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Ilana Gelb

College: Macaulay Honors College | CUNY Baccalaureate Degree
Awards: Critical Languages Scholarship, 2015

Fighting the Good Fight Against Violence

Asked how she came to create her own major in violence, conflict and development, Ilana Gelb mentions her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who had kept silent about her experiences until she felt she had to respond to a Princeton professor's lecture in a course she was auditing.

That opened the floodgates, launching Gelb, her mother and grandmother on an six-year, three-generational speaking tour, often in schools, churches and synagogues; their presentation has broadened to encompass the horrific spectrum of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Gelb, who expects to earn her bachelor's degree in 2016 from the CUNY baccalaureate program and Macaulay Honors College at Baruch College, spent spring 2015 studying abroad in Hunter College's Latin American development studies program. In Costa Rica, she taught English in a slum to adults who hadn't finished high school while studying sustainable development, human rights and gender studies.

Her next stop is Jaipur, India, where she will use a 2015 U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship to study Hindi; the federal program aims to increase the number of Americans who speak languages that are not common in the States.

For fall 2015, she will move on to Varanasi, also known as Benares, the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainsim. Besides taking classes and continuing language studies, she will work with Guria, a nonprofit organization that fights the sexual exploitation of women and girls. She will work in Guria's afterschool childcare program, which serves children who are growing up in the red light district. She also will conduct research into human trafficking and second-generation prostitutes.

This will be her third trip to India. The first was in a gap year following graduation from high school in Westchester County that focused on the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in sustainability. "I fell in love with India," she says. She returned in 2013 in the summer after her freshman year to work with Guria.

After that experience, she and a friend, Eleni Efstathiadis, a Macaulay Honors College and CUNY baccalaureate student majoring in global health, started an anti-trafficking organization at Macaulay called Avasara ("opportunity" in Hindi). "We've been doing educational programming and consciousness-raising at monthly meetings and conferences," she says. "We invite survivors, people from NGOs and governments. The May event is on the psychology of victimization. The events are free and open to the public."

Gelb mentioned two influential professors. Zoë Sheehan Saldaña, a professor of fine and performing arts at Baruch College, "was very supportive of my studies of gender-based violence and genocide." At Hunter College, adjunct Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, "brought a concrete sense of what it is to work in human rights" in his course in religion and ethnic conflict in Asia.

After graduation, she says, "I want to continue to work in the area of mass violence and trying to prevent genocide and gender-based violence."