mann plans to pursue a career in public service leadership and hopes to help ensure historical atrocities are never forgotten or repeated.

Daniel Schaefer

Inspired by a historical fiction novel he read in middle school and its Judaeo-Spanish setting, Schaefer, a linguistics and Spanish major, traveled to Greece over the summer to learn more about this rare language by conducting interviews with those who speak it. While he was able to expand his understanding of the language, his overall experience in Greece was marred by struggle. Schaefer, who uses a power wheelchair, quickly realized his surroundings were not as accessible as he had been led to believe when planning the trip. For example, with many streets lacking curbs, he had to fight against traffic to get around and none of the local busses were wheelchair accessible.  Schaefer spoke of his struggles with a positive outlook and excitement about how he plans to build upon his experience by continuing his research interviewing Judaeo-Spanish speakers in the United States.

In addition to scholars sharing their stories, the annual dinner also focused on passing the proverbial baton to the next cohort of Plastino Scholars. As such, Schaefer offered a few words of advice to the incoming group during his closing remarks:

“I hope everything goes to plan during your trips, but there are so many things that you just don’t anticipate happening,” he said. “Always remember you are not alone. All the Plastino Scholars feel the same way, that you can talk to us; you can talk to me. We’re a real community.”

2020 incoming Plastino Scholars

​David Plastino (second from right) welcomes the 2020 scholars (from left) Caleb Owens, Rachel Evans and Kelsey Murray.

The celebratory dinner also welcomed the newest group of Plastino Scholars, all members of the Class of 2020. Here's a look at their plans and what they hope to gain from the experience:

Kelsey Murray

Murray, a biological sciences major, will take a six-week road trip through the Northeast, spending multiple days in six pediatric nursing homes volunteering and interacting with children while interviewing staff to gain greater insight into patient-caregiver relationships. Her ultimate goal is to become a physician and open her own pediatric nursing home.

Caleb Owens

Owens, an Honors student with majors in philosophy, history and English, will spend a month in Estonia, primarily in the country’s capital, to explore the country’s e-governance system. He’ll shadow and interview government officials to further understand the technology and immerse himself in Estonian society to gain insights on the public’s perspectives on the e-governance system.

Rachel Evans

Evans, who is majoring in women and gender studies and in political science and international relations, will travel to England, where she will interview and participate in group activities with young women to learn about their patterns of consumption. She hopes to discover insights into the complex relationship of media and food.

For David Plastino, part of what makes the program so special is how it helps students access opportunities that were not available to him as a student. He hopes the program enriches their lives and creates a culture of philanthropy by encouraging scholars to pay it forward in whatever ways they can.

“I know part of their responses to these incredible experiences will be to remember them and to give back when they’re in a position to help others as well,” Plastino said. “It’s all about closing the circle and giving back.”

Article by Nadine Sabater; photos by Lane McLaughlin

Published May 23, 2019

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Used in the Home Page News Listing and for the News Rollup Page
The 2019 Plastino Scholars spoke about their transformational experiences, and welcomed a new group of scholars, at a celebration with donor David A. Plastino.

​The 2019 Plastino Scholars spoke about their transformational experiences in the enrichment program, and welcomed a new group of scholars, at a celebration with donor David A. Plastino.

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Plastino Scholars
  • Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science
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  • University of Delaware
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