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Agricultural Sciences Students Chosen for Fulbright Awards
Pennsylvania Ag Connection - 06/11/2019

Tessa Sontheimer and Geoff Merz, graduates of Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, have been named recipients of Fulbright Study Awards.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the largest U.S. exchange program offering opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and primary and secondary school teaching worldwide. Recipients are chosen based on academic and professional achievement, their record of service, and leadership potential.

Sontheimer and Merz, who hold bachelor's degrees in community, environment, and development, will participate in the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program, which places grantees in classrooms abroad to help teach English language while serving as cultural ambassadors for the U.S.

"Everyone in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education is extremely proud of these students' appointment as Fulbright scholars and for their other accomplishments, including being chosen as student marshals for commencement," said Tim Kelsey, professor of agricultural economics and coordinator of the community, environment, and development program.

"They have been exceptional students, bringing uncommon rigor and insight to their undergraduate studies. They are exemplars of our community, environment, and development students, and we wish them all the best."

In July, Sontheimer, a Schreyer Honors College graduate who also majored in global and international studies, will travel to Indonesia. For her, the experience will help to fulfill a family legacy of teaching, community service and entrepreneurship that are "deeply woven" in her identity.

"My father has taught high school for 22 years, my grandmother served on the local borough council, and my family owned a restaurant when I was growing up, so we are very rooted in our community and service," she said. "The values they modeled are what drive me today."

As an undergraduate at Penn State, Sontheimer received several scholarships, including the Rock Ethics Institute Thesis and Research Award, Presidential Leadership Academy Merit Scholarship, and the Schreyer Honors College Special Projects Scholarship, among others.

A native of Gettysburg, she participated in the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program and conducted field work in Arusha, Tanzania, in the summer of 2017. She also worked that summer as an urban and regional policy intern at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank committed to promoting European and U.S. relations.

In addition, Sontheimer in the summer of 2015 studied abroad with the Schreyer Signature Travel program in India, where she explored parallels between educational policy in India and the United States.

Since January 2016, she has worked as a research associate at Penn State's Center for Economic and Community Development under the direction of Ted Alter, co-director of the center and professor of agricultural, environmental and regional economics.

"Tessa's work at our center has been extraordinary," Alter said. "Her contributions have been and continue to be instrumental in shaping and carrying out our applied research and engagement initiatives. She is driven by unrivaled passion and commitment to helping others. I am confident her work as a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia will have similar formative impacts."

Upon her return from Indonesia, Sontheimer aspires to work at the nexus of community development, climate change and urban policy, building more resilient and interconnected communities and cities.

"By contributing to the school and community in Indonesia, I will learn so much more than I will teach," she said. "I will use those experiences and the lessons I have learned at Penn State to give back and make a difference in the world."

In addition to her family, Alter and Kelsey, Sontheimer was inspired to apply to Fulbright by fellow Penn State student Madison Taylor, who was a recipient last year. Sontheimer also thanked Caitlin Ting, Fulbright program adviser.

Merz, of Swarthmore, who minored in economics and sustainability leadership, will begin his teaching project in September in Senegal, Africa, where he studied abroad and interned last spring at SAPPATE, a nonprofit, food-security-focused organization.

"I have a desire to create a world where our communities focus on the gifts of others, encourage connections among one another, and hospitably welcome strangers," he said. "Teaching English in Senegal will allow me to work toward these three objectives. I believe every person holds limitless creativity. It is the teacher's role to assist the student in recognizing and cultivating it."

During his time at Penn State, Merz served as an urban agriculture intern at the Penn State Center in Philadelphia and as a production intern at the Penn State Student Farm. He also was a trip leader for Penn State alternative breaks and an outdoor orientation leader for the Penn State AURORA Program at Shaver's Creek Environmental Center. He also served as a crisis counselor for Centre Helps.

"Every time I meet Geoff, I learn something new from him," Alter said. "In discussion, he is a superb listener and deep thinker who brings his own perspectives to the conversation in challenging, yet sensitive, ways. His contributions are unfailingly insightful and always catalyze the thinking and learning of others."

Merz received support for his Fulbright application from Kelsey, Alter, his mother and family, and Vieux Toure, a doctoral candidate in the College of Liberal Arts and French instructor.

After his Fulbright service, Merz plans to pursue a master's degree in education to prepare for teaching high school social studies in the United States. He also aspires to form an exchange program that provides American students with the chance to live with families and attend school for a few weeks in Senegal and gives Senegalese students the same opportunity to visit the U.S.

"In my life, I have been given so much, so I view this as a chance to give something meaningful in return," Merz said. "I am looking forward to going back to Senegal, learning what the people there are passionate about, and bringing their energy together to help them make the changes they want to see."

The Fulbright Program has provided more than 380,000 participants the opportunity to study abroad since its inception in 1946. The primary source of funding is appropriated by Congress to the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

At Penn State, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program is administered by the University Fellowships Office.

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