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Maternal Health Drives UVA's Newly Minted Luce Scholar

Mar 06, 2018 |

Madeline Rita, a University of Virginia fourth-year global development studies major, does not yet know in which Asian country she will live after she graduates, but she knows she will be working with a partner organization in a health care field.

Madeline Rita, who will graduate in May, is bound for Asia “to experience and learn from unfamiliar health belief systems,” she said.
Dan Addison / University Communications

Rita has received a Luce Scholarship, which provides stipends, language training and individualized professional placement in Asia each year for 15 to 18 scholars who have had limited prior exposure to Asia.

“This opportunity is tremendously exciting because it gives me a chance to experience and learn from unfamiliar health belief systems,” Rita said. “The way we encounter and engage illness tells a fascinating story about our cultural values and priorities, and there are so many resourceful, thought-provoking things people do to manage their health in different contexts. I’m eager to discover more of that.”

A high school graduate of the Denver School of the Arts, Rita plans to attend medical school, possibly pursuing a dual degree in medical anthropology or public health. She hopes her time in Asia will influence her approach to medicine.

“Health care is a profession that deals with profound vulnerability and subjectivity,” she said. “I hope my Luce year will help me become better equipped to assume that responsibility with the reverence and empathy it demands.”

Rita has focused her scholarship on issues of pregnancy and birth, working in the UVA Medical Center and in health-related settings in Guatemala, New Zealand and South Africa. She is also writing a capstone project exploring the ways legal, medical and economic institutions systematically devalue the fertility of women of color while prizing the fertility of white women.

“I want to show that those with a vested interest in the wellness of all child-bearing families must take the work of the reproductive justice movement as their point of departure,” she said. 

Rita was inspired to apply for the scholarship by poet Mary Olivier’s “Am I Not Among the Early Risers.”

“It’s about slowing down and basking in the small daily beauties and oddities of human life, mundane though they may seem,” Rita said. “It’s also about living a worthwhile life by paying close attention. Formal education is an incredible privilege, but sometimes it muddles my ability to give that kind of active, soulful attention to myself, my surroundings and others. I applied because I thought the Luce year had the potential to create such a space.”

Rita was also influenced by Luce Foundation President Michael Gilligan, who said he hoped the Luce year would bring participants closer to the heart of the world.

“I’m grateful for the ways in which I’ve felt that closeness in Charlottesville, and now I’m ready to move forward and experience it anew,” Rita said.

Rita, a Jefferson Scholar and an Echols Scholar, is a member of the Raven Society and served on the University Judiciary Committee for three years. She volunteered for Students Helping Honduras and Madison House, for which she was a general equivalency diploma tutor at Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail.  She has also been an organic chemistry teaching assistant, a medical scribe at the UVA Medical Center Emergency Department, an instructor for Cavalier Education, and a guest lecturer in medical anthropology. She received Intermediate Honors and has been named to the Dean’s List. She has also been a student intern at Asociacion de Comadronas del Area Mam, a women’s reproductive health clinic and birth center in Concepción Chiquirichapa, Guatemala.

According to Cassandra Fraser, a UVA professor of chemistry and biomedical engineering, Rita is an exceptionally talented student who moves easily between traditional academic disciplines and global cultures.

“She has demonstrated excellence in science, social science and humanities fields and has traveled to various countries for internships and service projects,” Fraser said. “She is passionately committed to expanding her knowledge and expertise in the field of maternal health. Maddie has the potential to be a global leader in this field one day. Based on experiences to date, she realizes that international experiences and insights from other cultures are critical to her goals.”

Anthropology professor Carrie B. Douglass praised Rita as being a natural teacher and leader.

“Madeline Rita is one of the most impressive young scholars I have known during my teaching career,” Douglass said. “However, it is not just her scholarship, but her engagement with her community and the world – putting her knowledge, learning and theories to work in real life – that is so remarkable.”

The Luce Scholars Program is a nationally competitive fellowship program launched by the Henry Luce Foundation in 1974 to enhance the understanding of Asia among potential leaders in American society. The program is unique among American-Asian exchanges in that it is intended for young leaders who have had limited experience of Asia and who might not otherwise have an opportunity in the normal course of their careers to come to know Asia.

For information about this and other national scholarships and fellowships, visit the Center for Undergraduate Excellence.