Wolff scholarship awarded to an “outstanding” graduate

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His adventure around the world began with a course on space.

Claire James, the first recipient of the Wolff Scholarship, which provides substantial funds for post-graduation travel, identifies an early astronomy course as key to how she approached her college education.

Claire James (Photo: Colton Mansavage)

“I might never have sought out this class if it weren’t for the College of Letters & Science’s insistence that its students learn broadly across many disciplines,” says James, who graduated in May with a major in economics and international studies, and European studies and French certificates. “I went to astronomy class thinking I was just going to learn the constellations, but then we calculate how long a supernova has to go before it explodes! It was hard – I was always on office hours – but I did it. And I learned that, rather than worrying about failure, I wanted to embrace the unexpected and develop the skills to be curious.

The College of Letters & Science Wolff Scholarship offers $45,000 to an L&S senior “to pursue their boundless passions,” as donors Paul Martin Wolff ’63 and Rhea S. Schwartz describe it. The scholarship emphasizes both academic achievement and community service. “When we set out to create this opportunity, we knew there were students with incredible talents and a desire for service that we could support,” said UW-Madison history graduate Paul Wolff. “Claire James is clearly an exceptional graduate who we are proud to champion as she continues these laudable efforts.”

James credits another UW-Madison class for showing him how to convert a desire to help others into action. In “Economic Geography and Location Behavior,” the class engaged in a research project on a planned bus rapid transit system for the city of Madison, asking tough questions about the plan’s impacts on gentrification, lake pollution, small business success and more.

“We studied what a well-intentioned program can mean for real people. I discovered what it really means to listen and learn from those affected. It’s great to have ambitions and goals to help people, but you really need to understand How? ‘Or’ Whatit will happen, through practical experiences in the field. This class was influential in James’s decision to study economics, specifically poverty alleviation through community development.

This summer, James will work on English programming in Nagasaki, Japan, then move to Seoul, South Korea to teach English to high school students who plan to study at American universities. This builds on her volunteer experiences with Madison’s Open Doors for Refugees, where she helped English language learners at Madison College practice conversation.

“It profoundly changed my understanding of equity and inclusiveness,” she says. “Even the most supportive systems, like healthcare, have flaws when users can’t understand instructions.”

His fascination with the intersections of economics, poverty and geography leads James to do field research for the second half of his trip. In January, she will volunteer with the Associated Center for Agro-Based Development (ACADES) in Lilongwe, Malawi, which is a UW-Madison Malawi Project Partner. James will contribute to ACADES initiatives that aim to empower smallholder farmers. Later that spring, she will volunteer with the Sehgal Foundation in Gurugram, India, which supports a wide range of community initiatives. James will be working on a project examining gender roles in agriculture.

The last stop will be in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a Spanish academy for the intensive study of this language.

“The only way to make meaningful change is to have people who bring different skills, ideas and experiences,” she explains. “You learn a lot about yourself when you put yourself in a totally new situation away from your comfortable routines. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have this amazing experience.

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