Rotary scholar

Emma Walker-Silverman, a Telluride local pursuing a PhD at Oxford, has been awarded a prestigious Rotary International Global Grant Scholarship for $30,000 to support her research, which seeks to understand and reduce conflict between refugees and host countries. (Courtesy photo)

Emma Walker-Silverman, a Telluride local pursuing a PhD at Oxford, has been awarded a prestigious Rotary International Global Grant Scholarship for $30,000 to support her research, which seeks to understand and reduce conflict between refugees and host countries.

The scholarship will cover tuition to complete her PhD in International Development at the University of Oxford. While her program is based in the UK, her fieldwork focuses on Turkey, where she has spent a great deal of time ever since she was a Rotary Youth Exchange student to Istanbul during her sophomore year at Telluride High School.

Walker-Silverman was born and raised in Telluride, the daughter of Rick Silverman and Lindsey Walker, and graduated from Telluride High in 2013. Early on, she developed a passion to study group identities and refugees in the interest of promoting peace and reducing humanitarian crises. She’s currently living in Istanbul and will return to Oxford in October.

In her scholarship application, she explained that her research is driven by questioning, why do some people respond to refugees with hostility, even violence, while others take to the streets to declare “Refugees Welcome Here”? How might social media, often maligned for inflaming xenophobia, be used to improve local attitudes towards refugees?

“My doctoral research seeks to understand differing host community responses to refugees and test how social media might be harnessed to reduce rather than exacerbate intergroup conflict between locals and refugees,” said Walker-Silverman. “I focus on Turkey, home to more refugees than anywhere in the world, where social media has played a key role in shaping increasingly hostile attitudes towards the millions of Syrians, Afghans, and others seeking refuge in the country. I use a combination of social media content analysis, focus groups, interviews, and experimental interventions using social media itself. From this, I hope to distill globally applicable lessons on how to reduce intergroup conflict in a context of ever-increasing displacement.”

Telluride Rotary Club, along with a Rotary club in Oxford, submitted Walker-Silverman’s application to Rotary International and shepherded it through a rigorous review process.

Sarah Lavender Smith, president of Telluride Rotary Club for 2021-22, led a local committee that interviewed and recommended Walker-Silverman for the grant. “We found Emma to be highly articulate, intellectually brilliant, and passionate about Rotary’s mission to advance peace and goodwill. We also found her field of study and career goals, while focused on Turkey and its refugee population, to be applicable to help promote peace and reduce conflicts globally,” Lavender Smith said.

Walker-Silverman credits the high school Rotary Youth Exchange program for putting her on a life-changing path that led to her current work.

“That year (2010-11) was transformative in so many ways and gave me a connection with Turkey I never could have forged had I only moved here as an adult,” she said. “It is no exaggeration to say that all of the work I have done since finishing university, from my Fulbright research in Izmir to my current doctoral project, can be traced directly back to that opportunity” to live with a family in Istanbul, and learn the language, as a high school student.

Walker-Silverman stood out among many applicants also pursuing the scholarship for advanced degrees.

“It’s competitive because she went against individuals who were nominated by various Rotary clubs in a district that spans the majority of Colorado,” said Kate Davis, scholarship chair for Rotary District 5470. Davis said Walker-Silverman impressed the committee with her fieldwork in Turkey, her dedication to mastering the language, her insights into global problems, and her confidence.

“Scholarship recipients are asked to give speeches and become engaged with their host club. Emma shone in her interview,” Davis added.

Walker-Silverman has received numerous scholarships and awards throughout her academic career, including a Fulbright for research following her undergraduate study at Stanford University. But this Rotary scholarship, she said, “is by far the most generous funding I have received and will allow me to focus my full time and energy on completing my research. In addition, the scholarship brings with it further connection to the global Rotary community in the form of a hosting club in Oxford and a cohort of fellow scholars that I will join this autumn, adding a human dimension to the academic experience. I'm deeply grateful to the Telluride Rotary Club for their warm and unwavering support during this extended application process, and to District 5470 and Rotary International for putting their faith in my work.” 

After completing her degree, Walker-Silverman plans to continue applying her research training to reduce intergroup conflict, focusing on refugee-host community tensions.

“As conflict and climate change continue to drive displacement, a key facet of adaptation will be learning to live with one another in such circumstances without tearing each other apart,” she said. “Whether this pathway brings me into academia, policy work, or humanitarianism, I will be putting to work the skillset I am acquiring now.”

Rotary International is a non-religious, non-political service organization with about 1.4 million members worldwide who belong to local clubs. Its priorities are promoting peace, preventing disease, improving maternal and child health, providing water and sanitation, protecting the environment, promoting literacy and education, and growing local economies. Telluride Rotary Club was founded in 1945; for more information about the local club, see telluriderotary.com.