Trio of travel fellowships take Rice students to the ends of the earth

The Arctic Circle. The border between El Paso and Juarez. Tokyo.

These are the far-flung destinations three Rice students will be heading to this year as the university’s newest recipients of a trio of travel fellowships.

Lia Pikus, a Baker College sophomore who’s double-majoring in music and political science, won the Arthur and Shelley Gottschalk Traveling Grant for Musicians, which awards up to $2,000 to a student enrolled in Rice’s Shepherd School of Music. It’s a brand-new award established by Arthur Gottschalk, professor of composition and theory, who founded the university’s electronic and computer music laboratories.

Shami Mosley, a Jones College junior seeking a degree in English, won the Brotzen Scholarship, which provides up to $3,000 for an independent trip abroad to explore a topic of the student’s choice.

Kaela Wilbur, a Jones College junior studying environmental science, won the Goliard Scholarship, which gives a student up to $2,500 for an independent trip abroad to further their personal growth and offer exposure to new experiences. Wilbur is taking that offer and running with it to the ends of the earth — literally.

Here are the adventures these Rice students are embarking on this year.

A solo trek across the Arctic Circle

Jones College junior Kaela Wilbur

Jones College junior Kaela Wilbur

“I’m planning to hike the Arctic Circle Trail this August because all the snow will have melted by then and hopefully the mosquitos will have died down a bit,” said Wilbur, a seasoned hiker who tackled her first solo trip last summer along the Appalachian Trail — a feat that earned the then-19-year-old wide acclaim.

The 125-mile Arctic Circle Trail runs from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut in Greenland, consisting mostly of tundra, mountains and lakes. Wilbur is planning to use the trip — a solo hike — to sharpen a variety of skills, including landscape photography.

“Greenland is known for having epic scenery because there are few trees to obscure the views, and there are cool animals like arctic foxes, musk oxen and reindeer,” Wilbur said. “I’m hoping to be able to get some great shots for my portfolio while I’m out there in addition to being challenged physically and mentally by the hiking.”

Her two-week trip will begin with a 25-hour flight to Greenland, with a layover in Iceland. She’s setting aside a day to explore the two tiny towns she’ll travel through on the way to the trail, but the bulk of the trip — 10 days — will be devoted to tackling the trek.

And while the trail may be tough, her years of hiking experience have made packing easy: tent, extra clothes, sleeping roll, cooking utensils, Crocs — “After you finish hiking for the day, it’s nice to be able to take your shoes and socks off and let your feet breathe while doing camp chores,” she said — and, of course, Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies.

“They have very little nutritional value aside from being just straight calories, but man, those things are so good,” Wilbur said with a laugh.

The brownies will be that much sweeter once she’s on the trip, which she didn’t think she had a shot at winning. But after a chance encounter with the Center for Civic Leadership’s travel fellowship offerings during a First-year Writing Intensive Seminar, she was encouraged to give the Goliard a shot.

“When I submitted the essay, I definitely didn’t think I would win,” Wilbur said. “But I figured at the very least the selection committee would be entertained because I doubt anyone’s ever wanted to go to Greenland before!”

An animated journey in Japan

Jones College junior Shami Mosley

Jones College junior Shami Mosley

Mosley has been a vocal fan of anime and manga since childhood.

“I remember being a child and screaming the special attack move ‘Kamehameha!’ of the character Goku from the anime ‘Dragon Ball Z,’” he said.

Allowance money bought “hundreds” of cards for the card game based off the anime “Yu-Gi-Oh!” and years were devoted to studying every element of the genres. But the more Mosley learned, the more he realized he didn’t know — and the more he wanted to understand.

“I now realize there has been a cultural barrier up this entire time, and I may have been missing something that these series were trying to say,” said Mosley, who credits manga and anime with his development as an individual. “I would not be who I am today without them, and I would love to go to Japan to gain a higher appreciation for these forms of art.”

The Brotzen Scholarship will enable Mosley to visit the home of anime when he heads to Japan this August. It will also be Mosley’s first trip abroad — a first within his family, too.

“I just appreciate having these opportunities to do things that my parents have never done before,” said Mosley, who admitted he’s both “excited and terrified to experience the culture of a different country.”

Inspired by a trip to New York last summer, during which he studied the city’s long relationship with comic book superheroes, Mosley researched Tokyo’s own comic scene — especially its epicenter, the Akihabara district — in anticipation of taking a similar trip there in the future. He found museums and stores devoted to the genres, including one that teaches people the proper way to wield a katana.

“Tokyo has a huge manga and anime culture,” he said. “I want to go here to be in an environment where manga and anime is treasured and to ask people what is it that they love about it.”

Mosley also plans to travel outside Tokyo to visit locations depicted in his favorite anime shows and to visit the shrines and temples of Nikkō, which are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

“If time opens up in my schedule, then I plan on climbing Mount Fuji as well,” Mosely said. “I am just looking forward to how Tokyo will forever change who I am as a person, as well as an intellectual.”

Ethnomusicology in El Paso

Baker College sophomore Lia Pikus

Baker College sophomore Lia Pikus

The U.S.-Mexico border is fraught with political tension, which has obscured the personal stories of those directly affected by the humanitarian crisis. This is one reason Pikus wants to explore the border from the perspective of ethnomusicology, hoping to bring home music and stories from both sides.

“Simply telling people’s individualized stories, both through words and art, is something that is underrepresented in mainstream media, and something I hope — by its inherent structure and nature — my proposal accomplishes,” she said.

Pikus’s proposal for the Gottschalk Traveling Grant for Musicians was structured, she said, to “increase visibility of soft media around immigration without the forceful hand of outside opinion or politicization.”

It’s an approach — a trip with the express purpose of documenting and disseminating music — that differs from the traditional tack taken by ethnomusicologists, who study the way people and cultures express themselves through music and who typically have a thesis and pointed research questions in place before performing work like this.

“I’m really excited for the opportunity to conduct field work on a topic I’m passionate about that maybe doesn’t fit into a conventional academic or research norm,” Pikus said.

Rice doesn’t have an ethnomusicology concentration, so Pikus is accustomed to working outside the norm when it comes to pursuing her passion.

“Over the past few months I’ve made a curriculum of ethnomusicology literature and theory, constructed with professors from other universities I’ve reached out to,” said the cellist, who’s done much of this work in her spare time between working on double degrees in music and political science.

“Understanding cultures’ musical traditions in reality is far more nuanced than it is in theory, and I think one of the things that makes ethnomusicology so intriguing to me is its focus on the particular role music assumes in every culture,” she said. “It’s a really unique insight into people’s lived experiences.”

Her two-week trip planned for December will take her to El Paso, Juarez and other border cities, where she plans to visit with residents, conduct interviews and capture recordings of regional music. As she plans to pursue postgraduate work in ethnomusicology after graduation, the trip was also planned with strategic precision to further her work in this arena.

“I think this area in particular is underrepresented and under-researched in the field,” Pikus said. “So I’m hoping that this first experience in ethnomusicology will not be an isolated one, but will rather be a foundation off of which I continue to conduct research, engage in the field and grow as both a musician and researcher.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.