Even after University alum Zachary Petroni explains in native Kiswahili that he is a student researcher, locals from the small Kenyan town of Gede question his intentions. To them, Petroni is like any other mzungu, or white person, passing through — there as a tourist rather than as a student.
Petroni said withstanding this reaction has been his biggest adjustment – other than the “tropical heat” and “de-industrialization” of his diet – while working as a Wallenberg fellow on the northern edge of Kenya’s Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve, where he has been researching “the relationship between conservation governance and human rights” for a month. Over the summer of 2013, he worked as a research assistant for the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Petroni, formerly a student in the Ford School of Public Policy, is the inaugural winner of the fellowship, which grants $25,000 to a graduating senior each year to pursue an independent learnings or exploration project anywhere in the world. He wrote in an e-mail interview that his overall objective is “interrogating the linkages between how conservation spaces are constructed and governed … and the consequences of this decision-making on the socio-economic, cultural and political well-being of people living in close proximity to such efforts.”
Each school on campus can select up to two nominees, whose applications are then forwarded to the Wallenberg Fellowship Selection Committee. The committee comprises representatives from various University units and colleges.
The fellowship was established in 2012 on the centennial of University alum Raoul Wallenberg’s birth. Wallenberg has been recognized for his role in World War II, where he helped coordinate the rescue of tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest.
“Having had some time to reflect and learn more about who and what Raoul Wallenberg was — a man who reveled in experiencing and understanding the ‘other,’ and demonstrated that the capacity for great good lies within compassion, tenacity, and a willingness to engage in outside-of-the-box though and action – I have come to see the award as a challenge to live my life in the service of others, and an opportunity to pursue experiences that will aid in this effort, whether now or in the future,” Petroni said.
Whether he is searching for illicit logging and hunting activities in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, interacting with members of local communities to learn more about their histories or listening to local activists tell stories in public forums, Petroni keeps busy, often working from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Recently, the University’s Board of Regents discussed sending more students to Africa in various programs. However, Rackham assistant dean John Godfrey said the fellowship has no intentions to focus on the specifically on Africa.
Godfrey said the fellowship is unique in that it offers students unprecedented freedom in using the large grant.
“This isn’t necessarily a research experience,” Godfrey said. “The intention here is to inspire and motivate students to think creatively about where they would really like to go with this extraordinary opportunity.”
He said the University is interested in expanding the fellowship to more than one student in the future, pending additional funds.
Early October, information about applying for the fellowship will be distributed to individual colleges throughout the University, and the next winner will be announced at the Honors Convocation in mid-March.