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Alumnus Wins Fulbright Award to Research Migrant Workers in Mexico

22 August 2014 | 2:17 pm By:
Contact: Anton Vander Zee, director of nationally competitive awards, 843.953.1044

Levi Vonk ’13 was dismayed and saddened by the living conditions of migrant farmworkers he encountered during a summer internship in North Carolina in 2010.

Levi Vonk '13

Levi Vonk ’13

So profound was the experience that it continues to influence and inspire his education and research, including his plans to conduct independent research in Mexico next year through a grant from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

Vonk, a former student in the Honors College, earned a degree in international studies from the College of Charleston in 2013 before moving on to graduate school at the University of Sussex in England on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship. He will graduate in September 2014 with a master’s degree in the anthropology of development and social transformation.

Vonk’s Fulbright research in 2015 will take him to León, Mexico, where he will live and work with migrant communities to analyze how international policies, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), are having a tangible impact at the local level.

“More migrants than ever are migrating back to Mexico, but because it’s so new, there are few people studying why these people are returning and what their plans are for the future,” says Vonk.

Moved to Action

Migrant-workers-embedVonk vividly recalls his first encounter with the social and economic issues faced by migrant farmworkers. He had just completed his freshman year in the Honors College and had signed on to a summer internship with the Durham, N.C.-based nonprofit group Student Action with Farmworkers, which works to improve the lives of migrant farmworkers in the Southeastern United States.

“It was the first time I had ever encountered poverty, and to see it in my own backyard was not only shocking but enraging,” Vonk recalls of the months he spent teaching English to the workers and giving reading lessons to their children.

Seeing farmworkers laboring under dangerous and unhealthy conditions for meager wages awakened something in Vonk. “The relationships I built that summer, and the injustice that I saw people I cared about struggle against on a daily basis, is something I have never been able to shake,” he says.

RELATED: Watch Levi Vonk discuss his experience working with migrant workers in North Carolina as part of his talk at the 2013 in!Genius event.

Inspired by what he witnessed in North Carolina, Vonk returned to Charleston and established an organization called Hispanic Outreach and Literacy Advancement (HOLA), which sent students from the College into local migrant communities to teach English to Hispanic families.

At the College, Vonk further expanded on his academic concentration in Latin American and Caribbean Studies by taking study abroad trips to Mexico and Cuba. In recognition of his academic success and leadership at the College, he received the Bishop Robert Smith Award, the highest and most selective undergraduate honor awarded at the College.

Levi Vonk speaks at the College's 2013 In!Genius event.

Levi Vonk speaks at the College’s 2013 In!Genius event.

Vonk credits his education at the College for preparing him for a seamless transition to graduate school and for providing the opportunities that opened his eyes to the plight of immigrants.

“Levi was the model Honors College student in the sense that he took advantage of every type opportunity that we promote and support,” says Trisha Folds-Bennett, dean of the Honors College. “He studied abroad multiple times, he pursued summer internships, he worked proactively in the community, and stepped up to lead when called upon.”

Folds-Bennett says that Vonk is a great example of why scholarship and programmatic support for highly talented students is so important. “It was my pleasure to support Levi while he was here, and his success as an alumnus is a source of pride for all of us in the Honors College and across campus.”

Like many students, Vonk benefited from the guidance and resources provided by the College’s Office of Nationally Competitive Awards (NCA), which helps students identify and apply for scholarships and fellowships for undergraduate and graduate study, independent research projects and a variety of study abroad opportunities.

Vonk-CubaAnton Vander Zee, assistant professor of English and director of the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards, works closely with students to guide them through complex application processes – matching prospective applicants with specific awards and offering feedback on personal statements, staging mock interviews and organizing internal selection committees.

“NCA is committed to raising CofC’s national and international profile as our students pursue prestigious opportunities at home and abroad,” Vander Zee says. “And student success in this arena would not be possible without the many faculty and staff at the College who put an enormous amount of effort into supporting these students by serving on the internal selection committees, helping to review applications, and writing strong letters of support. It really does take a campus.”

RELATED: Contact NCA for information on the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship, Fulbright Grants, Critical Language Scholarships, NOAA Hollings Scholarships and more.

Vonk is looking forward to beginning his research in Mexico next year and hopes to eventually report his findings in academic journals and use them to continue his research in a Ph.D. program. He’s also considering the possibility of writing about his experiences in magazines, newspapers, or even a book.

“I want to get these migrants’ stories out to a larger audience,” he says. “The more I have worked with migrant populations – especially migrants in the U.S. – the more passionate I become.  On every level – whether it be social or theoretical or activist – the issues surrounding migrants working and living in the US are some of the most interesting, enriching, and pressing matters in our country today.”

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