Lafayette’s second-ever Rhodes Scholar takes us on her international journey to self-discovery
In November, Victoria Puglia ’21 was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship—one of the world’s most prestigious honors a student can receive—and made Lafayette history not just once, but twice. She was the College’s first-ever female Rhodes Scholar and the second Lafayette student to get the scholarship—the first being Charles Benjamin Schwartz 1911.
Now, Puglia will be heading to England in fall 2021 to pursue her master’s degree at University of Oxford. There, she’ll be eagerly tapping into the abundant resources of the school’s Refugee Studies Centre—the world’s leading research institute dedicated to understanding forced migration and improving the lives of refugees—and continuing to dive deeper into her own research, which she foresees becoming a lifelong project. And yet, Puglia remains humble: She explains that she didn’t center her college studies and pursuits on winning the Rhodes. Rather, she simply followed her passions, and they happened to fall in line with what the program was seeking in its candidates.
“Whether I won the scholarship or not, I was going to keep doing the same things,” she says. “But now I’m in a better place to accomplish everything I want to accomplish. I feel incredibly lucky to have this opportunity.”
Here, Puglia walks us through the path that led to her success.
Once Puglia moved to the U.S. in 2017 to attend Lafayette and established her dual Spanish-American citizenship, her interest in issues of food insecurity and refugee resettlement and assimilation solidified after she took IA 240: Pursuing Global Sustainability—a course taught by Caleb Gallemore, assistant professor of international affairs—and after she embarked on a string of study abroad experiences. “I became intrigued with international affairs, especially because I’d always seen myself as being a worldly person.”
Puglia isn’t afraid to try new things, and nothing demonstrates
that more than her time studying abroad as an undergraduate. The stamps Puglia has collected on the pages of her passport aren’t simply proof of the many countries to which she’s traveled. Rather, they’re carefully plotted points on the map of her journey to self-discovery.
SENEGAL: “In January 2018, I took a course on modernity in Senegal with Lafayette, which was centered at the West African Research Center. That’s where I made my first long-lasting college friends and realized the value of learning by immersion.”
SRI LANKA: “In 2018, I spent three weeks renovating a temple for Buddhist nuns. This made me think more critically about the value of volunteering, Western aid, and development.”
INDIA: “I spent three weeks at the University of Hyderabad in January 2019, learning about India’s history, politics, and economy. As I put myself in situations that forced me to rely on myself, I started to gain more confidence.”
UGANDA: “This was my most influential trip. In 2019, I spent four months at the School for International Training, taking courses on development, environmental issues, and informal economies. I spent a month working for Alliance Forum for Development Uganda, a nongovernmental organization, conducting field research in refugee settlements, helping with food distribution, shadowing external evaluators, and attending refugee focus groups.”
PERU: “In January 2020, I took a course on the ways in which local communities in the Andes Mountains have been forced to adapt in the face of climate change, and how Incan agricultural techniques can be combined with Western technological advances to help solve the issue.”
While studying the role of unstable food aid on socioeconomic structures in Ugandan refugee settlements, Puglia found that many refugees are forced to use their food aid—their only source of income—to pay for things like education or health services, their access to which is often limited. Puglia’s research suggested that this issue perpetuated food insecurity and poverty in the settlements.
After returning to the U.S. from Uganda, Puglia delved into an independent study project, in which she analyzed the factors that contribute to refugee well-being in settlements across sub-Saharan Africa. Her findings highlighted the potential importance of vegetation in a settlement; access to potable water; government effectiveness; settlement placement near a city; and rapid malaria prevention, detection, and cure in curbing food insecurity. “To my knowledge, there are few studies of this kind. It was the first time I felt like I created new knowledge about a topic that could potentially help fuel policy decisions in the future that would create innovative solutions.”
“I hope to one day work for a United Nations agency, like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or the World Food Programme. I’d also like to write a book, go to every country in the world, and film a documentary to spread my message. Another project I want to take on at some point in my life is to start up a travel agency related to scholarships.”
For now, Puglia is focusing on wrapping up her senior honors thesis on the relationship between acute food insecurity and forced migration across sub-Saharan Africa, continuing her work with the International Students Association and Refugee Action, and serving as president of the McKelvy House prior to graduating this spring.