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10 Questions With Rhodes Scholarship Finalist Laura Guay

Every scholarship seems prestigious and out of reach, but if you can believe it, there is one scholarship that stands above the rest: the Rhodes Scholarship.

The Rhodes Scholarship offers 32 students from the United States a chance to study at Oxford for several years. The competition is brutal, but the reward is high. In Penn State’s history, only two students have been named Rhodes Scholars, but even being considered is a massive honor.

This year, student Laura Guay was named a Rhodes Scholarship finalist, affirming Penn State’s place on the map as a respected academic institution. We somehow managed to steal a bit of Guay’s time to ask about her research, the scholarship application process, and more.

Onward State: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up, how did you end up at Penn State, what is your major?

Laura Guay: I’m from State College (lived here since age 5), and I ultimately decided to study at Penn State because of the Biobehavioral Health major (which is my major). I was highly interested in public health starting later in high school, which is really hard to find as an undergraduate major, so when I learned about BBH, I was thrilled! I’m also majoring in French and Francophone Studies and have a minor in Global Health. I knew that Penn State had a wide array of study abroad opportunities, which would allow me to really enhance my French studies, so that was definitely another reason for choosing Penn State.

OS: What do you feel are some of your most notable achievements from your time at Penn State?

LG: Placing fourth in the Emory University Global Health International Case Competition was a really rewarding experience for me, as it was an opportunity to connect with med students and other graduate students in the public health space at Penn State and apply my previous global health education and professional experiences to inform the work. My UNESCO fellowship has also been such a notable achievement for me, again, because of the connections I have formed with my colleagues through this experience. Not only am I having the opportunity to connect with other UN agencies and young people from around the world to implement projects in response to COVID-19, but this is also living proof that it is possible to form strong emotional connections with people in remote spaces!! I am going to finish out my contract after graduation in person at headquarters in Paris, and I am honestly more excited to finally meet my colleagues in person than graduation itself!

OS: How has the Schreyer Honors College helped you to achieve your goals?

LG: Through connecting me early on to undergraduate research experiences at Penn State, the honors college definitely supported me in being able to write a thesis that was meaningful to me, rather than just being a box to check. They also supported me through study abroad opportunities and connected me to opportunities throughout the university that I never would have known about otherwise. I want to give a special shoutout to Lisa Kerchinski who included me in the work she was doing around social impact and civic engagement in Schreyer. I was honored to work with her and other Schreyer students, Schreyer administration, and Penn State faculty to enhance this aspect of the Schreyer mission, and working with her really confirmed my professional interests in project design, development, and implementation work.

OS: Can you share with us what your honors thesis was about?

LG: I am most proud of writing my honors thesis and the 2.5 years of work that I put into it. I really wanted to make my thesis a meaningful experience that combined areas that I worked in extensively as an undergrad. For me, that was my work in the Stress, Health, and Daily Experiences Lab with loneliness and my position as a Peer Educator through AIDS Resource with HIV and sexual health more broadly. Although it was so rewarding to conduct my own study, the most meaningful part of the experience was being able to conduct interviews with 26 healthcare professionals specializing in HIV care locally (in Central PA) and abroad (in Dakar, Senegal where I studied abroad). I loved forming connections with these individuals, hearing their passion, and learning from their expertise.

OS: What does your research focus on and what is its impact on the world as a whole?

LG: I’m in a research lab studying loneliness, particularly exploring it in a multidimensional manner and how people may experience loneliness differently based on whether it is linked to different groups or categories, such as family, friends, romantic partner, community, etc. We are looking into ways to design new scales to better assess this multidimensional aspect of loneliness. My personal research branched off this concept of the multidimensionality of loneliness by exploring this concept through qualitative interviews with healthcare professionals. I was looking into provider perspective on the multidimensional aspects of loneliness they see in their clients living with HIV. I think, looking at this topic of loneliness now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and seeing its relevance to the global community, shows the direct impact this research could have on reducing negative health outcomes in people experiencing loneliness around the world. If I do future research in this area, I would definitely be interested in focusing more on intervention-based research around loneliness, taking into account this multidimensional nature of loneliness.

OS: What was the application for the Rhodes Scholarship like in terms of intensity and competitiveness?

LG: The Rhodes application and interview experience was nothing like I had ever experienced before. Although the application on the surface was very standard (CV/resume, proposed course of study, academic statement of study, and personal statement/essay), you needed 8 letters of recommendation, you needed to be very intentional on your selection of program of study, and you needed to somehow show how all of your life experiences up until this point come together in a cohesive narrative. With that being said, the fellowship office (very special shout-out to Dr. Caitlin Ting and Ben Randolph) was extremely helpful in supporting me and sorting through my scattered thoughts when thinking about this application.

The interview was also a very unnatural experience with a monitored reception, an individual interview, and then a very long 4 hour deliberation period where the 14 finalists were in a breakout room while the panelists selected the 2 ultimate Rhodes Scholars. With that being said, I used the experience as an opportunity to share myself with the panelist and my passion for loneliness research. It was really validating to hear everyone’s intellectual curiosity in my topic of study, and it’s also really cool to now have a network of panelists with really interesting backgrounds (one was the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art!) and finalists.

OS: How does it feel to be representing Penn State for the first time in 20 years as a Rhodes Scholar finalist?

LG: I am absolutely honored to have been named a finalist, and the outreach and the support from the Penn State community throughout this entire process, and especially now, has been simply amazing. I could not have asked for a more supportive final semester before graduation. I am now honored to be a part of the journey and support system of all future PSU Rhodes Finalists!! Please, if anyone is considering applying to the Rhodes and has any questions, reach out! Dr. Ting in the fellowship office has my contact info.

OS: What other activities are you involved with on campus and in the community?

LG: Outside of my research experience in the SHADE Lab and my work as a team collaborator with the Human Development Design for Impact Lab (HUDDIL), I am also a Peer Educator with AIDS Resource in downtown State College. I’ve also collaborated with Penn State Center Philadelphia on different social justice projects. I used to also be very involved in Campus Rec and worked at the tennis center.

OS: Following graduation, what are your next steps?

LG: I plan to finish out my consultant position with UNESCO in-person (in Paris!) in early 2022, and then I’ll start a position doing government consulting work in the public health space.

OS: Per Onward State tradition, if you could be a dinosaur, which one would you be and why?

LG: Definitely a velociraptor! They’re super fast, and I walk insanely quickly and also love to run!

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About the Author

Haylee Yocum

Haylee Yocum is a sophomore in the Schreyer Honors College studying Immunology and Infectious Disease. She is from Mifflintown, PA, a tiny town south of State College. She is a coffee addict, loves Taylor Swift, and can't wait to go to a concert again. Any questions can be directed to @hayleeq8 on Twitter or emailed to [email protected]

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