The first sophomores ever to win the Marina Keegan Fellowship, Jayanth Uppaluri and Maia Pandey (both ’20), aim to uphold the late alumna’s value of activism by raising autism awareness and educating girls in Nepal about women’s health, respectively.
First established 2012 in honor of Marina Keegan ’08, the fellowship offers grants to sophomores and juniors pursuing activities that intersect with Marina’s interests while at school.
Using a budget of $500 to cover the cost of gas, Jayanth will drive across Massachusetts and interview members of several communities that work with people with autism, including the New England Center for Children in Southborough, a charity called Autism Speaks in downtown Boston, and the Cotting School in Lexington. He aims to talk with a range of people—such as parents, teachers, siblings, and friends of those with autism—in hopes of conveying their various perspectives and increasing autism awareness, likely through posters and a community building speech.
“I bet that a good portion of the student body might never have interacted with an autistic person in their lives,” he said. “That shouldn’t be happening because autism is a common condition. People with autism are human, too, so we need to know how to interact with them as we would interact with any other person.”
Jayanth said his autistic brother inspired him to apply for the fellowship and to share his understanding with the rest of the community.
“I wanted to do a project of my own that would give back to BB&N—specifically, in a personal way,” he said.
Drama Teacher Mark Lindberg, Jayanth’s advisor, said Jayanth is the right person to carry out such a project.
“Educating the population about differences—autism specifically—is really important for the community,” he said. “Jayanth is passionately engaged by the issue because of his family situation, and I’m confident that he will do the homework necessary to discover and then convey to the community important insights and information about autism.”
Maia plans to use her budget of $65o to print 150 copies of a short storybook she is composing in both Nepali and English. The book will have a main character and a simple story arc that provides information on menstruation.
In Nepal, Maia said, no one teaches girls about women’s health.
“Menstruation is a taboo subject in Nepali villages,” she added. “I want this book to teach young girls that getting their period is a natural part of life and that health is not something to be ashamed about.”
Having organized the project with the Himalayan Children’s Charities (HCC)—an agency that works to send orphaned children to school—Maia will travel to Kathmandu, Nepal, in July with her parents and meet three HCC staff. Throughout her time in Nepal, the staff will facilitate her project by accompanying her on visits to two schools in Dhading, a major district outside Kathmandu. There they will distribute the book to pre-teenaged girls. Maia plans to talk through the book with the girls, discuss women’s health in general, and hand out up to 50 kits containing feminine products.
With a Nepali background, Maia speaks fluent Nepali and is already familiar with the country and culture. She said her family already had plans to travel to Nepal, and she took advantage of those in her project design.
Maia became affiliated with HCC through an internship last summer and led a Boston fundraiser for the agency in November. The idea for her project began to form as a result of those connections, Maia said.
“After doing the fundraiser, I wanted to do something that would directly impact kids in Nepal,” she said. “Then the fellowship [application] came along, and it seemed like a great way to fund the project.”
Marina’s essays also inspired her, Maia said.
“I thought her acute awareness of the world aligned with my vision of reacting to this specific issue, and I wanted to honor it somehow,” she said.
The fellowship was born in the wake of Marina’s death in 2012, when Director of College Counseling Amy Selinger, English Teacher Beth McNamara, and Head of School Rebecca Upham met with Marina’s parents to discuss how to honor her legacy.
This year 11 juniors also applied through a process that involved a two-page outline of the proposal, a description of how the project would impact the world through Marina’s ideals, and an estimated budget request of up to $2500. A committee consisting of Ms. McNamara, Ms. Selinger, Mr. Lindberg, Math Teacher Tom Randall, English Teacher Ariel Duddy, and Marina’s close friend, Luke Vargas ’08, decided which two applicants would receive the fellowship.
Ms. Duddy praised the quality, depth, and thinking behind the sophomore winners’ plans and said the committee felt confident they could execute on those plans.
“I think it was an anomaly that two sophomores were selected this year, though we wouldn’t rule out choosing two sophomores in the future,” she added. “It all depends upon the strength of the applications.”
Ms. McNamara said she thought Marina would have loved Maia’s proposal to destigmatize menstruation and educate girls about their own bodies, and she expressed confidence that Maia would carry out the project successfully.
“Maia is the right person to deliver the message well and has the right connections to deliver the message safely—both for the girls there and for herself as the outsider,” she said. “We thought she was very compelling.”
She also said that the committee has already put Maia in touch with Rachel Strodel ’14, who has been studying public health at Yale and was one of the first Keegan Fellows, because of her similar project involving women’s health in Dehli, India. Ms. McNamara said they plan to continue connecting recipients of the grant to help them deepen their impact on the world.
“We’re hoping to create a web of Fellows nationally and internationally,” she said. “We want this to grow, and it already has.”