When it was time to say goodbye, Kristi Horstman cried. It was the last thing the senior expected. When she arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, four weeks earlier, she was so flustered by travel troubles that she just wanted the trip to end.
“It was like, ‘OK, one month, I can do this, I’ll be able to get through it by myself,’ ” she says. “But by the end I did not want to leave.”
Brought to Nairobi as part of her studies as a Winter-Cohen Student Fellow through the Edward B. Brueggeman Center for Dialogue, Horstman found herself transformed. Overwhelmed by the community and kindness of the people living amidst oppressive poverty in the world’s largest slum, she shifted the course of her dreams 180 degrees, abandoning her longtime goal of a law career to focus on attending graduate school and working with international nonprofits.
Such transformation is what the Brueggeman Fellows program is all about. The fellowship lasts for two semesters and a summer, but the select nature of the group creates a special atmosphere. “Once you’re a Brueggeman Fellow, you’re a Brueggeman Fellow for life,” says the center’s director, James Buchanan.
Horstman is one of 33 fellows selected since the program’s inception in 2005. Fellows take part in Brueggeman Center activities and engage in monthly marathon reading-group discussions, but it’s the student-initiated projects that set the program apart. Fellows design projects related to the work of the center and receive a $3,000 travel stipend to do field work in the country of their choice. In doing so, they move out of their comfort zones—setting up their own sites and making their own travel plans—to study the issues of a globalized world at their root.
Thus far, fellows have traveled to 16 countries, with current fellows studying issues such as microfinance, ecosystems, infectious diseases, free-market socialism, tribal marriages and interfaith issues in places like Tanzania, Costa Rica, Gambia, Iran, Israel, China and Nepal.
Horstman’s trip to Kenya focused on democracy and religion. She taught at St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a school for AIDS orphans, and made solo treks into Nairobi for research interviews. “I think the first time it felt uncomfortable was when I had to go to downtown Nairobi alone,” she says. “I had to talk to people. I had to do things on my own. That really helped me adjust.”
About 60 students apply to become fellows each year, and the selection process is meticulous. “It’s not just the GPA or the project,” Buchanan says. “We talk to their advisors and the people who know them, because I have to make sure they are the type of person who can handle this kind of individual challenge.”
Often, the effects of these challenges extend beyond the fellows to their parents, who come to see their children in a new light. Even Buchanan is surprised by the transformations he sees. “When I designed the program, I saw fellows learning in an interdisciplinary way, a global way and a systemic way,” he says. “I never imagined that it would end up being about watching the growth and the confidence and the self-assurance of these young adults.”
Horstman agrees with this assessment. “It absolutely changed me,” she says. “It’s probably the biggest milestone that I’ve come across so far. And I don’t think that anything that I’ve done or will do would change me that much in that short amount of time. I took the LSAT three days before I left for Kenya. And then when I got back I just realized that there’s no way I could go to law school. If someone had said on the first day, ‘By the end of your month, you’re not going to want to go to law school,’ I would not have believed them.”
Horstman says there’s no doubt she’ll return to Kenya. She keeps in contact with people there, and she’ll stay in touch with the Brueggeman Center as well, because, she explains, “I’m kind of a Brueggeman Fellow for life.”