In the 1970s Wofford College President Joe Lesesne met potential donors to discuss opportunities to provide scholarships supporting Interim travel. A decade later, one of those people approached Lesesne to pitch an idea that would take that idea to the next level.
The Presidential International Scholars program is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, and it has provided a life-changing experience for students and a lasting impact on Wofford’s campus.
“Wofford College is a leader in experiential learning — study abroad, community-based learning, undergraduate research and internships — and all who said yes to the opportunity to represent Wofford around the world as Presidential International Scholars share in that success,” said Dr. Nayef Samhat, Wofford’s president, during a Presidential International Scholar reunion in the fall.
The donor’s three basic requirements continue to shape how students are selected:
A person best suited to make a beneficial contribution to the good of humankind.
The desire to conduct international research, with emphasis on developing nations.
The expectation of returning to Wofford to live among peers while sharing experiences with the campus and the larger community.
“The concept was the anonymous donor’s, but it turned out to be a good set of guidelines,” Lesesne says.
The donor, who has combat experience, wanted students to be tested and challenged. The experience did just that, and the first scholar played a vital role in the program’s launch and future success.
“The original recipient turned out to be a good choice, and we learned a lot from him,” Lesesne says. “We added to and changed the process over time, but not the methodology.”
Collier Slade ’87 was excited about the opportunity to travel the world and to conduct research on global deforestation when he was selected as the college’s first Presidential International Scholar. His mother, however, didn’t share that enthusiasm.
“My mother said yes, and the only reason she said yes is because Joe Lesesne said it would be OK,” says Slade, who also credits former Dean of the College Dr. Dan Maultsby ’61 for assisting with reassuring his mom.
Slade scheduled meetings with various agencies headquartered in the United States that did work in countries he was visiting, including Catholic Charities and the World Wildlife Fund.
“The student had a major role to play,” says Slade, who traveled to seven countries. “You had to figure it all out, including transportation, and there was little handholding.” He wasn’t only preparing to have a successful year of research and travel. He understood his experience would impact the future of the program.
“There was this sense of responsibility when you’re selected for this type of experience,” Slade says.
In later years, Slade and other scholars have discussed the feeling of responsibility to do good in the world that they continue to carry.
“I remember coming back and talking to scholars. We wondered if we were living up to that,” Slade says. “That responsibility still guides my life decisions.”
Slade, who lives in Maryland, served in the U.S. Army for 27 years before retiring in 2014 as a colonel. He’s currently working with the Army in a civilian role in research and development.
“My entire career has been impacted by this scholarship,” Slade says. “All of us have this debt of gratitude.”
Documenting the Experience
Ingrid Hutto Palmquist ’90 was the first woman selected as Presidential International Scholar and the first scholar to publish a book about her experiences. Scott Neely ’00 is the other to have written a book.
“I remember when Collier Slade came back and watching his slideshow in the Burwell Building, and I was fascinated by his experience,” Palmquist says.
She researched higher education and its potential to serve as a catalyst for change or a way of maintaining the status quo.
“That year stimulated my interest in social justice and how we treat each other,” says Palmquist, who also developed an interest in photography during the year.
Palmquist worked as a civil rights attorney before turning her interest to community engagement work focused on social justice and racial equality. She directed “Tale of the Lion,” a documentary film that won an award from the Maryland Historical Society.
“Our thought has been to give our children the chance to grow up celebrating our common humanity as well as our differences globally, whether they are playing with other kids in a rural village in Cambodia, enjoying a Broadway play, joining a pick-up soccer game in Croatia or playing basketball in the park in front of our house with other kids from many walks of life,” says Palmquist of her husband, Mark, and two teenage children.
‘Started in Mexico and ended in China’
It’s common for Presidential International Scholars to travel to multiple countries and continents during their year as the scholar, but Dwain Pruitt ’95, the college’s chief equity officer, most likely packed more in than anyone else. He set out to travel to 17 countries, but it ended up being 15. He was forced to cancel travel to Israel because of the Hebron Massacre, and he had to cancel travel to Kenya to cut costs.
Pruitt, like many of his peer scholars, says the experience had a personal and professional impact on his life.
“I learned just how narrow my understanding of the world and global politics was,” Pruitt says. “Seeing real, lived, human experiences with my own eyes forced me to rethink assumptions and embrace the radical notion of our global common humanity. Since that experience, I have cultivated a healthy suspicion of simple, one-sided answers to complex questions. Being the Presidential Scholar made me commit to finding and sharing profoundly human stories in my teaching and in the educational programming work that I do.”
Kris Neely ’02 doubted that he’d be selected as the college’s Presidential International Scholar. His older brother Scott Neely ’00 was the scholar during the 1998-99 academic year. He didn’t think a sibling of a scholar would be chosen so soon.
He was, and his brother offered insight on his experience. But another older brother, Erik Neely, played a significant role in helping Kris plan the year, which would be spent studying water and spirit.
The Dominican Republic was Kris’ first stop. He stayed with a host mother. She didn’t speak English, and he didn’t speak Spanish. So, he debated whether to answer the phone one afternoon while he was working through his travel plans and research while his host was away.
He answered the phone, and it was a call for him. The director of his program told him to immediately go to the phone company to call his family. It was a one-mile walk, and he wasn’t sure what to expect. He was prepared for the passing of his grandmother. He said his goodbyes to her before leaving. Scott answered and told him that Erik died and that the family had purchased a plane ticket for him to return home the next day. Kris walked the one mile back to his host mother’s home.
“It was lonely to face that,” Neely says. “There was a numbness, and it was shocking.”
While home in Spartanburg, his family urged him to discontinue his travels. It wasn’t an option for him, though.
“It started as a trip based on sibling rivalry and turned into an homage to Erik,” Neely says.
Erik was on Kris’ mind while traveling up the Amazon River, the part that excited Erik the most, but it proved to be a difficult journey for Kris. He became ill. During a stop in Brazil, an elderly woman seated near him got off the boat and returned with a green drink that didn’t look appetizing, but she motioned that it would help with an upset stomach.
“It was almost instantaneous in how much better it made me feel,” Neely says.
Kris often thinks about the kindness strangers expressed while he was vulnerable. It started with his host mother in the Dominican Republic making sure he had comfort food after receiving news about his brother’s passing, the elderly woman on the riverboat, a cab driver in Jordan and a professor in Africa, who advised him while navigating the continent, who suggested he focus on his health and cancel plans to travel to Zimbabwe and Zambia.
“When someone shows kindness in your time of need, it’s hard not to pay it forward,” Neely says.
Kris’ older brother, Scott, was proud when he was named a scholar, and Scott is still moved by Kris’ research and how he handled the challenges that he faced.
“The year Kris lived was far different, and far more difficult, than my own,” Scott says. “He suffered great personal loss and had to find a way through. I respect how Kris walked through the adversity he encountered, and how he created from it a year rich in meaning to share.”
Where They Are Now
The Presidential International Scholars program is celebrating 35 years and more than 20 scholars gathered on campus for a fall reunion. A few scholars shared updates through a survey.
William Collier Slade ’87
Focus of your Presidential International Scholar research? Global deforestation.
Countries you visited while Presidential International Scholar? Brazil, India, Nepal, China, Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia.
What are you doing now? Filled with gratitude when I reminisce about the scholarship.
Ingrid Hutto Palmquist ’90
Focus of your Presidential International Scholar research? My project was to investigate whether higher education in developing countries served as a catalyst for change or as a tool to perpetuate the status quo. In countries without much of a middle class, where a relative few have extreme wealth and a great many live in poverty, was higher education available to rich and poor alike? Were colleges and universities in developing countries preparing students to tackle basic problems in areas such as economic development, education, and management of natural resources? Or did they educate an elite that was sheltered from such problems?
Countries you visited while Presidential International Scholar? Costa Rica, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Spain, Lesotho, Kenya, Israel, Egypt, India, Nepal, Thailand, Hong Kong and the Samoan Islands.
What are you doing now? I live in Frederick, Md., with my husband, Mark, and our children, Cayden (16) and Skyler (15). I've shifted from practicing civil rights law to community engagement, working on issues of social justice and racial equality. In 2018, I made a documentary film, “The Tale of the Lion,” drawn from interviews with 21 of Frederick County's oldest African American residents, ages 89 to 105 at the time of their interviews. We premiered the film in our historic theater, where the women and men featured in the film were not allowed to attend during the days of segregation. This time, they were welcomed by a capacity crowd and walked in on a red carpet.
Eric Ireland ’92
Focus of your Presidential International Scholar research? Impact of religion on the progress of developing countries.
Countries you visited while Presidential International Scholar? El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Haiti, United Kingdom, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Greece, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Israel, Greece, India, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Japan.
What are you doing now? Upon graduation I moved to North Carolina to be a wilderness counselor for children with behavior problems with Eckerd Family Youth Alternatives. I then married Lisa Deavenport '90, and we moved to Ohio for 14 years, before returning to the Upstate of South Carolina in 2008 with two children. My career has been in the chemical industry and since 2011 with Michelin. My career has given me the opportunity to work alongside people from all over the world here and abroad. I have been engaged with several community organizations in my life in both leadership and volunteer capacities. Notably, I am the upstate co-chair for the Braver Angels Palmetto Alliance. Braver Angels is a national organization that works alongside individuals, organizations and institutions at a local level to depolarize and create capacity to engage and collaborate across differences (political, racial, religious, etc.). We are currently delivering workshops for Leadership Wofford 2022.
Dwain C. Pruitt ’95
Focus of your Presidential International Scholar research? My topic was “Historic Preservation in the Developing World.” I studied how various nations and cultural organizations were attempting to commemorate and preserve important archaeological and cultural sites.
Countries you visited while Presidential International Scholar? Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Poland, India, Thailand, and China.
What are you doing now? After several years of service as a faculty member or administrator at several colleges and universities, I returned to Wofford in September 2021 to serve as the college’s inaugural chief equity officer. In addition to serving in this role, I’m also teaching courses for the department of history.
Scott Talley ’99
Focus of your Presidential International Scholar research? Early education methods.
Countries you visited while Presidential International Scholar? Thailand, China, Vietnam, Laos, Czech Republic, Tunisia, Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Brazil and Chile.
What are you doing now? Kelly and I live in Moore, S.C., with our three sons, Hudson (16), Leyton (15) and Wells (10). I am the principal of Talley Law Firm, P.A., in Spartanburg, and currently serve as state senator, District 12 (Spartanburg and Greenville counties) in the South Carolina Senate, first elected in 2016.
Jonathan Hufford ’10
Focus of your Presidential International Scholar research? The intersection of traditional medicine and Western medicine.
Countries you visited while Presidential International Scholar? Australia, China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India, Germany, Turkey, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Jordan and Syria.
What are you doing now? I am an OB-GYN living in Greenville, S.C.
Regina Fuller ’11
Focus of your Presidential International Scholar research? Music and identity of the African Diaspora.
Countries you visited while Presidential International Scholar? Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Senegal, Ghana, Tanzania, Egypt, Israel and India.
What are you doing now? I am writing my dissertation on sex education in Ghana as a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I am based in Accra, Ghana.
Lindsey Perret Woolley ’15
Focus of your Presidential International Scholar research? Women as agents of change in Latin America.
Countries you visited while Presidential International Scholar? Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico and Dominican Republic.
What are you doing now? I am currently taking time off from nonprofit work while taking classes and working at my local library. I married Tyler Woolley ’16 in 2018. We have a dog and foster cats! We live in Lexington, S.C.
Kendall Weaver ’20
Focus of your Presidential International Scholar research? How Western humanitarian aid organizations operate within Arab communities.
Countries you visited while Presidential International Scholar? Jordan, Palestine and Israel.
What are you doing now? I am newly married to Victor Karpik and have settled in Spartanburg, S.C., where I work as the volunteer coordinator and victim advocate at SAFE Homes-Rape Crisis Coalition.
Margaret Roach ’21
Focus of your Presidential International Scholar research? I researched the integration of traditional healing and biomedical approaches to treating common mental disorders in India. During my research, I was led toward answering a more fundamental, but related, question of “how do you address mental illness as a public health crisis when there are a shortage of mental health professionals?”
Countries you visited while Presidential International Scholar? Did not travel due to COVID-19 pandemic, conducted research remotely.
What are you doing now? Living in Chapel Hill, N.C. Pursuing a master of public health with a concentration in health equity, social justice and human rights at the University of North Carolina.
Visit wofford.edu/presidentialinternationalscholars to learn more about the research and travels of the college’s scholars.