Introducing the 2020 Fulbright scholars

Ben LaFond
Ben LaFond
Grace Hamilton
Grace Hamilton
Jacob Wentz
Jacob Wentz

By Abby Weingarten

Two New College thesis students have been awarded Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Awards this year, and one has been selected as an alternate.

In January, Jacob Wentz will be traveling to Belgium, Grace Hamilton will go to Taiwan, and Ben LaFond was selected as an alternate for a program in the United Kingdom (an alternate receives the award if the selected candidate turns down the offer).

“We’re so excited about these Fulbright scholars joining our long list of Fulbrighters. It’s just another example of the incredible opportunities that await students at New College,” said Dwayne Peterson, the director of New College’s Center for Career Engagement and Opportunity (CEO).

Duane Smith, Ph.D., assistant director of prestigious fellowships and scholarships for the CEO, said there were also five semifinalists this year: Sydney Clingo, Mairead Howley, Robyn McCartan, Emma Todd and Kaeli Williams.

Sponsored by the United States Department of State, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program inspires scholars to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and primary and secondary school teaching worldwide. The program awards about 2,000 grants annually in all fields of study and operates in more than 140 countries. Approximately $25,000 in support is offered per award, which covers travel, health insurance and a stipend (based on the cost of living in the host country).

Since 1968, a total of 85 New College students have received Fulbright scholarships (this includes Hamilton and Wentz). The top years for Fulbright recipients at New College were 2009 (with eight students), 2010 (with seven) and 2011 (with eight).

“For New College students who have developed their self-reliance, embraced the spirit of intellectual inquiry, and developed their independent research skills, the Fulbright experience provides an ideal next step in their intellectual and professional development,” Smith said.

Hamilton is pursuing an East Asian studies/Chinese area of concentration, and her thesis is entitled Female Community Power in the Development of the Chinese Boys’ Love Genre. She will be teaching elementary and middle school students in Taiwan, and further strengthening her study of Mandarin.

“I’ve studied Mandarin for the past four years at New College, and now I get to travel to Taiwan and use my skills to share my culture and learn more about theirs,” said Hamilton, whose adviser is Jing Zhang, Ph.D., associate professor of Chinese language and culture. “Fulbright’s goal of mutual understanding is very important to me as an individual.”

Hamilton’s coursework at New College helped her connect with the history and culture in East Asia, especially in China and Taiwan, and she always aspired to visit both countries.

“If I hadn’t studied Chinese at New College, I likely would not have ended up on this path, and I’m very thankful for the opportunities New College has given me,” Hamilton said. “My professors were all very helpful during the application process, and Nicole Gelfert [associate director of residential education and fellowships coordinator] had weekly phone calls with me for the entire summer to go over my essays. I couldn’t have done it without their support.”

Wentz has an international and area studies/economics area of concentration, and his adviser is Amy Reid, Ph.D., professor of French language and literature. Wentz’s thesis is entitled Urbanization and the Spread of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Case Study of Lagos, Nigeria, and Johannesburg, South Africa. The Fulbright position in Belgium will help Wentz develop his skills in facilitating international connection through language.

“I dream of developing a career in international development, foreign service or global journalism. As the nerve center for the European Union, NATO and transatlantic diplomacy, Belgium will offer me the opportunity to be immersed in a diverse international community central to my goals,” Wentz said. “As a first-generation, low-income student, I am so excited to have an opportunity to see more of the world and chase my dreams.”

It was not an easy road for Wentz, Hamilton or LaFond to get to this stage of the Fulbright selection. They each applied in October and, by late fall, the United States selection committee reviewed their applications and recommended certain candidates.

“For some programs, and this is the case with the one Ben applied to, it is not unusual for the host country selection committee to rank the candidates as No. 1 and No. 2. The No. 1 candidate is offered the award and the No. 2 (usually an equally strong candidate) is designated as an alternate,” Smith said. “The No. 1 candidate has a timeframe in which to accept or decline the award offering and, if the No. 1 candidate declines, the award is offered to the alternate.”

LaFond is studying biology/neuroscience with adviser/biology professor Sandra Gilchrist, Ph.D. He wrote his thesis on the effects of temperature on the feeding behavior and parasitic load in Pomacea insularum and Pomacea paludosa, and sought a Fulbright to study wild animal biology at the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom. He hoped to explore how climate change is affecting the spread of chytrid (a fungal pathogen), which is causing a massive biodiversity crisis in amphibian species globally. And he would have educated and trained citizens on the identification of amphibians.

“While I was not selected for the grant, I am grateful for how much I have learned about myself and my motivations behind wanting to help animals,” LaFond said. “New College is great in that it allowed me to pursue classes that I’m interested in. For example, I was able to take a course in field herpetology, which introduced me to what chytrid was, and I kind of have been stuck on the topic ever since.”

For LaFond and his fellow Novo Collegians, the Fulbright application process has taught them about who they are and who they ultimately want to be.

Wentz is still awed by the opportunity. Growing up on a small farm in Hudson, Florida, Wentz never thought it would be possible for him to enter the field of international affairs or pursue such a prosperous career path.

“While I still feel like an imposter, this award has given me so much hope for my future,” Wentz said. “New College has taught me how to think critically, offered me opportunities to explore my academic and extracurricular interests, and allowed me to develop invaluable connections with extraordinary students, faculty and staff members. I am so thankful for the academic, professional and personal growth I’ve experienced at New College.”

For more information on the Fulbright program, visit us.fulbrightonline.org.

Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.


Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre campus on Sarasota Bay is home to more than 700 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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