On Their Way

Wila Vigneault, 15, is one of 20 other students entered in a U.S. State department summer scholarship program.

Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School freshman Willa Vigneault missed the last two weeks of school, but with good reason. The 15-year-old student left the Island on Monday, June 16, to travel to Amman, Jordan, where she will study Arabic for the summer on a United States Department of State National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) Scholarship.

The daughter of Sarah Vail and David Vigneault of West Tisbury, Willa is one of only 625 students selected nationwide to study less commonly-taught languages in summer and academic-year overseas immersion programs. She is one of 20 students and two supervisors in the Jordan program. She is living with a local host family during the 45-day program, until she returns home early in August.

“I have studied French for three years,” Willa wrote recently in an email to The Times. “I am interested in Arabic because my father is part Lebanese and because I’m interested in foreign relations and hope to do something with that in my career.

“The U.S. needs better relations with Arab-speaking countries. I thought it would be a good place to start. There is a lot of conflict in the Middle East.”

Willa has a longer-range goal of learning many languages, and she is interested in studying engineering and foreign relations and international politics in college. “Engineering may be a way to make life easier in developing countries,” she said.

Willa said she is excited to meet the other students as well as live and learn in Jordan. All 20 students in the Jordan program are United States citizens, Willa said, and some have multiple citizenships. “I’ve counted eight languages in total that we can speak,” she said. “Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Croatian, and of course, English.” They will be adding Arabic to the list.

The group has taken several tours to see various parts of Jordan. “I was amazed with how many people can speak English,” Willa said, “and how willing everyone is to help us learn their language and culture and to ask us about ours.”

Her host family has two children. “Zaina, my 11-year-old host sister, has lent me her room during my stay. It has a great view and it’s pink and covered with flowers and a Barbie bedspread,” she wrote on a blog she is keeping, ”My host mother and sister speak almost no English, and we are relying quite heavily on charades and Google Translate to communicate. They tried to teach me an Arabic card game and I won even though they gave the directions in Arabic and I had no idea what they said.”

Willa’s father, director of the Dukes County Housing Authority, said he and Willa’s mother have concerns about their daughter traveling to a part of the world where safety can be a concern, but the fact that the state department is overseeing the trip allayed their fears.

“It’s her world, an international world that our children are growing up in,” Mr. Vigneault said. “The decision to support her educational travel was easily made. We felt comfortable that the program is being run by the State Department rather than a private group.”

A friend’s daughter was involved in the same program in the Middle East a few years ago, and the State Department made a last-minute change in her destination due to security concerns. “That made us comfortable thinking that they are actively on top of it,” he said.

The NSLI-Y program is funded by the U.S. Department of State and provides merit-based scholarships for eligible high school students to learn less commonly-taught languages in summer and academic-year overseas immersion programs, according to a press release. The program gives students the chance to study Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian, Russian, or Turkish overseas.

Launched in 2006, the program seeks to increase the number of Americans who can engage with native speakers of critical languages by providing formal instruction and informal language practice in an immersion environment. The goals of the NSLI-Y program include sparking a life-long interest in foreign languages and cultures, and developing a corps of young Americans with the skills necessary to advance international dialogue and cross-cultural opportunities in the private, academic, and government sectors.

Applications for 2015-2016 NSLI-Y programs will be available at www.nsliforyouth.org in the early fall. For information about U.S. Department of State-sponsored exchange programs, visit exchanges.state.gov.

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In 2009 Alicia Agnoli spent a summer in Varanasi, India, working in an urban clinic and studying their community health infrastructure. Here, she rows the Ganges River. — Courtesy Francine Agnoli

On Their Way is an occasional series in which The Times introduces people who grew up on Martha’s Vineyard and have moved on to establish themselves in careers on or off Island. We are looking for young people who have distinguished themselves by their accomplishments in the arts, business, in social services, in the military, in academics, in fact in any meaningful way. We welcome your suggestions.

Alicia Agnoli of Edgartown is in her second year of a three-year medical residency in an innovative family practice clinic in Malden where she works with a caseload of about 500 patients of all ages, ethnicities, and walks of life. The 30-year-old works about 80 hours a week and loves her work. She plans to eventually add a public health component to her work as a physician.

“I pretty much always knew I wanted to be a doctor from my days growing up on the Vineyard,” she told The Times in a recent telephone conversation.

Alicia Agnoli from her 2001 Martha's Vineyard Regional High School year book.
Alicia Agnoli from her 2001 Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School year book.

Alicia attended the Edgartown School and graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) in 2001. Her father, Jeffrey Agnoli, a former English teacher, retired last year as guidance counselor at MVRHS. Her mother, Francine Agnoli, works in real estate in Edgartown. Her brother, Micah, is a senior in college, and her sister, Jona, a mother of three and a nurse, has finished training to become a nurse practitioner.

Alicia has always managed to maintain a balance between sports and academics. She played soccer, basketball, and tennis in high school. Now even with her busy work schedule she finds time to play tennis when the weather permits, but she considers herself primarily a cyclist, riding both her city cruiser around town and her road bike on longer rides.

The Malden clinic, part of the Cambridge Health Alliance, is developing a new model for primary care called a patient centered medical home (PCMH). “We consolidate care for patients in one place,” she said, “where the care is very carefully coordinated across disciplines with an emphasis on prevention, which reduces the need for sick care. Prevention is a lot cheaper.”

An important component of the PCMH model is team-based care, which utilizes an interdisciplinary team of doctors in consultation with clinical pharmacists, dietitians, administrative staff, and nurses, Alicia said.

She is one of 24 residents and 12 attending physicians in what she said is one of the last public health care clinics in the state. Some of her time is spent covering in the community hospital where her patients are admitted. She sometimes works on the labor and delivery floor of the hospital.

A resident’s workweek is limited by regulation to 80 hours a week. Alicia said that she usually doesn’t have a problem staying under that limit. Her work varies from week to week.

Her plans for a future as a physician, her desire to work in public health, and her interest in social justice began to coalesce at Princeton University where she studied a little bit of everything. She took on a broad liberal arts course of study and finished necessary pre-med courses while earning a degree in anthropology in 2005.

“I loved the anthropology department,” she said. She wrote her senior thesis on the role of community in a children’s hospital.

She moved to Boston after college and worked for three years before entering medical school. Her jobs involved clinical research in epidemiological at the Harvard School of Public Health and studying ways to optimize treatment in clinical trials in cardiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Alicia Angoli was welcomed to the Tufts Medical School by the school's president with a white coat ceremony in the Fall of 2008. It is when she recited the Hippocratic Oath.
Alicia Angoli was welcomed to the Tufts Medical School by the school’s president with a white coat ceremony in the Fall of 2008. It is when she recited the Hippocratic Oath.

In 2008, she enrolled in the Tufts University School of Medicine combined MD and Masters in public health program, which she found to be a natural complement to her interests.

“I found the public health work to be a necessary context in which to do the medical training,” she said. “It is very grounding when you are up to your eyeballs in basic sciences, the pre-clinical medical training, to have that broader public health context in which to appreciate things.”

During her time at Tufts she spent a summer in India working with an urban clinic and studying their community health infrastructure. She also found time to play basketball on a medical school intramural, co-ed team. Her independent research focused on addiction medicine and treating dependence in the primary care setting.

“I would love to see universal health care in my lifetime, Alicia said. “In time, I’ll settle for a better model that gives better quality care for a cheaper bottom line,” she said. “It’s really exciting. We have a lot of enthusiasm and excitement.

Alicia is considering a fellowship in health policy in primary care research after her residency.

Ms. Agnoli's Tufts medical school graduation photo from May 2012.
Ms. Agnoli’s Tufts medical school graduation photo from May 2012.

“I would ultimately like to have a career that combines public health research and public policy advocacy work as well as clinical care,” she said. “Perhaps in health care administration, running a community health center, or working with a public health department, doing more community health research and advocating public policy on a community level.

“It is a pretty exciting time to be analyzing the things we are trying out and finding ways to make them better and making it happen. That’s definitely where my passion is.”