By Eric Coker
Natalia Chapovalova has become the first Binghamton University student to receive a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
Chapovalova, a former Harpur Fellow who graduated in December 2012 with a degree in psychology, is one of only 39 U.S. scholars chosen for the 2013-14 academic year. She also is one of two students from New York schools to earn the scholarship (the other recipient is from New York University). She will pursue a PhD in polar studies at Cambridge.
"It's an incredible honor," said Chapovalova, who was born in Russia, moved to the United States at age 5, and now lives in Pleasantville. "Binghamton University gave me the foundation to receive this scholarship."
Janice McDonald, director of the Office of External Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards and the Undergraduate Research Center, assisted Chapovalova on the Gates Cambridge application. She called Chapovalova "a wonderful student to work with."
"She is an excellent student who sought out academic challenges and research experiences," McDonald said. "These experiences not only helped her focus her academic plans, but demonstrated her commitment to her field and her potential to succeed in a challenging graduate program. All of these are elements that characterize successful applicants for highly competitive scholarships."
Established by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 with a $210 million endowment, the Gates Cambridge Scholarship is considered one of the world's most competitive awards. The scholarships allow graduate students from outside the United Kingdom to study at Cambridge and receive full funding for the duration of the degree. The program, which strives to build a network of future world leaders who will work to improve the lives of others, draws 800 U.S. applicants per year. That pool is then cut to 100 who go to Washington, D.C. for an interview. No more than 40 U.S. scholars and 50 other international scholars are selected each year.
Chapovalova's research will center on examining the healing practices of the Skolt Sami, indigenous people who live in Norway, Finland and Russia. She will conduct her research through the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge and work with Piers Vitebsky, an internationally renowned anthropologist at the institute who has lived with an indigenous community in the Russian Arctic.
"The program at Cambridge is perfect for the kind of research I want to do," Chapovalova said. "Also, the Gates Cambridge looks for a broader impact and the projects I plan to do in the Sami communities would be best done within the Polar Research Institute where everybody is connected to the region."
Chapovalova's goal is to use western and traditional medicine to improve the healthcare system in Sami communities. She has already traveled to the region to conduct interviews for Sami cultural revitalization programs and is working with a Sami museum in Neiden, Norway, to display her video work. She plans to return in March to conduct more research before starting Cambridge classes in October.
"My interest in the Sami ties back to a fascination I've had since childhood with health and traditional healing," she said. "I ultimately decided on studying (the Sami) because it combined my Russian heritage with my interests in traditional healing among indigenous groups and how these practices change through interaction with other cultures."
Chapovalova stressed that she would not have been able to develop her interests without the opportunities provided by Binghamton University, such as working in the Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory led by Assistant Professor of Psychology Matthew Johnson.
"That introduced me to psychological research," she said. "I studied the relationship between health and marital status. Looking at that from a cross-cultural perspective got me thinking about different cultural influences on health."
In June 2012, Chapovalova traveled to Mexico to study the relationship between alloparenting (non-parents looking after children) and geneological interrelatedness among the Seri tribe. The research, for which Chapovalova received funding from the Sodexo Internship Fund to help with the project, enabled her to observe traditional healing methods that furthered her desire to study health practices among indigenous groups.
In August 2012, Chapovalova became a Harpur Fellow and created an art-therapy program for disabled children in Belarus who have suffered from the after-effects of the 1986 Chernoybl nuclear accident. She not only worked with the children, but also helped caregivers from the children's orphanages and institutions develop a long-term art-therapy program.
"It is analogous to what I will do in the Sami region because through this revitalization work, I'll help to improve the healthcare system by raising awareness of the traditional Sami healing practices," she said. "There is a theme of reaching out to a community and not just changing something within it, but making sure that the change lasts."
Chapovalova was active on campus, working as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Undergraduate Anthropology, founding the Undergraduate Psychology Review, serving as vice president of the Student Psychological Association and as a tutor for the Educational Opportunities Program. She also worked in the community for the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier as an interpreter for Russian patients.
She offered praise to Carrol Coates, professor of French, comparative literature and linguistics, for serving as a mentor and "my biggest supporter," and McDonald for steering her through the application process.
"There is a lot of opportunity at Binghamton," Chapovalova said. "There are a lot of people to go to for advice and there are opportunities to do fantastic things."
For McDonald, instilling confidence in qualified Binghamton University students is as important as helping them prepare competitive scholarship and fellowship applications.
"It can be intimidating to read a list of recent recipients for a scholarship and note that most are from Ivy League universities," she said. "But, if you read the recipient bios, their accomplishments are often much the same as many Binghamton students. Our students are accomplished and will be leaders one day: We need to help them to have confidence in themselves and to take the chance and apply."
Chapovalova hopes that her trail-blazing scholarship will open doors to Binghamton University in the future.
"Other universities that constantly have people receiving this kind of scholarship benefit from those who have gone through the process," she said. "I feel like Janice McDonald can use my account of what the Gates Cambridge Scholarship is like to advise future students. It is an amazing opportunity to be part of the Gates Cambridge community."
Last Updated: 3/13/13