Connecting with the past and looking toward the future are plans for two Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College students who were named as 2011 Barksdale Award winners.
Martina Cotelo of Oxford and Billy Forrest of Randolph were presented with the awards Thursday (Feb. 24) at the Honors College spring convocation.
The $5,000 award supports creative, courageous projects proposed by talented students who are willing to take risks with their time and efforts and who propose ambitious, independent programs of study, research or humanitarian endeavors. The Barksdale Awards were established to encourage students to test themselves in environments that don’t have the built-in safeties of a classroom, teaching lab or library.
Both students presented projects that remind people that “attention must be paid” to personal stories and human needs, said Douglass Sullivan-González, Honors College dean.
“Easy answers are not good enough,” Sullivan-González said. “We need to give full weight to the individuals behind the statistics, whether we’re dealing with health care or the Holocaust. Both winning projects are impelled and directed by a personal connection to an unmet need; the chance to respond to that connection is exactly what the Barksdale Award is meant to enable.”
Cotelo, who was born in Uruguay and lived there until moving to Oxford in 2001, will travel to Montevideo, Uruguay, this summer to dive into history. Before her death two-and-a-half years ago, Cotelo’s grandmother in Uruguay began mailing her granddaughter portions of her autobiography, sharing details of the story of her life as a German Jew who emigrated to Uruguay to escape Nazi persecution.
The letters, all in Spanish, include Cotelo’s grandmother’s drawings of the scenes and people she describes, and are full of memories and stories.
“I began talking to my aunt and inquiring about any other documentation that might still be in Uruguay,” said Cotelo, a sophomore majoring in international studies, accountancy and German. “After discovering that there is still a huge amount of material, I decided it was up to me to finish her book and leave her story complete.”
The Barksdale award should allow Cotelo to unearth the stories and share them with the world. Although she originally planned to focus on recording oral histories of other German Jews who fled to Uruguay, the idea soon developed into a combination of recording both her grandmother’s history and that of her grandmother’s friend Hanne Blitzer, who also fled the Nazis around the same time.
“As of right now, all I have concerning my grandmother’s journey is her last day in Germany, a rough sketch of a family tree and the first half of the journey from Germany to Uruguay,” Cotelo said. “Through her letters in Uruguay, I hope to write the missing parts of her story. I hope to find her feelings and emotions during this difficult time, and I hope to link her stories with what was happening in Uruguay and the world around that time.
“In this way, I am not really looking to uncover what others might refer to as a ‘treasure.’ Instead, I am simply hoping to see history through her eyes.”
She hopes the documents will be shared with the Jewish Museum of Berlin, as being used to turn her grandmother’s story into a book.
While Cotelo sifts through the past, Forrest will be taking on the future. The daughter of farmers who could not afford hospital care and didn’t qualify for Medicaid, Forrest was born at home. A doctor cared for both her and her mother and later provided her vaccinations for only $5.
Deeply conscious of health care that does not exist for many rural residents, Forrest plans to create and conduct a survey to determine how rural Mississippians feel about health care reform and which specific measures they wish to see enacted.
“I am sincerely grateful for this opportunity, because I believe that my research will help to democratize access to health care in Mississippi,” said Forrest, who is on track to graduate in 2013 with bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and biology. “I want my research to be the voice of the rural Mississippians who are working two or three minimum-wage jobs to support their families, but who do not have access to quality, affordable health care.
“With the help of the Barksdale Award I plan on launching a large-scale survey based on the methods outlined in Dr. Floyd Fowler’s book ‘Improving Survey Questions,’ and based on the knowledge I gained in a class I took on research methodology.”
Before the actual survey, Forrest is to conduct pre-field testing in May to evaluate the survey’s content. After changes have been made, the survey will gauge Mississippians’ opinions on health care reform.
In June, she plans to distribute the survey to community health centers across northeast Mississippi, targeting charity health clinics such as Oxford Medical Ministries.
“One of the greatest aspects of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College is that students are encouraged to begin thinking about research early in their undergraduate careers,” Forrest said. “This encouragement fosters the ideal academic setting for students who want more from their undergraduate experience than a diploma.”