UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State student Laura Guay was named as a finalist to the Rhodes Scholarship, the first Penn Stater to be named a finalist since 2001.
The Rhodes Scholarship is among the most sought-after international scholarships in the world. The program funds two years of graduate studies for its scholars at the University of Oxford, U.K. Scholars also participate in retreats, workshops and conferences and discussions, as well as social events at Rhodes House in central Oxford. The list of Rhodes Scholars-elect for 2022 was announced on Nov. 20.
Though Guay was not named a Rhodes Scholar, she said the process has helped her clarify her future plan of study.
Guay is a Schreyer Scholar pursuing a major in biobehavioral health and minor in global health from the College of Health and Human Development and a major in French and Francophone studies from the College of the Liberal Arts. After graduating from State College Area High School in State College, Pennsylvania, in 2017, Guay said she was drawn to the Biobehavioral Health program in the College of Health and Human Development for its interdisciplinary approach to helping people.
Dennis Shea, associate dean for Undergraduate Studies and Outreach and professor of health policy and sdministration in the College of Health and Human Development recalled Guay’s very first semester at Penn State, when she was his student in an honors seminar on aging and human longevity.
“From the very start, I was impressed by Laura’s integrity, intellect and initiative,” Shea said. “At each step of her undergraduate experience, my belief in her potential to have a significant impact on global health has grown from that first impression.”
Guay's undergraduate research through the Stress, Health and Daily Experiences (SHADE) lab has focused on loneliness, particularly among HIV patients. She conducted numerous qualitative interviews with healthcare providers on their opinions of their patients’ loneliness in central Pennsylvania and in Dakar, Senegal, where she studied abroad in 2019. That same year while studying abroad, Guay also participated in the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) by working on HIV projects in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. She credited her studies in French through the College of the Liberal Arts in helping her to forge close relationships with French speakers in Africa. Guay is also involved in an ongoing internship with the UNESCO Social and Human Sciences Sector Youth Programme.
Dana Naughton, associate teaching professor of biobehavioral health and director of the Global Health minor, described Guay as “driven, focused, and yet highly diverse in terms of her interests.” Naughton said in addition to her excellent academic work, she was among the first students to sign up as a volunteer to assist the PA Department of Health with COVID contact-tracing efforts and volunteered to help with a food insecurity study in Philadelphia.
Guay’s application focused heavily on her study of loneliness and her desire to study the subject more broadly — especially in the U.K., which has a Minister of Loneliness and works through local community programs to study and provide relief to its lonely citizens. She said being named a finalist felt like recognition of her previous work and the importance of studying loneliness from both research and applied policy angles.
“As someone who has been studying this for three and a half years and is very aware of all of the biopsychosocial outcomes that loneliness has, I think it's not only just recognition of the amount of time and effort I've put into this application — this process — but also this study,” she said.
Influenced by her work in the SHADE lab, Guay said she is particularly interested in the multidimensional nature of loneliness, something that’s often been lacking in the measurement of loneliness.
“Laura is ambitious and driven to make a difference in the world,” said Joshua Smyth, distinguished professor of Biobehavioral Health and Medicine and director of the SHADE lab. “Her intellectual and ethical curiosity has motivated her to examine how research and policy can impact lived experiences of persons at risk; that is, she is taking her work outside of the classroom and lab and starting to apply it in various contexts in our local communities and across the globe.”
Guay is the daughter of Terrence and Pattie Guay, of State College. Terrence is a clinical professor of international business and director of the Center for Global Business Studies in the Smeal College of Business at Penn State.
Applying for the Rhodes Scholarship
This year, Guay was a Penn State nominee for both the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships. Undergraduate students first apply to Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Mentoring (URFM) in the spring of their penultimate year to compete for University nomination. Selected nominees then work with URFM and a Penn State committee to prepare their applications for the national competition.
Guay said that no matter the outcome of her nominations to the Rhodes and Marshall scholarship boards, the process gave her the chance to reflect on her life so far and plot a future course.
“The best learning experience that's going to come out of this, no matter what, is that I'm so much more confident in what I want to do going forward,” she said.
It was after her return from Senegal and Democratic Republic of the Congo that Guay said the College of Health and Human Development reached out to her and suggested she look into opportunities through URFM. That confidence from college leadership, she said, helped her to see herself as someone who could compete for opportunities such as the Rhodes Scholarship. She said her work on the Marshall Scholarship application with support of her Penn State mentors helped her weave her academic work and personal experiences into a cohesive narrative.
Guay said she was grateful for the help of Caitlin Ting, director of URFM, and Ben Randolph, graduate assistant at URFM and doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy, College of the Liberal Arts. In the College of Health and Human Development, Guay received the support of Kari Kugler, assistant teaching professor of biobehavioral health, as well as Smyth, Naughton and Shea.
Guay earned five scholarships through the College of Health and Human Development: Edith Pitt Chace Award, 2020; Helen Skade Hintz Biobehavioral Health Scholarship, 2020; Jane B. Slep Honors Scholarship, 2020; Jane B. Slep Honors Scholarship, 2019; and the Frances DiGeso Women's Leadership Award, 2019.
The previous Penn State Rhodes Scholars are Tess Thompson, class of 1997, English; and Zachary Battles, class of 2001, mathematics and computer science.
URFM will offer events throughout the spring 2022 semester for those interested in applying to the Rhodes Scholarship and other competitive fellowship opportunities that allow students to study around the world.