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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Stoker ’13 wins Marshall scholarship

Published: November 30, 2012
Section: Features, Top Stories

As only the fourth Brandeis student awarded the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, Elizabeth Stoker ’13 prepares to continue her commitment to community service abroad, pursuing graduate studies at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

Recognizing the distinct opportunities that will emerge during her studies abroad, Stoker anticipates “surveying the different programs of social welfare” while exploring what she deems “Christian ethics—a critical branch of theology.”

The Marshall Scholarship, named in honor of George Marshall and reminiscent of the ideals evoked by the Marshall Plan, is designed to enable exceptional students from the United States to pursue a graduate degree within the United Kingdom. Although not limited to a confined scope of study, the award involves a rigorous application and selection process, which Stoker revealed as having lasted approximately a year. Having secured four letters of recommendation and produced twelve revisions to her application essay, Stoker recalled receiving the call from the British consulate to schedule an interview, and finally, receiving the congratulatory call.

Diligently striving to attain a double major in English and Sociology in tandem with a minor in Near Eastern Judaic Studies, Stoker has nevertheless managed to immerse herself in community service ventures within the Waltham area.

As founder of the Brandeis: Be Our Guest program, which permits students to donate unused guest meals and dining points to the less fortunate, Stoker describes the unique level of personal interactions that the volunteers experience.

“I wouldn’t donate a meal to someone that I wouldn’t be willing to eat myself,” she said, asserting that rather than simply handing out rations at local shelters, volunteers prepare and eat alongside the hungry, which promotes a true sense of fellowship.

Reflecting upon her initial impetus to create the program, Stoker recalls noticing the amount of wasted food within dining halls. As she jokingly commented on her avoidance of BranVan services during her initial years at Brandeis, Stoker recognized the potential for developing a system that would lessen the waste of students while aiding the sizable homeless shelters she witnessed during her pedestrian travels throughout Waltham.

When she first proposed the concept to dining services, Stoker was initially faced with rejection, but through her perseverance and support from Lucas Malo, director of community services, she was able to implement the program.

The Brandeis: Be Our Guest Program directly provides meals donated by students to the Community Day Center in Waltham, a shelter that Stoker distinguishes from the majority, which are typically open only during the evening. By servicing a shelter open during daytime hours instead, Stoker reveals the program’s ability to provide meals that normally would be unavailable to those in need. Stoker demonstrates her leadership capacity by serving as a member on the board of directors at the Community Day Center as well.

Beyond her innovative approach to reducing campus waste, Stoker is an active member of the Waltham Group and is a coordinator for Hunger and Homelessness. She recalls being attracted to the committed attitudes of Brandeis students who manage to balance the demands of rigorous coursework, part-time employment and activities while still displaying passionate commitments to community service. Describing her own deep sense of commitment to volunteer work, she explains that “there is no better way to enrich life.” Not only do the programs serve to benefit the less fortunate, but Stoker contends that they “are great for self-esteem and confidence and learning how to serve efficiently.”

Stoker anticipates her experience in the United Kingdom, as she has never traveled abroad before. She deems the opportunity to study at Oxford as a process of exploration, explaining that neither of her grandparents possess a college degree and that the pursuit of graduate programs has entailed a true learning experience both for herself and her family.

Seeking to explore disability studies through the scope of Christianity, Stoker said she prefers a university that does not possess a declared Christian association. She regards confessional institutions as leaving a person “less free to explore and criticize religion.”

Her decision to attend a non-confessional university draws upon the distinction between degrees in theology, which she defines as “insiders looking in,” and religious studies, which she describes as less restrictive. She remarked, however, upon the environment at Brandeis as “incredibly tolerant and totally pluralistic, placing a great emphasis on questioning and learning.”

When asked to elaborate upon the connection between disability studies and Christianity, Stoker explained her own struggles with epilepsy. She explained the diverse variety of needs required by individuals with various impairments, invoking her involvement in sociology as an extension of her desire to cope with disabilities. Regarding ties to religion, Stoker described the first testament of the Bible in which Jesus is presented as curing ailments and afflictions suffered by countless individuals. Despite her acknowledgment that “the commentary within the Bible is not always the most progressive,” she remarks upon the desire for a fully inclusive interpretation, stating, “we rarely get to hear from the people who are actually disabled.”

Suffering from epilepsy herself, Stoker thus comprises a unique perspective, grasping the needs and struggles associated with handling a disability and the effort involved in seeking to aid those affected by such conditions.

Never having traveled abroad before, Stoker explained her attraction to the United Kingdom, referring to its “ancient programs, excellent funding and theology,” as well its possession of excellent leaders in the field.

Jonathan Epstein, a junior currently studying at Hertford College at Oxford University, said, “What’s unique about Oxford’s learning system is not only its intensity, but also the tutorial system of learning one-on-one with an expert in the field.”

Elaborating upon this system, Epstein stated, “Having this exclusive relationship with your tutor allows you not only to explore a subject of interest in immense detail, but also changes learning from a one-way system of a professor lecturing to you, into a dialogue on the subject and student’s paper.”

As Stoker herself prepares to engage upon her graduate studies in the United Kingdom, she jokingly comments upon her love for Diet Coke, fearing for the need to convert to tea or some other beverage for the 22 months in which she will be studying at Oxford University. Reflecting upon the structure of this prestigious institution, which is comprised of 38 independent colleges, Epstein comments, “In many ways, Oxford clings to a hierarchical structure, although it has provided a chiaroscuro with which to examine and appreciate how egalitarian Brandeis is.”