Two Barnard juniors are among the inaugural class of Voyager Scholars, a program created by Barack and Michelle Obama and Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, to alleviate student loan debt and to support horizon-expanding travel. Biology major Genevieve Depke ’24 and sociology major Silvana Navia ’24 are among 100 students selected from applicants throughout the country who will receive up to $50,000 in tuition aid, a $10,000 stipend, and free Airbnb housing to pursue a summer work-travel experience between their junior and senior year of college.

“Michelle and I know that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to create it,” said President Barack Obama. “These young Voyagers believe in a fairer and more inclusive world, and they’re ready to help us address important challenges in new ways. I can’t wait to see what they accomplish through public service.”

The Obama-Chesky Scholarship makes travel a key component of the Voyager Scholar program, as it’s designed to “shape young leaders to bridge divides” to solve society’s biggest problems collectively. After graduation, Voyager Scholars receive a $2,000 travel credit annually for 10 years, totaling $20,000.

“It’s hard to build a bridge to somewhere else if you’ve never been there,” said Chesky.

Depke said she hopes to leverage this opportunity to deepen her understanding of public service in public health and medical anthropology.

"By providing financial resources and thus freeing my time, this program gives me the enormous opportunity to travel to places I could not have gone otherwise,” said Depke. “My goal for the Summer Voyage is to explore medical services in several countries that excel in effective medical care through volunteering and internships. I hope to listen and learn from various stakeholders, including patient populations and medical providers. Ultimately, with this freedom and guidance, I can expand my knowledge base through experience, rather than [just through learning] theory, to find and implement meaningful, long-term changes in access to medical care.”

Silvana Navia
Navia presented her project at the Laidlaw Scholars showcase.

As a Laidlaw Scholar, Navia is participating in a project exploring the stories of migrant families separated at the U.S.- Mexico border under the Trump administration’s Zero-Tolerance policy. Many of these families once reunited and in the U.S., needed support. Navia designed an intake form to help them outline their situations and remaining concerns.

“As a Voyager, I will still focus on helping to improve the reunification process and strengthening the services provided to immigrant communities,” said Navia. “However, my approach will be different as I shift from engaging with families involved in the reunification process to working directly with organizations assisting with reunification. These organizations and their work vary from the U.S.-Mexico border to countries in Central America, both of which I plan on traveling to as part of my summer voyage.” 

Navia continued, “As I worked on my Laidlaw project, I knew I wanted my second summer to involve supporting detained families at the southern border. However, I worried I would not be able to afford to do this until now, [when] I can finally turn it into a reality with the support of this scholarship. These traveling experiences will help me grow as a scholar and an individual.” 

Navia is part of the inaugural cohort, Barnard’s Laidlaw Scholar program. Launched in partnership with the Laidlaw Foundation last year, the program is similar to the Voyager Scholarship in its focus on developing a new generation of leaders committed to evidence-based truths and ethical leadership. Laidlaw Scholars advance and drive change around the world through creative, collaborative, and interdisciplinary practice alongside rigorous academic research.

Both Depke and Navia took advantage of fellowship advising support at Beyond Barnard, the College's integrated hub for career support, which also partners with the Athena Center for Leadership in oversight of the Laidlaw Leadership and Research Program. "I offer my sincerest congratulations to both Genevieve and Silvana," said Dean of Beyond Barnard A-J Aronstein. "They are exceptional candidates who are demonstrating to their peers that these kinds of opportunities really are possible for Barnard students."