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News Pursuing their passion

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Plastino Scholars receive grants for travel to expand academic and personal horizons

​Students (from left) Amy Ciminnisi, Elizabeth Habash and Kate Uray will pursue their greatest research passions as the 2020 class of Plastino Scholars.

Acceptance into the Plastino Scholars Program at the University of Delaware is the first step of a global journey — but, as the Plastino Scholars themselves can explain, the research ideas that shape their travels are rooted deep in their own interests and UD experiences.

Whether inspired by their family history or curious to learn more about a subject outside the classroom, they have long been building toward taking this next step. 

For incoming Plastino Scholar Amy Ciminnisi, a junior in the Honors Program majoring in anthropology, it was in the fall of 2018 that she first thought about expanding her studies with a trip to Malaysia.

She was then taking a class on the people and cultures of Southeast Asia, which piqued her interest around how Malaysian youth were navigating political change.

“One of the main things that I’ve learned at UD is to always push for that thing that you feel is unattainable, because you don’t know what will happen,” Ciminnisi said. “As I kept on studying and researching different aspects of Malaysian culture, it became more natural to me to think, ‘I can go there and do this.’”

This spring, Ciminnisi learned she had been accepted into the Plastino Scholars Program after sharing her research proposal centered on learning the personal stories and dreams of young people in Malaysia. For now, that experience is temporarily on hold due to the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which has also curtailed University travel. Ciminnisi and her fellow 2020 Plastino Scholars anticipate packing their bags in the winter of 2021 to explore their chosen subjects. 

Through the Plastino Scholars Program students are able to explore their greatest academic research dreams — curiously following their interests to every corner of the globe, from the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro to the capital of Estonia. To be considered for the program, 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

In traveling to Malaysia, Ciminnisi will gain a deeper understanding of the people and politics there, expanding upon what she learned in the classroom. Ciminnisi kept in touch with classmates from that earlier course — some of whom were based in Malaysia at the Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman and joined via video conferencing — and will now be able to meet them in person.

“I’m just really excited to learn about the personal stories and dreams of these young people, and how they experience the world and Malaysian politics,” Ciminnisi said. “It’s something crucial in anthropology, actually being in the space that you’re learning and studying about. Otherwise, there’s the possibility for you to make inaccurate interpretations, because you aren’t in the space and aren’t actually seeing all the cultural dynamics playing out.”

As a Plastino Scholar, Elizabeth Habash’s research will take her to Amman, Jordan, where she hopes to gain a better understanding of how differences in culture, religion and language shape medical care. A junior in the Honors Program majoring in biology and minoring in Arabic and women and gender studies, Habash’s career goal is to become a physician for the U.S. Army and potentially work in the Middle East. However, her trip and research interests are also based on personal experience.

Habash’s family is from the Middle East and her grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, prefers to now communicate in Arabic. Habash hopes her experience will help her treat future patients by helping her better understand the experience of the patient, and how their decisions are shaped by their own background. She added that the trip is just as much a learning experience as it is a chance to grow culturally.

“The culture difference and how to navigate those situations, that’s not something you can learn in a textbook. We kind of learn it when we shadow doctors in the U.S., but sometimes it can be hard to be aware of cultural differences if you haven’t interacted directly with patients,” Habash said. “Understanding the thought process is going to stay with me forever and make me more sensitive.”

Taking a personal passion and translating it into an opportunity that will help shape and inform a future career is also at the heart of Kate Uray’s Plastino Scholar research. Uray, an Honors sophomore pre-veterinary medicine major, describes herself as “someone who has always loved animals and wildlife.” Her research will take her to Texas and Costa Rica, where she will explore the various practices of people operating wildlife sanctuaries. 

“Wildlife, especially, is a vulnerable population. They don’t necessarily have someone representing their best interests,” Uray said. “I feel compelled and find purpose in caring for them and making sure they are getting the care they need.” 

Without the Plastino Scholars Program, Uray said she likely would not have the opportunity to study abroad. She anticipates her travels will also help her grow personally. She hopes that, when she returns from her research, she will be able to speak to UD students with similar interests, both to share her knowledge and open their eyes to unique learning opportunities.

“Words cannot express how excited I was,” Uray said about discovering she was a new Plastino Scholar. “It was something I wouldn’t have expected for my college experience, but there are a lot of opportunities that UD has for us. It’s something designed to make a student’s individual dreams come true.”

David A. Plastino Scholars Program

The Plastino Scholars Program was established in 2007 by a gift from College of Arts and Sciences alumnus David A. Plastino to help outstanding University of Delaware undergraduate students realize their dreams by supporting them in self-designed, off-campus learning experiences that create a difference in their lives and in the lives of others.

The David A. Plastino Program awards study grants to selected undergraduate students who exhibit extraordinary talent, promise and imagination. The grants provide funds that make a transformational difference in the lives of Plastino Scholars and enable them to pursue a passionate interest to a degree not otherwise possible.

For more information on the program and the experience of past scholars, visit www.cas.udel.edu/plastino-scholars.

Article by Dara McBride; photos courtesy of Amy Ciminnisi, Elizabeth Habash and Kate Uray

Published June 11, 2020

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The 2020 Plastino Scholars, undergraduate students pursuing expanded academic interests, will travel to Malaysia, Jordan and Costa Rica.

The 2020 Plastino Scholars, undergraduate students who are each pursuing an expanded academic interest, will travel to Malaysia, Jordan and Costa Rica.

6/12/2020
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