Victoria Puglia ’21 has enjoyed an adventurous undergraduate experience. From her study abroad trips in Peru, Uganda, India, and Senegal to her involvement in several student organizations on College Hill, Puglia began to focus on two things: conflict and refugees. The two are closely connected, she said.
This past November, the senior international affairs major was awarded what is widely considered to be among the most prestigious academic distinctions available to American college graduates: the Rhodes Scholarship. Before she pursues her postgraduate studies at Oxford University, Puglia sat down with The Lafayette to reflect on her time here and discuss her future aspirations.
The Lafayette: You’ve been very involved on campus. How were you shaped by the Lafayette Community?
Puglia: My first year here at Lafayette I really struggled to find my place. To an extent, that’s why I became so involved in the ISA [International Students Association]. The ISA community gave me a group of individuals who really helped me find my footing.
By being involved in McKelvy [Scholars Program], I’ve also had a chance to meet individuals from different spheres of campus who I don’t think I would have come across otherwise. That’s been really nice because to me, this campus can be divided. It’s nice to have a community that brings individuals together. RefAct [Refugee Action] was another opportunity to meet people with similar interests.
The Lafayette: Were there any faculty members that were especially influential on you?
Puglia: Before I talk about faculty, I would say that there were a few upperclassmen international students who I spoke with a lot, and they introduced me to the world of academia. I think it was through them that I started considering pursuing graduate school or a Ph.D. Being a freshman, the thought had never crossed my mind. They were also the ones that helped me come to understand certain social relations and social tensions on the campus.
In terms of professors, I took a class with [assistant professor of international affairs Caleb Gallemore] my freshman spring that would reshape my entire academic trajectory. At first, I was set on doing psychology, or I don’t know… I changed my mind like 15 times. That class made me very interested in international affairs. Since then, professor Gallemore has been incredibly supportive of my academic interests. He has very much helped me to understand what the possibilities of research are. Other professors have definitely helped me, but he is the most notable one. The whole international affairs department has been incredibly helpful as well.
The Lafayette: You’ve done a lot of great things at Lafayette. Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Puglia: I think at first I very much embraced the mantra of liberal arts. I got very involved, took classes outside of my major, and explored all these things. That really helped me, but I also wish at some point someone had told me, ‘you’ve explored enough, now it’s time to start thinking through what you want to do and focus.’ There were points where I sacrificed a lot of sleep, my personal and mental health to accomplish all these different things, and I think retrospectively having a bit narrower focus could have helped me. I don’t regret it, I just wished I found out sooner.”
The Lafayette: What advice would you give to the freshman class?
Puglia: Embrace opportunities as they come. If an opportunity arises, take it, especially with things that you didn’t necessarily think that you’d be interested in. I found it’s those things that I least expected that gave so much meaning to my time here at my Lafayette.
The Lafayette: There are countless issues that you could have studied as an international affairs major. What made you focus on refugees?
Puglia: I can’t explain the root of it, but I’ve always been very intrigued by conflict, what drives conflict, and the human nature behind it. Refugees are the result of conflict, so those two interests are intersecting here. I decided to go to Uganda so I’d be able to do field research in a refugee settlement. When I came back, I realized I really liked this idea of research and examining these issues from a mix of an academic and policy lens. I think that’s what ultimately pushed me into the realm of really delving deep into research regarding these issues.
The Lafayette: You won the Rhodes Scholarship, congratulations! What was that day like?
Puglia: It was the same day I was interviewed. After my second interview, they came out and announced the names of the winners over Zoom. At the moment I truly thought I misheard my name. I was in a state of shock. I was in RISC [Rockwell Integrated Science Center] doing work and one of my friends was waiting outside. After being told I had won, I went out and had some cake and a mini celebration…with masks on and socially distanced. The whole day feels like a blur. I still don’t have the words for how I felt.
The Lafayette: What do you see yourself doing after your research at Oxford?
Puglia: I definitely want to work for either the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], the World Food Program, or The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Like I said I’m interested in conflict, and I potentially want to be doing policy planning and humanitarian aid policy for conflicts and emergencies. I definitely want to be in the [United Nations] at one point.”
The Lafayette: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Puglia: I guess there’s one thing I want to say: a lot of what I’ve done here was never with the intention of winning a scholarship. It hasn’t been about these materialistic goals, like win this or win that. It’s just been staying true to my intentions and things that bring meaning to my life. That’s a philosophy that I have and something that I will keep with me moving forward.