U-M’s Raoul Wallenberg Fellowship celebrates a decade of ‘transformational experiences’ abroad

September 15, 2021
Written By:
Fernanda Pires
First Fellow, Zachary Petroni, with his Peach team in Kenya.

First Fellow, Zachary Petroni, with his Peach team in Kenya.

In its 10 years of existence, the Raoul Wallenberg Fellowship at the University of Michigan has become one of the most prestigious self-designed, independent study-abroad projects for students.

From Kenya and India to South Africa and Peru, nine U-M graduating seniors—one each year since 2013 have had the opportunity to study abroad, immerse themselves in a new culture and go beyond a purely academic experience.

“The Wallenberg Fellowship was designed to be a transformational experience,” said John Godfrey, an assistant dean at the U-M Rackham Graduate School. “It has to be independent; it has to be intentional; it has to be self-designed. It has to allow the fellow to develop their resilience, to change their direction, to make choices and to find their way in the world.”

For Godfrey, chair of the Wallenberg Committee that plans the annual Wallenberg Medal and Lecture and established the fellowship, the underlying premise of the program is to allow someone who has an instinctive curiosity and a willingness to engage and learn about the lives of others.

“My experience was fundamentally transformative to who I am, what I do, where I do it,” said Zachary Petroni, the first-ever Wallenberg Fellow. “It’s all about exposure and widening the lens, frames through which one sees the world and understands their position(ality) therein. How to situate yourself in a new and different setting, with different people, culture, languages, and accomplish a goal therein as well as building long and strong relationships with people.”

Petroni spent his fellowship year in Kenya in 2013. He studied how different approaches to conservation governance influenced conservation outcomes for local populations. In the last seven years, Petroni has spent some time in the U.S., U.K. and Nigeria, and is currently living in Nairobi, where he co-founded an automotive marketplace called Peach.

“It’s been a continuous journey of trying to make sense of where I’m at and what I’m doing, both while I’m in the moment and more broadly,” he said. “But I can say I wouldn’t be here today—literally here, in Nairobi—if it weren’t for the fellowship, nor would I be the person I am today without it. We spend far too much time in classrooms thinking we’re ‘learning’ and requiring those structures to be in place for us to be receptive to new ideas. Instead, get up, get out and go do! Sure, you’ll make mistakes, but that’s part of the process. And this process is what learning really is all about.”

Inspired by the spirit of Raoul Wallenberg, the Wallenberg Fellowship, established in 2012, is awarded in the spring of each year to a graduating senior of exceptional promise and accomplishment who is committed to service and the public good. The fellowship provides $25,000 to carry out an independent project of learning or exploration anywhere in the world during the year after graduation.

Read the full story on Global Michigan.