A scholarly approach to service

A scholarly approach to service

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Three humanities degrees earned with highest honors, Mikaela Litchfield is off to Germany to work with refugee youth
“I have a better grip on the world now than when I came to Rowan," says Mikaela Litchfield, who, after completing a stellar academic career at the University, is off to Germany on a prestigious fellowship.

Mikaela Litchfield practically swoons when she talks about her humanities studies.

Take history, for instance.

“I’ve always excelled in history. I had my first class at Rowan with Dr. Bill Carrigan. Amazing. I knew I was in the right place. I’m very interested in social history,” she says.

Then, there’s international studies.

“It’s so interdisciplinary,” she says. “That major has been a way for me to add a global context to my history degree and to expand on my interest in German culture and politics.”

And Africana studies?

“It’s been awesome,” she says, ticking off a bevy of classes—from “Africana Social and Political Thought” to “Black Power to Ferguson”—that helped her better understand the perspectives of others.

“Learning about intersectionality has been one of the most formative and invaluable parts of my education at Rowan. It has been emphasized particularly through my Africana Studies major and has allowed me to more deeply understand the way my privilege shapes the way I walk through life.”

Clearly, Litchfield, who graduated summa cum laude with bachelor’s degrees in history, international studies and Africana studies during the Commencement ceremony for the College of Humanities & Social Sciences on Tuesday, May 8, speaks like the scholar she is.

But her internships with non-profit organizations such as the Alice Paul Institute, Hopeworks ’N Camden  and Catholic Charities’ refugee and immigration services helped her define how she will use her thoughtful, deliberate study of the humanities in service to others.

‘I saw there was a way to translate history into something contemporary’

As a museum educator intern her sophomore year at the Alice Paul Institute, the Mount Laurel-based non-profit that educates the public about the famous suffragist and offers leadership development programs to girls, Litchfield saw history in action firsthand.

Paul’s famous quotation—“There’s nothing complicated about ordinary equality”—resonated with her as she worked to empower young women and advocate for contemporary women’s issues through the institute’s Lead-A-Way and Alice Paul Professional Institute College Careers programs. Litchfield even heard Paul’s own voice when she transcribed an audio interview with her to contribute to the institute’s collection of oral histories.

“At Alice Paul, I saw there was a way to translate history into something contemporary,” says Litchfield, who landed two of her internships through Rowan’s CHSS Match Internship Program, which connects humanities and social science majors with interesting, engaging internships that showcase avenues for employment. In 2016, she was named the institute’s “Intern of the Year.”

“I love the institute’s mission so much. If I met Alice Paul, I would ask her how she kept that fire for all of her life. She wrote the Equal Rights Amendment. She was truly a lifelong activist. I would ask her how she continued to work through waves of disappointment and waves of backlash she faced.”

That’s not to say that Paul was perfect, Litchfield cautions. In readings for her class in Africana Social and Political Thought, Litchfield learned that, at a 1921 National Women’s Party Convention, Paul met with indifference the complaints of black women about their own disenfranchisement.

“So while she was radical in a lot of ways, she was still blinded by the racism of her time,” says Litchfield, who was named Rowan’s Marius Livingston Scholar for Outstanding Academic Performance by a History Major and also was the History Department’s Senior of Distinction.

“I think this is a great example of how we can learn from both the accomplishments and limitations of historical figures without overly romanticizing or vilifying them. So, just as we can look up to Alice Paul for her resiliency and dedication, we can also learn a lot from her pitfalls about how to foster inclusive movements as well.”

Serving underrepresented and refugee populations

Litchfield’s two other internships opened her eyes to how small opportunities for underrepresented and refugee populations can lead to big results.

At Hopeworks, which uses education, technology and entrepreneurship to help Camden residents ages 18-25 work toward sustainable futures, Litchfield is an academic success intern, creating and facilitating weekly group workshops on academic and vocational topics while also completing one-on-one tutoring.

“It’s telling how important simple access to resources is,” says Litchfield, who is working hard to hone her tutoring skills. “I’m still learning how to tutor, how to communicate most effectively. It’s inspiring work.”

Her work with refugees through Catholic Charities is equally uplifting, says Litchfield, who graduated from Sparta High School in 2014. She has developed and implemented a women’s empowerment program for refugee women to learn adaptive skills and find resources. Additionally, she assists refugee case managers with daily responsibilities, including facilitating care and education plans for clients.

“That work brings everything full circle for me,” says Litchfield. “Sometimes, I just go in and see what they need that day. I enjoy working with people who work in non-profits. They’re warm, welcoming, and dedicated. They’re realistic. They’re open about their challenges. But they’re also creative, open and friendly. I really admire passionate people. I love their energy.”

Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals fellowship

This summer, Litchfield will take that important work globally. She has received a prestigious fellowship from the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX). Funded by the U.S. Department of State and the German Bundestag, the fellowship focuses on academic, professional and cultural exchange.

Beginning in July, Litchfield, who has a minor in German and studied abroad last summer at Freie Universität in Berlin, will leave for Germany for two months of intensive language instruction. She’ll then spend a semester studying at a German university before beginning a five-month internship. She plans to work with a non-governmental organization for refugee youth.

That’s the ideal fit for Litchfield, who marvels at how her hard work in academics and non-profit agencies has culminated with the CBYX fellowship. She’s the first Rowan student in at least three decades to receive the fellowship and one of only 75 Americans chosen this year for the fellowship.

“I have a better grip on the world now than when I came to Rowan,” she says. “I’ve absolutely loved what I’ve learned. Now, I feel I have the context I need now to translate that into a career. I’m interested in advocacy and education and I love non-profits with an educational mission.”

A genuine impact

Her research for her international studies classes demonstrated to her that she can have a genuine impact on the refugee population in Germany. That country has opened its doors to refugees, particularly those from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The fellowship fits completely perfectly for me,” says Litchfield, who pursued the Thomas N. Bantivoglio Honors Concentration in the Honors College and also is graduating with a concentration in women's and gender studies.

“I’m very open to exploring where I can be the most helpful. Hopefully, I’ll have the opportunity to dispel some ideas about Americans.”

Inspired by activists such as Angela Davis—“I don’t know how her head doesn’t explode. She’s so smart,” she says—and the Grimke sisters, noted 19th century abolitionists and women’s rights advocates, Litchfield believes the CBYX fellowship will put her on the path of future activist work.

“I was always maybe a defiant spirit. I’m still learning how to push myself in activism,” she says.

Litchfield has shined academically and in her internships, according to Cory Blake, associate dean of CHSS, who advises students applying for national and international grants and fellowships.

“Mikaela’s story shows the value of internships,” says Blake, a history professor who had Litchfield in class. “She’s very independent, driven, and has an incredible thirst for knowledge. She wants to make real contributions as a citizen of the world. She’s very passionate about it.”