On one of her first days at Barnard, Hadden May Martinez ’14 stole away to The Diana Center, parked herself behind her laptop, and began the sometimes arduous process of organizing her class schedule. When her BlackBerry buzzed, Martinez glanced at the e-mail. The Vera Joseph Scholarship Program? She’d never heard of it. But when Martinez opened the message, she learned something that would alter the substance of her first year, and perhaps change the course of her life for many years to come.
Martinez—who’s devoted to her biology class even though it means rising in time for a 9 a.m. lecture three times a week— learned that she was to be one of the first 10 participants in the recently launched the Vera Joseph Scholarship Program. Named for Class of 1932 graduate and chemistry major Vera Joseph Peterson, MD, who passed away in January 2008 at the age of 98, the program will award a total of 75 scholarships during the next five years to financially needy students with a passion for math or science (such as chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy) as well as a record of academic excellence.
Born to a poor black dressmaker and a Chinese immigrant in a tiny mountain village in Jamaica, Joseph faced much adversity in her early life: She was ridiculed because of her Chinese heritage and illegitimate status, and she witnessed much illness. At around age 9, she moved to Harlem. As one of the first African-American students to study at Barnard, Joseph attended at a time when the College maintained quotas for black students. Despite this, Joseph apparently delighted in her college years. “Barnard was the one place that meant the most to her,” says her daughter Carla Peterson, a professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. Joseph raised three daughters with her husband, Dr. Jerome S. Peterson, whom she married in 1938.
The scholarship, open to first-years and juniors, will be granted in the future to students who undergo an application process. But for this year, participants were selected without having previously known of the program’s existence, and news of the scholarship arrived via e-mail as the best kind of back- to-school surprise. One such surprised junior, Dominique Keefe, is majoring in biology and plans to work for an environmental nonprofit group after graduation.
Funded by a grant of almost $600,000 from the National Science Foundation, the program eases the financial burden of students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, all of which require talent and persistence, as well as a substantial commitment of time. Unusual among scholarships, the Vera Joseph Scholarship Program not only replaces student loans, but also eliminates all requirements for work-study. That relief is not lost on Keefe, who says she plans to use the extra time to pursue unpaid research opportunities.
In addition to providing financial assistance, the Vera Joseph Scholarship Program aims to create a community of like-minded scholars, offering ready access to a team of five professors whose research ranges from investigating the early universe to cell signaling. “We plan to build a cohort among the students,” says Janna Levin, who is an associate professor of physics and astronomy and director of the program. Participants can communicate with one another on their own Wiki page, and will meet several times a year for workshops and lectures.
Scholarship recipients are already linked in a sense, not only because of their shared interests, but also because they are bound to reflect on the impediments and accomplishments of Vera Joseph, who graduated from Barnard Phi Beta Kappa and received a full scholarship to Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons. In addition to serving as
a physician and assistant to the director at the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Health Center, Joseph went on to become an assistant professor of medicine at the American University of Beirut, a member of the Governing Board of the International School of Geneva, and a consultant on public health and aging to the World Health Organization’s regional office for Europe. She was also active with the Medical Women’s International Association and served as its honorary secretary.
In 1964, after settling in Amherst, Massachusetts, Joseph assumed a position with Smith College Health Services, and eventually became director. Ten years later, she and her
husband were co-recipients of the Ira Hiscock Award for contributions in public health. In an essay, “Different Voices: The Experiences of Women of Color at Barnard,” published in 1997, Joseph writes as if she were addressing the recipients of the new scholarship in her name. She advises students: “Don’t let disappointments get you down. Hold on to the larger picture. Enjoy your youth and the excitement of being in college and New York City, but don’t lose sight of your ultimate goal.”
Levin, who co-wrote the grant for the program (along with staff from Barnard’s Institutional Support office), and is a novelist as well as a scientist, will serve as a compelling role model. Scientific research, she says, “provides the opportunity to explore big questions in a world that is absolutely, insanely fascinating.” Levin also acknowledges, however, that the path to a science career can be challenging and lengthy. “It’s an intensive journey,” she says. “It involves lots of labs, lots of problem sets. It involves practice in the way that language does and fluency only after a certain time. If there are obstacles, it’s hard to pursue. We can’t remove all of them, but we can remove this [financial] one, as well as give them back some time.”
-by Elicia Brown, photograph courtesy of Barnard College Archives