By CHARLES ANZALONE
Published September 19, 2023
Oress “Fiona” Pratt-MacDonald always liked school. A 2022 sociology graduate of UB, Pratt-MacDonald was chosen for three prestigious international fellowships, including a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Award to Taiwan — not to mention a handful of academic and character-based awards at UB, among them the SUNY Chancellor’s Award and the sociology department’s Outstanding Senior Award.
Graduating with a perfect 4.0 GPA in three years, Pratt-MacDonald bypassed the Fulbright to be a preschool English teacher in Yakage-cho, Japan, on a “Princeton in Asia” nonprofit fellowship affiliated with Princeton University.
Pratt-MacDonald — who really likes school now — sends an important message to other students, beyond her impressive record. She is a graduate of UB’s Spark Program, a nine-week seminar that offers select students the opportunity to learn about competitive external fellowships and provides them with the tools to develop a competitive profile. And she is very clear about how others should learn from her experiences.
“Spark introduced me to the world of scholarships,” Pratt-MacDonald said via email while on her teaching fellowship in rural Japan.
“I was fairly unaware of scholarships and fellowships when I entered UB, apart from those that could help pay for one’s undergraduate education,” she said. “Spark opened up a door of possibility by not only giving me and the other students information on the scholarships, but also showing us that it was attainable by bringing in UB grads who had won specific scholarships to talk about their experiences.”
Encouraging words from students such as Pratt-MacDonald are like a symphony to Megan Stewart, director of UB’s Office of Fellowships and Scholarships, who sees Spark as a path to identifying and nurturing outstanding UB students. With the right preparation and support, UB’s best and brightest can compete and succeed in the highly competitive world of international fellowships and scholarships that launch promising students into another level of academic achievement.
The mission: Make UB a place where achieving and charismatic students obtain national and international scholarships that change their academic trajectories. Spark aims to elevate UB’s academic culture to compete with the country’s elite universities.
The goals of the Spark Program are simple. Over nine weeks, select students have the opportunity to learn about competitive external fellowships and obtain the tools to develop a competitive profile.
Developed 10 years ago by Stewart’s predecessor, Elizabeth Colucci, Spark has hosted and trained hundreds of UB students.
“During the course of the program students gain insights from former fellowship recipients, assess their strengths, collaborate and network with mentors and peers, and gain valuable knowledge and opportunities to envision their futures,” says Stewart.
“As students progress through their shared journey, they not only develop competitive profiles for major fellowships but also create lasting connections that echo the University at Buffalo’s commitment to fostering brilliance through collaboration and growth.”
Stewart also praises Spark’s collaboration. In the 10 years of its existence, several UB staff have taught the program, including graduate assistants.
“It wouldn’t have been possible without the support of faculty and staff from across campus,” she says.
Zanaya S. Hussain, a fourth-year international studies and urban and public policy student, says Spark was “incredible” and shaped the research she wants for her postgraduate degree.
“I don’t think I want to do one job for the rest of my life,” says Hussain, who participated in a Bangla Critical Language Scholarship program. “The biggest takeaway from college for me has been that life is not linear and that a career is made up of multiple jobs.”
She plans to apply for graduate school, specializing in political economy and global affairs.
“I hope to work in a field of advocacy where I can amplify marginalized voices through public policy to create a more inclusive society,” she says.
Hussain says she wants to apply an international focus” to her work and “build global citizenship.”
“This in part was ignited through my time in Spark,” Hussain says. “In high school, I wrote in the global affairs section of my school newspaper, but I never suspected that this interest would drive my career goals until I studied abroad in Singapore.
“I entered college planning to apply to medical school rather than graduate school, but after hearing the inspiring stories of past award winners through Spark, it gave me the confidence to reevaluate my passions and have the courage to pivot.”
After meeting with study-abroad students through Spark, Hussain decided to take advantage of all of the amazing study abroad opportunities available at UB; she was able to study abroad last summer.
“Hand in hand I began researching more deeply some of the international awards introduced through Spark and developed a plan for when I would like to apply,” she says.
“Spark connected me with so many invaluable resources, such as inspiring individuals who paved the way and opportunities that have given me so many irreplaceable experiences like the Critical Language Scholarship. It was my honors college mentor who actually participated in the Spark Program herself and encouraged me to apply. I am thankful to this very day.”
The lessons and examples of Spark continue to resonate in Pratt-MacDonald. She plans to apply for the Marshall, Rhodes and Gates Cambridge scholarships.
“In my Spark year, UB’s third winner of the Marshall Scholarship came and talked to us about his experience,” she says. “I did not think it was possible for me to even apply to that scholarship. However, having reflected this past year on that experience, I realized I was offered the opportuinity to participate in Spark for a reason, and it would not hurt to apply.”
More information about the Spark Program is available on the Fellowships and Scholarships website.