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'What's gotten me here': Creighton's latest Fulbright honoree reflects on the path behind and ahead

Mary Kate Wolken, BA'19One foot in front of the other, as many hundreds of thousands before her, Mary Kate Wolken walked the Camino de Santiago last spring and, as many thousands before her on that ancient way, she sought answers.

“You have to think about something,” said Wolken, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences from Leavenworth, Kansas, who took part in the Camino walk with a contingent of fellow Creighton University students. “So, I thought about what I was going to do with my life.”

By the time the Creighton group reached the end of the line, Wolken had made some decisions. Gone was her desire to pursue medical school and, firmly in its place, was a resolution to throw herself into historical studies and research.

The gambit seems to be working. Wolken has brought a major research project on a still-operating 18th century Spanish women’s advocacy group to fruition, including bringing her findings to an international conference in Tokyo last year, and she’s been admitted to the doctoral program in history at the University of Minnesota, where she will study the history of medicine.

And the Creighton Honors Program student learned last month she is the recipient of a Fulbright Teaching Assistant award. From September 2019 to June 2020, Wolken will return to Galicia in northern Spain, where she’ll serve as an English instructor and cultural ambassador, and have time to further her research.

“I’m still taking it all in,” Wolken said. “It’s still not quite real. I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s gotten me here and it comes back to the incredible advisors and mentors I’ve had at Creighton. I’m deeply grateful for educators who have pushed me and challenged me my whole life — who, when I had questions, encouraged me to follow them and work out answers.”

As a sophomore at Creighton, Wolken spent a semester abroad in Scotland and then had her first foray into Spain with a summer program. She figured that’d probably be it for her travels, that she better get down to the business of lining up medical school and a future career as a physician.

But the work she’d done in Europe still beckoned. When the two faculty members who led the Camino trip, Scott Eastman, PhD, in history, and Ryan Spangler, PhD, in modern languages, encouraged her to take their class, she at first demurred.

“I just wasn’t going to be able to do it,” she said. “But they convinced me. I was thinking then that maybe medical school wasn’t the way I was leaning anymore. And it is a pilgrimage. It turned out to be profoundly formative.”

Returning from Spain a year ago, Wolken forged ahead with her academic plans. She hasn’t looked back and now, with the Fulbright program on the horizon, she’s excited to see the new perspectives she’ll gain.

“More than anything, I love the idea of being able to give back to the global community in ways that are so important to me,” she said. “Creighton, its faculty, staff, my fellow students, they’ve shown me what immense value there is in that.”


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