Dream Weavers

Fellowships granted by a Brooklyn College grad and her husband fund student projects from the arts to urban farming, including many focused on medical and social research.

By Neill S. Rosenfeld

Elizabeth Cusick analyzed stunted brain growth among HIV-infected South African children. Mubashir Billah learned Arabic and dug beneath stereotypes of Arab radicalism in Jordan. And Thomas Lombardo staged his favorite play in the East Village.

They are among the first eight recipients of the $5,000 Rosen Fellowship, which gives Brooklyn College sophomores and juniors the chance to execute a dream project to further their education, career or life.

Philanthropists Florence Cohen Rosen (Brooklyn College, B.A., ’59) and her husband, Robert A. Rosen (CCNY Baruch School, B.B.A., ’57; M.B.A. ’60), said that they “wanted to give students the opportunity to broaden their education, without boundaries. We thought we’d get unusual and far-ranging projects. We were not disappointed. The proposed projects were outstanding.”

Philanthropist Florence Cohen Rosen, center, with Rosen Fellowship winners, from left: Eric Carlsen, Adele Kibbe, Sheran Sharafi and Elizabeth Cusick.

There’s no minimum grade point average required, just good academic standing and “a project that was well thought out and intriguing,” says Florence Rosen, who sits on the panel that picks the winners. The number of applicants in 2012 is expected to be far higher than the 40 or so in the initial year as word has spread on campus.

The Rosens, married 51 years, run Rosen Associates Manage-ment Corp., which since 1960 has acquired, developed and managed shopping centers and other properties nationwide. Robert A. Rosen also served 50 years in the military and retired as the rear admiral commanding the New York State Naval Militia, a part of the National Guard.

That military experience was a key factor in the Rosens’ most ambitious philanthropy, the Florence and Robert A. Rosen Family Wellness Center for Law Enforcement and Military Personnel and Their Families at North Shore-Long Island Jewish (LIJ) Health System. Since 2005 it has provided cost-free care for the often-hidden psychological, behavioral and medical issues affecting veterans, police and their families.

Their concern for people prompted Florence Rosen to think broadly about offering fellowships at her alma mater, and students responded creatively.

Elizabeth Cusick — a senior aiming for an M.D. plus a Ph.D. in epidemiology — had taken classes with Gerald Oppenheimer, Broeklundian Distinguished Professor and professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. After reading his studies of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa, she asked him for leads to follow. She connected with pediatrician Barbara Laughton at Tygerberg Children’s Hospital near Cape Town. Laughton had noticed abnormal head growth in many HIV-positive children.

Cusick analyzed records of 180 HIV-positive children and a control group. Among the HIV-positive children, she found head size begins to plateau at age 2, and smaller head size implies impaired neurological development. With an estimated 11 percent of South Africa’s population HIV-positive, including 30 percent of the pregnant women, the effects of HIV and/or the drugs used to treat it have major health and societal implications.

Mubashir Billah, a senior born in New York to Bangladeshi immigrants, used his Rosen Fellowship to study Arabic – and Arab youth — in Jordan. He had learned to read Arabic, the language of the Koran, but speaking it was a different matter. The Arab Spring had captured his imagination. And he had read Brooklyn professor Moustafa Bayoumi’s book, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, and wanted to see whether young Arabs in the Middle East matched their fanatical stereotype.

Besides studying Arabic, he lived with a Jordanian teacher and sought out young people. “The biggest stereotype is that of the extremist who hates America, and I did not see any of that,” he says. “They’re not all fans of the U.S., but Jordan has a good relationship with the U.S.”

Billah, majoring in chemistry, is heading to SUNY Downstate College of Medicine as part of Brooklyn’s eight-year B.A./M.D. program. “I really thank Mrs. Rosen for this wonderful opportunity,” he adds.

Thomas Lombardo, a senior finishing a B.A. in art history, got to stage his favorite play, Don Nigro’s two-person drama, “Seascape with Sharks and Dancer,” in an East Village venue. With $5,000 from the Rosen Fellowship and $5,000 from other donations and his own funds, Lombardo rented the space, bought props and hired a stage manager, a press agent and set, lighting and sound designers.

“Mrs. Rosen came and brought a posse of people, one of whom was a judge from the Tonys,” he says. “I offered to comp her, but she insisted on buying tickets.”

The other 2011 Rosen Fellows include:

Eric Carlsen, a 35-year-old junior who also is in the CUNY Baccalaureate program, traveled around the country last summer studying urban farming. “The people we met were amazing, dedicated to a revolutionary way of life,” from giving homeless people in Santa Cruz a chance to regrow their lives to the Detroit farmer who farms on vacant land where houses once stood. Carlsen hopes to combine a “traditional, horizontal soil-based farm” with water-based hydroponics and fish-plant-based aquaponics in Brooklyn.

Adele Kibbe, a senior seeking a doctorate in archeology and cultural anthropology, used her grant for two internships: the first in Peru learning archeological techniques, and the second at a field school in Illinois for the preservation of botanical remains from the Native American Mississippian period (800 to 1500 A.D.). “We found preserved seeds and plants that are considered weeds, like amaranth and chenopodium, which are highly nutritious,” she says.

Sheran Sharafi, a senior, interned at an Israeli law firm, working on court cases and arbitrations. Although her parents were born in Israel and she had visited relatives there, she didn’t know how its legal system compared to that of the United States. One difference: Israeli police do not need search warrants. Although she did find some fear and pessimism, she added, “I’ve met so many Arab Israelis, Muslims and Christians who live side by side. Most Arabs are not extremists; I’ve met them at Brooklyn College.”

Jenée Whitehead, a junior pursuing a B.B.A. in marketing, is now dancing in Paris. “I’ve been going to ballet classes and seeing ballets, dance shows, films and exhibits,” she says. “The Rosen Fellowship has enabled me to train here, and for danse classique, Paris is where you want to be. After she graduates, she intends to work as a dancer and later on use the business skills she’s learning, perhaps by creating a nonprofit company to help youngsters develop careers in the arts.