New Givens Fellows off to Singapore, Madagascar

Maggie Doremus and Natalie Olson’s excitement was almost palpable when they discussed their plans as the 2008 Givens Fellows. Doremus will be going to Singapore and Olson to Madagascar.

Maggie Doremus
Maggie Doremus

Named for the late BGSU historian, the Stuart R. Givens Memorial Fellowship was created by Drs. Chris and Ellen Dalton to allow one or two undergraduates each year to pursue an intense interest in a self-designed experience not possible in a traditional classroom or study-abroad experience. Chris Dalton retired last year as senior vice president for finance and administration, and Ellen is coordinator of budgets for the College of Musical Arts.

Doremus, a sophomore from Broadview Heights majoring in intervention services for people with severe disabilities, will leave Wednesday (June 11) to spend two months in Singapore studying the special-needs education system. She plans to visit various schools and classrooms to observe and interview administrators, teachers and parents. “I want to see how culture plays a role in the services provided to children with special needs,” she said. The Southeast Asian country’s approach to educating those with different abilities uses learning outcomes based in part on Buddhist history and teachings, she noted, and the outcomes are often quite different from those set forth in the United States.

Doremus said she became interested in the island nation when her aunt and uncle, a faculty member at the National University of Singapore, moved there, “but I didn’t want to go there and just be a tourist.” Her aunt is a special-needs teacher, and her two cousins both have learning disabilities, so she will also have an intimate view of how the system works. “I’m eager to see different teaching techniques that aren’t taught here,” she said. Her plans include a visit to a government-run special-education school for students with autism that is “completely separate” from traditional schools.

“Singapore is a very diverse country where there’s a blend of cultures,” she said. “It’s my first time out of the country, except for a trip to Canada, and I’m looking forward to experiencing what it’s like to be in the minority. I’ll be the ‘different’ person there. I’m also excited to experience living in a big city and an inner-city school with very diverse students.”

Difference has long been a theme in Doremus’s family and academic life. “My family has a range of abilities,” gifted in some areas and challenged in others, she said. She has been involved with special education since high school, where she volunteered in a self-contained classroom for students with special needs designed to give them the practical skills to make the transition to independent living.

She is also interested in deaf culture and deaf education, has studied American Sign Language since high school and plans to take a short sign-language course while in Singapore.

Doremus also intends to maintain a blog while there, which will be posted to YouTube. Type in “Givens Fellowship” to track her activities.

Olson to Madagascar
This time next month will find Olson living in a tent in Madagascar, working in one of six project areas sponsored by Azafady, the U.K.-based nongovernmental organization through which she is volunteering. Through its 10-week Pioneer program, Azafady seeks to help Malagasys with environmental, conservation, health and sanitation issues, as well as promote infrastructure- and institutional-strengthening and the development of sustainable livelihoods.

Natalie Olson
Natalie Olson

“I could be working in any one of these, but I know I will definitely be building latrines wherever we go,” Olson said good-naturedly. “They help the people and we get to use them, too.”

She will also spend some time in the southern region of the country at the Botanical and Zoological Park of Tsimbazaza with the organization’s lemur conservation program, helping gather information to help protect the endangered primates.

Living in a tent colony and eating the local diet, “mostly rice and beans,” she said, will help the 21 volunteers experience what life is like for most local people. Ninety percent of the cost of the trip goes to support Azafady’s efforts. Volunteers bring their own tents and equipment, which has Olson shopping at sporting goods stores when she’s not reading books on the Malagasy political atmosphere and environmental issues in preparation for the trip.

Though Madagascar is far away and the living conditions will be primitive, “it’s comforting to be with an organization that’s been there for at least 10 years, so they really know what they’re doing,” she said.

The work will be good preparation for the future, she added. “I’d like to continue to work in development and, whether I’m living in the U.S. or abroad, I need some experience of other cultures. It will also be good to see people who are comfortably living the life I would like to go into. The Peace Corps has a number of positions there.

“It’s amazing the number of doors this project has opened for me, and I haven’t even gone yet,” she said. Faculty members at Bowling Green have offered her internships when she returns and asked her to look into topics they’re researching while she’s in Madagascar, for example.

Her journey to Madagascar will be almost as circuitous as the route Olson has followed to identify her avocation. The senior from Plover, Wis., entered BGSU as a 2005 Alumni Laureate Scholar majoring in psychology. However, when she took advantage of an Honors Program opportunity to study development at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, England,  “I completely loved it,” she said.

Even economic policy and political science—subjects she said she would ordinarily have found daunting—were very interesting to her in that context, and she decided that development was the direction for her. She also began volunteering with the Fair Trade Program.

While at East Anglia, a poster for Azafady on a bulletin board caught her eye and she became interested in working with the group. The Givens Fellowship has provided that opportunity.

Now, on June 26, she will fly from Wisconsin to Minneapolis, then to Amsterdam where she will spend a few days with friends from Norwich, then on to Johannesburg, South Africa, and finally to Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, headquarters of Azafady. There she will meet up with the other 20 volunteers, who are coming from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. “It’s a good variety of people,” she said.

June 9, 2008