July 16, 2018 | ° F

Rutgers graduates win grant for cultural experiences

Photo by Courtesy of Mike Alvarez |

Mike Alvarez, a Ph.D. student, emigrated from the Philippines with his family when he was 10.

Coming from a different country adds difficulties to an individual’s life that adds on to the stress of pursuing a higher education. The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans honors and supports students who take advantage of this cultural baggage.

Two Rutgers graduate students, Natalie Jesionka and Mike Alvarez, have received fellowships from the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans for their cultural experience and involvement in multicultural societies.

The fellowship guarantees leadership opportunities in the desired field. The foundation awards up to $90,000 over two years, allowing Alvarez to dedicate time to his research and writing. Alvarez emigrated from the Philippines with his parents when he was 10 years old.

As a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, he analyzed the depiction of suicide in film and the impact of technology in preventing or promoting suicidal tendencies.

He is currently writing two books. The first explores the lives of mentally troubled artists such as Kurt Cobain — the second is a memoir of Alvarez’s past struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts.

“There is such a taboo surrounding suicide, and for the Soros Foundation to support my work really means a lot to me,” he said. “I appreciate their mission of acknowledging the contributions of immigrants to American society, whatever shape these contributions take.”

He proudly cherishes his background, admitting the challenges he encountered in the transition to America.

“My mother juggled multiple odd jobs, but we were still well below the poverty line,” he said.

Alvarez values his past experience as a psychiatric survivor and his path to recovery. It provided him self-awareness and development.

“You must seize every opportunity that presents itself. To achieve even one moment of success, you must be prepared to brave through 100 setbacks and disappointments,” he said.

George E. Atwood, a professor in the Department of Psychology, greatly admires Alvarez, who has been Atwood’s honor student. Atwood commends Alvarez as a writer and an intellectual.

“[Alvarez] is the best student I have ever seen in 40 years of teaching at Rutgers. … He writes with such grace and thinks so elegantly and interestingly that I feel certain his work is leading to a wonderful book. One that will embody a serious contribution to our knowledge of the creative process and its link to self-destruction,” Atwood said.

Jesionka, the other fellowship recipient, was deeply touched by the organization’s goal and the human stories which have inspired it.

Before co-founding Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, Paul Soro emigrated to America, which reflected a reflected similar challenges Jesionka’s parents experienced as immigrants from Poland.

“In reality, it does not matter where you come from, but what value you can offer to the country you are in,” Jesionka said.

Her fellowship will allow her to pursue her Ph.D. in sociology, and continue researching global human trafficking and human rights in Southeast Asia.

As founder and editor of “Shatter the Looking Glass Magazine,” which examines ethical travel, she created a space to share peope’s stories all over the world.

She also teaches human rights courses in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Rutgers-Newark and in a Norwegian college in New York City. She emphasizes the importance of public awareness to her students, she said.

She has expanded her knowledge in her areas of interest through being involved with Global Village and the Human Rights House at Rutgers.

Jeff Dunsavage, director of the Missing Americans Project, shared his initial impression of Jesionka, one of his students taking his course on global media at Rutgers in 2006.

“[Jesionka] was a quiet student, but when she did speak it was clear that everything she said came from direct, personal experience,” Dunsavage said. “It is hard not to be impressed by someone as young as she is who has traveled so widely and seen so much.”

Whenever she notified an absence from class, she often stated that she was going to be out of the country, arousing Dunsavage’s curiosity. Jesionka’s wide knowledge and wisdom at such a young age could not pass unnoticed.

When Dunsavage’s brother tragicly disappearing off the coast of Honduras, Dunsavage turned to Jesionka for her cultural expertise and advice. He said her regional knowledge and global perspective helped him stay focused on school matters while continuing the search for his brother.

“Young people who have traveled extensively sometimes acquire a bit of cosmopolitan conceit, a kind of ‘been there, done that’ attitude. Natalie is the opposite of that,” he said. “I think the amount of time she has spent with people who live in the humblest of conditions has helped her avoid becoming jaded.”

Sabrina Restivo

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