December and January were life-changing months for Douglas Mauro de Lorenzo, AS '98. As the ninth UD student to receive a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and the second to be named to USA Today's All-USA College Academic First Team, the quiet, contemplative senior was the center of a flurry of activity.
There were newspaper interviews; people have been celebrating his accomplishments; and he's become a popular guest speaker.
It's all a little overwhelming for a young man who admires the simple life of monks and resolved his own existential crisis by living in a monastery in the Swiss Alps while still a teen.
When de Lorenzo learned he had been named a Rhodes Scholar, he says he was stunned.
He compares the final days of the Rhodes competition to the Miss America pageant. "The committee spent the morning and afternoon interviewing candidates, then they shepherded us into this wonderful room, gave us one of those 'everybody's a winner' speeches and called out the [winning] names. Ever since they called my name, I feel as if I'm leading the life of another person."
But, then, de Lorenzo has always felt a little different.
From the time he was a child, he seemed more a citizen of the world than of the Delaware and Maryland communities in which he's lived.
"Even as a child, I wanted to go abroad. I have great motivation to assimilate. It's always been a puzzle to my mother [Ann Draper, an administrative assistant in the UD's College of Arts and Science]."
That feeling was confirmed when he went to Germany for a month during high school. He felt so at home there, he applied for and won a Congressional scholarship that enabled him to live with a German family and attend high school there the next year. At the time, he had already completed his Archmere Academy education in three years and had been awarded a prestigious DuPont Scholarship to study at UD. He deferred the DuPont award for a year in favor of studying
At the University, he's completed the requirements for a bachelor's degree in cognitive science at the same time he completed a master's degree in linguistics. Again, he finished class work in three years with time off in between for extensive travel -- working trips, not leisure activities.
De Lorenzo's first working vacation took him to Vienna, where he coordinated voting for refugees from Bosnia. The job eventually took him to Turkey, Serbia, Slovakia, Croatia and the city of Sarajevo. It was a job that allowed him to have input into important policy decisions, but kept him from direct interaction with the people he was helping.
"I didn't like being removed from the people, but the problem with hands-on involvement is that, in those positions, you're too far removed from where decisions are being made. Working where the decisions are made does give you the ability to influence things in a good way," he says.
"In the Bosnia job, for example, there was a policy that refugees could be registered to vote only if they had a current passport or some documentation from 1985. Obviously, many of the people had lost their documents. We were
able to make it easier for them
After his successful work with Bosnian refugees, de Lorenzo returned to UD. He left briefly to attend a meeting in Switzerland outlining the success of the Bosnian voting project. While there, he got a call from the U.S. State Department, asking him if he could go to Liberia in two weeks to work on a refugee voting project there.
"I was surprised by the call, but I had to say no. It would mean missing another semester of school... not to mention what my mother might think!"
A few months later, the State Department called again, inviting him to be part of a group actually monitoring the Liberian elections.
"You don't want to say no twice to the State Department," de Lorenzo explains, "So, I checked with my professors and they said I could leave again."
Once in West Africa, he ventured into parts of Liberia where international staff had not been since 1993.
"People were overwhelmed to see us," he says. "The experience was very different. When you're the only one not carrying a machine gun, it's very different. One of my colleagues almost died from malaria; one of our trucks hit a land mine; there was a coup in the country next door; and we couldn't get our flight home...it was different."
Different, but not scary, he says, except for the small airplanes the party had to use.
"We flew in an airplane dating from 1964. The seats weren't bolted in; the pilot was drunk; even the steward was scared. He came back once to tell us not to worry, that the plane could be landed without wheels!
"That's much scarier than facing a kid with a machine gun. You can make friends with the kid, but you can't control the plane," de Lorenzo says.
In a sense, this job seemed ideal for de Lorenzo with its combination of interaction with people and policy-makers.
"We would go to the border regions and interview refugees. I was asking questions about the elections and taking the responses back to the general in charge of peacekeeping. We could talk with the influential decision-makers and deal with real people."
However, the job was heartbreaking.
"It was frustrating not being able to do more. People would tell us terrible things. They would tell us their child was dying and ask us if we had quinine. All we could do was say no, but that we would convey their concerns to the authorities. We just had to hope that someday the help would trickle down. But, would that happen before the child died?" he asks.
This past summer, de Lorenzo and fellow UD student David Kovara, a sophomore from Farmington, N.J., tried their hands at work that is strictly people -- not policy-oriented. They volunteered to assist in an AIDS orphanage in Kenya.
"I met the priest who runs the orphanage, and he told me how many babies are born there to HIV-positive mothers. Seventy-five percent of those babies, who may not even have AIDS, are just dumped in trash cans. His goal is to save all of those children...to find homes for the ones who are well and to provide care for the ones who are sick. I want to help, too. It will be good to do something non-political for a change," de Lorenzo says.
Why not an orphanage in the U.S.?
"When you have a global perspective, it's very difficult to get outraged about things in this country," he says. "Issues with the immigrant population are about the only things that get me outraged here, where even the worst inner city would be paradise to a Liberian refugee. We have problems here and it's important to work on them, but that just doesn't happen to be my call. If a person is dying in the U.S., chances are they can get to a hospital and the hospital will treat them. In Liberia, you can't get to the hospital because there's no road, and, even if you did get there, you'd find all the doctors had been killed."
For someone who feels so strongly about the plight of refugees, it seems particularly fortuitous that de Lorenzo will arrive at Oxford this fall just in time to enroll in its new major--refugee studies.
Originally, he had thought of working toward a master's degree in philosophy to build on his work in linguistics and cognitive science.
De Lorenzo speaks nine languages to varying degrees but insists that this is not an achievement.
"My ability with languages is just something I have. I didn't develop it; I got it for free," he says. "It's some idiosyncratic property of my brain, and it has nothing to do with intelligence. And, there's no real collaboration between that and the study of linguistics. A linguist is interested in how grammar works and you don't have to be bilingual to do that.
"I'm interested in how the mind works. What is it that allows people to learn language? Language is a human's most salient quality. It's like a little black box in the mind somewhere. Learning language is not like memorizing facts. It's this other independent region of your mind."
For now, de Lorenzo sees his graduate studies leading to a thesis on refugee elections in Africa. He also may pursue a second bachelor's degree in philosophy and theology at Oxford.
While in England, he hopes to travel to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia as the guest of a Vatican ambassador he met a few years ago.
Over spring break, he and Kordova traveled to Mount Athos in Greece, the only self-governing monastic republic in Europe, where they visited monasteries. Entrance is denied to women, and foreign travelers must go through a rigorous process to gain admission, the standards of which are governed by an edict issued in 1060 A.D. by Emperor Constantine Monomachos of Byzantium.