When she received her acceptance to Berkeley, Laura Sofen was thrilled to return to Chemistry in “one of the strongest graduate programs in the country, with opportunities I couldn’t find anywhere else,” she says. Her acceptance package also said she’d been selected to receive the Joe Lurie Returned Peace Corps Gateway Fellowship, which would cover her fees and tuition, provide a stipend, and include free room and board at International House for a year. Grateful to be living among 1,500 U.S. and international students and scholars, Laura says, “I’ve been back in the U.S. for a year, but I still sometimes don’t feel completely American. When we finished our Peace Corps service, they told us that we might have been ‘red’ people when we arrived, but then we lived with ‘blue’ people, so now we’re ‘purple’ people. As a ‘purple’ person, I-House is the perfect community, where there are so many different perspectives. I think that’s really important if you want to become an informed citizen of the world.”

Lara Sofen and LurieScholar Profile

Name: Laura Sofen
Country: United States (Lexington, Massachusetts)
Field of study: Chemistry

Background: From an early age, Laura loved learning foreign languages and wanted to use her skills for something good. In college, she had an internship in Ecuador with a nonprofit focused on sustainable agriculture. “It was a fabulous experience living and working there,” says Laura, and it inspired her to join the Peace Corps in 2011, “to see another part of the world in depth.” The Peace Corps sent Laura to an indigenous territory in Panama, where she lived with a community on a ridge top and drew her water from mountain springs. Farmers were poor there and didn’t have enough to feed their families. Motivating them became her greatest challenge. Since she didn’t know a lot about tropical crops, she collaborated with the local ministry of agriculture and bought her food from local farmers, to encourage them to produce crops.

In her own words: In the village where I lived in Panama, they talk a lot about ‘July’, which is code for hunger since July is the last month before harvest. If you ask a family how they are and they say, ‘Oh we’ve got a lot of July around,’ it really means they’re hungry and don’t have food. What I learned from the Peace Corps and the things I saw as a volunteer is how much educated individuals can contribute to society. The region where I was did not have many educated people. I’ve had the privilege of excellent education, and I want to capitalize on that and continue to contribute to society as a chemist. Someday I hope to return to Panama, where we started a program linking local high schools to a 4-year university agriculture program. I told students that if they graduate from the program, I would come back for their graduation.

Donor Profile

The Joe Lurie Returned Peace Corps Gateway Fellowship

For 20 years, Joe Lurie, who had served in the Peace Corps in Kenya, was executive director of International House at UC Berkeley. During his tenure, he increased financial-aid programs and enhanced the nonprofit organization’s financial stability, oversaw the renovation of 80 percent of the historic building, and improved disability access and seismic safety. Lurie also facilitated the production of a PBS documentary about I-House that has been shown across the country. In honor of his distinguished service, the I-House Board of Directors and UC Berkeley alumni established The Joe Lurie Returned Peace Corps Gateway Fellowship.