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Student Voices: Education

Hear about some of the experiences of your fellow Drexel students about their experiences applying for and undertaking fellowships.

Pitting Herself Against Adversity: A Fulbright Scholar returns to Drexel to tell her story and inspire others

Originally published in the PHC Magazine, Fall/Winter 2016

By Erica Levi Zelinger, Associate Director of Communication, Pennoni Honors College

Lauren Pitts has spent her 49 years on an unlikely, winding road to self-discovery and success. This impeccably dressed mother and astute business owner spends her days trying to empower and improve the lives of young girls. She was raised by her mother and grandparents in a devout Christian household where they embraced Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” But never having met her biological father and always battling a strained and volatile relationship with her mother led Lauren not on the way she should go, but on a detour into self-sabotage.

Which is why it is astonishing how, at 47, Lauren finished Drexel’s Couple and Family Therapy Master’s Program and received a Fulbright Scholarship to Barbados in 2014 where she studied the impact of home (paternal absence or presence) on the educational outcomes of Barbadian adolescent girls.

Lauren herself always dreamed of going to college and owning her own business. But the path Lauren took to these ends was riddled with frustration and obstruction.

“My life is no fairy tale,” Lauren says. “In fact, it has been rather difficult being Lauren Denise Pitts.”

Low self-esteem and feelings of abandonment gave way to thoughts of suicide. Lauren’s stepfather abruptly left when she was in 2nd grade. At 11, a family member began molesting her. She turned to drugs, alcohol, and a life of promiscuity. Then, 14-year-old Lauren, an eighth grader in Quinton, New Jersey, hit the worst possible obstacle: cancer. Doctors gave her six months to live.

For the next 10 years, Lauren was under the care of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital Malignant Melanoma clinic. She hadn’t yet received a clean bill of health, but she found her way back to the way she would go: She set off in 1986 for her freshman year at Howard University.

Another roadblock: While at college, Lauren was raped and left school after one semester.

Green light: Lauren transferred to Johnson & Wales in the fall of 1989, after making up credits at a community college. Her enrollment in the Cultural Enrichment Program there was a chance to mentor young girls whose experiences were comparable to her own. Her work with at-risk youth was also an opportunity to begin her own healing process and realize her true calling.

Pit stop: In September 1987, after being intimately involved with a guy she grew up with, Lauren found out she was pregnant.

She gave birth to her son Andre the following spring, and spent the next 19 years on an unpaved road with potholes and detours, going to school, caring for her son, and finally obtaining a B.B.A. in Organizational Management from Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida.

It was her son, Lauren explains, that gave her life purpose and new meaning. Prior to that, “I was an extremely broken little girl, adolescent, and young woman. More times than not, I felt all alone and at life’s mercy. I realized then that I wanted to be instrumental in alleviating the pain of hurting people, especially children.”

Lauren returned to New Jersey after living in Florida for several years. She was done with people trying to convince her that she was her own problem.

“I believed that the root cause of my problems ran far deeper than myself. Earning a degree in Family Therapy would teach me how to address the systemic issues that I believed were fueling the antisocial behavior and educational achievement gaps among children just like me across the nation and around the world.”

Lauren enrolled in Drexel University’s Masters of Family Therapy Program. Six weeks before Lauren graduated from the full-time MFT program, she received a letter from Pennoni Honors College and the Drexel Fellowships Office acknowledging her academic excellence and commitment to justice and equality. The letter invited her to attend an information session about the Fulbright Student Program.

“I was extremely intrigued and saw it as an opportunity to explore familial and systemic issues in another country, if selected,” she says. “I was also intrigued by how highly competitive it was and that I was told that I had a better chance of winning the lottery than being named a Fulbright Scholar. I always welcome a challenge.”

She began the application process in May 2013, a self-proclaimed “phenomenal period of introspection,” under the guidance of Meredith Wooten, Director of the Pennoni Center for Scholar Development, which houses the Fellowships Office. Lauren wrote about how the absence of her father from her life influenced both positive and negative behaviors and gave her insight into the lives of young women of color who had similar experiences. Lauren is half-Caribbean, which prompted her to propose Fulbright research on teenage pregnancy and other salient familial issues in Barbados — an area desperately requiring more research and engagement from stakeholders.

In April 2014, Lauren received notification that she received the Fulbright. At 47, she left for Barbados for a year.

“The experience was life-altering and by far one of the most invigorating experiences I’ve ever had,’ Lauren says. “It served as a tree-shaking elimination in my life of people that I had to let go of. I grew, healed, and developed a level of comfort with my difference than ever before. My difference once made me feel like an outsider. However, the Fulbright experience helped me realize that it is my difference that sets me apart from the rest.”

Her own research findings – showing that Barbadian girls place very high value on education despite the quality of the relationship with their father – confirmed Lauren’s pursuit of education.

Lauren returned to Drexel to pursue her PhD in educational leadership and management and to speak at Fulbright events hosted by the Drexel Fellowships Office. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program also recognized her for her efforts to promote scholarship opportunities to ethnic minorities: Lauren was one of 20 Fulbrighters selected as an Alumni Ambassador to inspire diverse students to learn about educational and cultural exchange.

She is now completing her final year of doctoral study here at Drexel while working to secure operational funding for The Zeal Foundation, Inc. a non-profit organization she created to provide programs and services for marginalized and disenfranchised populations. She is also pursuing certification to become an educational trainer/consultant while earning the post-graduate clinical hours required to obtain her state license as a family therapist.

“Fulbright is strengthening my ability to effectively run my foundation and to continue in my pursuits to be a global agent of change and a transformational leader,” Lauren says.

And that pit stop she took when she was 20? Lauren’s extraordinary son Andre is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in finance at the University of Miami. He’ll finish in 2017. And Lauren will turn 50 in 2017. And she’ll celebrate her new title in 2017: Dr. Lauren Denise Pitts.

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Interview with Fulbright Finalist, Lauren Pitts

Lauren holds a Master’s in Couple and Family Therapy from Drexel. If awarded the Fulbright, she plans to study father-daughter attachment and communication and their impact on adolescent daughters’ sexual decision-making in Barbados, in collaboration with PAREDOS (Parent Education for Development in Barbados) and the University of West Indies. Recently she talked to us about applying to the Fulbright US Student Program.

Drexel Fellowships Office (DFO): Why did you decide to apply for the Fulbright?

Lauren Pitts (LP): I had not heard of the Fulbright until I got a letter from the Fellowships Office that because of my academic record, I should consider applying. I had been awarded the Clinical Excellence and Social Justice Award back in June 2013. I went to the first meeting with Dr. Buchalter and spoke with her at length, and afterwards, just like I do everything else in my life, I prayed about it, and it’s been a phenomenal journey.

DFO: What is your research project?

LP: I am half-Caribbean but I know very little about that part of my heritage so when I was presented with the Fulbright opportunity, I began extensive research on family issues in the Caribbean.  In looking at the data, Barbados leapt off the page at me because the statistical info there on teen pregnancy and intimate violence is comparable to the US, and from one perspective worse because the island is so much smaller. I wanted to investigate more, but there is not a lot of research, so I knew that I have to do it, to get some answers.

The personal statement forced me to do in-depth self-reflection to link my life experience with my project proposal.

DFO: The goal of the Fulbright is to build mutual understanding between the United States and other countries. What does mutual understanding mean to you?

LP: Mutual understanding comes into play when I look at immigration statistics and it’s evident that we have a huge influx of Caribbean peoples coming into the US. From a cultural perspective, there are specific dynamics that might lead to the girls becoming teen mothers here. For instance, one of the major issues there is older men having relationships with young girls – here that is considered pedophilia, and a crime, but over there it’s not.  Also, even though most households there are run by women, it’s still a very patriarchal society where men run things, and most women accept that’s just how it is.

DFO: What was the application process like?

LP: I had no idea how intense the process was going to be. The personal statement forced me to do in-depth self-reflection to link my life experience with my project proposal. I did probably 18 drafts of the personal statement before I got to the version that was submitted and landed me a finalist position. I wanted to quit more than few times, but Rachel Wenrick from the Drexel Writing Center kept encouraging me. At one point, when I was really struggling, she told me to put my drafts aside and to just write raw without worrying about structure, grammar or criticism.  This was a breakthrough moment because I had become so accustomed to being judged and criticized, to feeling disenfranchised, that it was cathartic to feel I was being heard.

DFO: Now that you are a finalist, what is next? Do you have another plan if you don’t get fellowship?

LP: Well, I recently received my Master’s so I am on the market for work.  I’ve been working on my doctorate since July 2013 at Northcentral University , but I’m transferring back to Drexel, where I belong, to continue my studies. If I don’t get accepted by Barbados, I will continue with these efforts.

Be real about it, because the people who are living in the cultural region where you are going to do your project deserve someone who is willing to be authentic.

What I really want professionally is to work with the Department of Education in a health and human services capacity, bringing together these disciplines as a space from which to advocate for youth and families. I think the Fulbright can break down a lot of barriers so I really hope I get it, but I am also confident in my future because my resume is solid and now I have a Master’s degree from one of top programs in the country for Family Therapy.

DFO: What is your advice to students who are thinking about applying?

LP: Don’t make light of the fact that it is a very time consuming process. Do not wait until the last minute to get everything done because that is not going to work out for you.  It is an arduous process, prepare yourself for that. Also, don’t be superficial – this process requires you to be transparent and sincere.  I say that from the perspective of a researcher, because there is such a huge respect that you must have and demonstrate when you’re going to submerge yourself in another culture. You cannot go into that haphazardly.  Be real about it, because the people who are living in the cultural region where you are going to do your project deserve someone who is willing to be authentic.

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Fulbright Update from Brazil: Liesl Driver

Liesl graduated from Drexel with an MS in Global and International Education. With her special interest in indigenous languages and populations, she is now working as an English language teaching assistant in the culturally rich and diverse country of Brazil. She hopes to teach English to local businesspeople and artisans who are preserving their local culture in a global society.

I am in Pato Branco, in the western part of the state of Parana.  It is a town of about 70,000 and only a few hours away from the border with Argentina.

I spent my first week in Brasilia, the federal capital of Brazil.  It is most famous for its modern architectural design by Oscar Niemeyer.  The whole city is in the shape of an airplane.  I arrived two days before orientation so had a little time to explore the city.  The only drawback was mode of transportation – you really couldn’t walk from one place to another. During that time, I went to Parque Nacional de Brasilia and a local market (see picture of Acai).

Orientation was three full days of presentations and activities.  We did a bus tour of the city and learned about cultural differences and teaching in Brazil. There were 90 ETAs at the orientation so a big part of that was forming connections with everyone.

After Brasilia, my co-ETA, Adriana, and I flew to Curitiba. That is the closest major airport to Pato Branco and from there you have to take a bus.   It was a 7 hour bus ride to Pato Branco. Unfortunately, there is no airport in Pato Branco so that is really our only option.

We spent the first week looking for an apartment and taking care of paperwork, such as registering with the federal police. During that time we rented a room in an older lady’s house who provided breakfast and dinner (coffee and banana bread for both, usually). This arrangement was set up by our Professor. We had one introductory class at the university (Universidade Tecnológica Federal do Paraná at the Pato Branco Campus, a federal university with 12 different campuses throughout the state of Parana) during that week.

The university was closed the following week for Carnaval.  I traveled to Florianopolis, an island in Santa Catarina.  I met a few other ETAs there to explore the city and go to the beach.

Now I am back in Pato Branco, have moved into an apartment, and finally getting to work.  We are supposed to work 15-20 hours at week at the university, primarily with the Ingles Sem Fronteiras (English Without Borders) program. We are also starting an English Conversation Club for any interested students or faculty, and there is already a lot of interest!

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