They retraced the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, provided support to victims of human trafficking in Albania, and harvested the eggs from threespine stickleback fish. They learned how to reclaim scorched earth, and prowled the Paris catacombs to investigate the ways we approach death.
And they did it all as undergraduates at Clark University.
On May 2, five alumni members of the Steinbrecher and Anton Fellows Society returned to campus to talk about how their fellowship experiences influenced their life paths. Watch the panel discussion here.
The panel was moderated by Sharon Krefetz, professor of political science, the director of the Steinbrecher Fellowship Program.
Brady Wagoner ’03, who majored in philosophy and psychology, is a professor of psychology at Aalborg University in Denmark and heads its Center for Cultural Psychology. His fellowship project involved studying cemeteries and other monuments as part of his research on “how we relate to the dead” and how people’s approach to death intersects with the way they address issues in their lives. Wagoner, who earned his doctorate at the University of Cambridge, continues to do research on memory, including “the tools and strategies we use with each other to prompt memory.” His work, he said, is “quite close” to the type of research he did for his fellowship project at Clark.
Etel Capacchione ’04 was so concerned about the scourge of women being trafficked in her native Albania that she made it the focus of her fellowship project. Capacchione worked at a shelter for women who had been abducted and sold into prostitution, conducting interviews with the victims and looking for ways to safely guide them back into society. When she returned to Worcester and publicized her findings she encountered strong criticism from some in the local Albanian community “for airing dirty laundry,” she said. “It just made me speak louder.” Capacchione today works at Crittenton Women’s Union, an organization that helps low-income women and families in Worcester become self-sufficient.
Adam Tomczik ’06, M.A. ’07, devoted his fellowship project to “On the Road” author Jack Kerouac’s vision of America. After immersing himself in the writer’s novels and poetry he retraced Kerouac’s journey from Lowell, Mass., to San Francisco and documented how the country had changed during the intervening decades. Tomczik went on to attend the University of Minnesota Law School and works as a prosecutor in the Adult Violent Crimes Division of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis.
Tomczik recalled his fellowship as “a life-changing experience.”
“You can read about how big the country is. It’s another thing to get behind the wheel and drive it, or bike it, or walk it. [The experience] changes the perception of who we are as Americans.”
Ali Berlent ’13, a student at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, did her fellowship project in the Foster-Baker biology lab at Clark, studying the effects of stress on the evolution of the threespine stickleback fish. Berlent explored how maternal stress impacted the egg-laying process, which required her to study stickleback eggs. Berlent said her Steinbrecher Fellowship experience informed her thinking on ethical issues in the sciences, allowed her to hone her research skills, and taught her how much time and effort go into the writing of a large research grant.
For his Steinbrecher Fellowship project, Joey Danko ’13, M.A. ’14, learned how to conduct a controlled burn of a 20-acre parcel of land owned by the EcoTarium in Worcester and created a restoration plan for it using GIS technology. “I wanted to be a catalyst for positive change,” he said. Currently a Ph.D. student in geography at the University of Connecticut, Danko also works with the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce to create maps depicting the city’s recent growth and to provide an inventory of assets and available real estate opportunities. “To have someone support me in my research has been really important,” Danko said of his fellowship, which also helped him “push myself forward.”
Asked by Krefetz what advice they would give current students to make the most of their Clark experience, the alumni offered a wide range of responses.
“Follow your interests. Don’t feel obliged to fit into a discipline,” Wagoner said. “A lot of innovations have come from moving ideas from one place to another.”
Capacchione advised students to follow their intuition and “get to know the community you’re working with, and your own social identity within [that community].” She said she wrestled with the implications of using victims as research subjects, but knew that she was aiming to improve the greater good. “This couldn’t just be for me,” she said.
Tomczik discouraged students from focusing only on obtaining a job and recommended they dedicate themselves to developing skills. “Learn to read and write, and take the critical approach,” he said, noting that his fellowship provided the theme for his history master’s thesis on the social and economic evolution of Chicago’s West Madison Street (one of Kerouac’s locales).
The individualized attention he received from professors at Clark is not something students get at other colleges, Danko said, and Clark students should seize the opportunities to work closely with faculty.
Berlent recalled that when she hit a roadblock in her research, she needed to find creative ways to solve the problem. “Not everything goes as planned,” she said, and learning to be adaptable and nimble when the unexpected occurs is essential.
Stephen Steinbrecher ’55, who, with his wife Phyllis, created an endowed fund to support the fellowships in memory of their late son, David Steinbrecher ’81, talked about how very important the program is to his family (which includes three more Clark graduates: his daughter Marcy Puklin ’80 and her husband Alan Puklin ’81, and their daughter Rachel Puklin ’10). He noted that the students who are awarded the fellowships have opportunities rarely available to undergraduate students. “My goal is to continue to plant Clark at the forefront of independent study and learning,” he said. He lauded Krefetz, who is retiring after 43 years at Clark, for her leadership and thanked her for her friendship. “Thank you very much for what you’ve done for my family, for this program, and for the Clark community,” he said.
Krefetz said being involved with the fellowship program, which she will continue to oversee for another year, has been a “labor of love.” She thanked the Anton and Steinbrecher families for their support and encouragement. “I’ve had such joy and pleasure working with students when they do their fellowship projects and seeing what they go on to do after they become alumni,” she said.