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USM alumna Julia Gustafson ’20 earns prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship

Portrait of Julia Gustafson '20

A year after Julia Gustafson graduated from the University of Southern Maine and left for Galway, Ireland — a prestigious Government of Ireland International Education Scholarship in hand — she has earned an even more prestigious honor.

And she’ll move again. This time her destination is Cambridge, England.

The 30-year-old woman from Falmouth, Maine, has been awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship that will pay her tuition and expenses for the four years it will take her to earn a doctorate at the University of Cambridge.

The scholarship, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is one of the world’s most selective. The application process takes months, and of the 6,000 sapplications from around the world each year, only 80 are awarded the lucrative honor.

“I am still shocked that I got this,” Gustafson said in a recent Zoom interview from Galway. 

“I am very, very lucky that I will be able to focus on the Ph.D.”

Her doctorate will be in archeology. She said it will build on the journey she began at USM, where she studied as a Geography-Anthropology student.

The entire department faculty nurtured her and encouraged her to believe that she could overcome any barrier and achieve any goal. While at USM, she was a Fulbright nominee. The faculty, particularly her advisor, Professor Matthew Bampton, continues to work with her.

“I had this amazing team at USM who have been there for every step with me,” she said.

Her steps have been extraordinary.

At the National University of Ireland, Galway, she is completing her master’s degree in Landscape Archeology, a relatively new specialty.

“It’s a specific, new subfield that looks at the whole landscape and is less focused on excavation,” she said. “It’s looking at changes in the landscape and how humans have interacted with landscape.”

Her work this year has been focused on three ancient monuments, located in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Like students everywhere, she has been challenged by pandemic-related restrictions on her movement. She has had some in-person instruction and travel, but it’s happened amid a general lockdown that is only now easing.

“When I say ‘lockdown,’ I mean, you can’t go more than five kilometers from where you live,” she said. “All nonessential retail is closed. Restaurants are sort of open for take-out.  It’s very very strict.”

And she so wanted to experience more Irish culture.

“I haven’t been to a pub,” she said. “I haven't heard any traditional Irish music, yet.” She plans to finish her work in Galway until June or July. Then, she’ll move to England.

At Cambridge, she’ll work toward an archeology doctorate, building again on her previous work. She plans to split her time between the university and fieldwork on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. She’ll study the remnants of the Nuragic civilization. The island has many towers and wells that date back thousands of years to the Neolithic period and into the bronze age.

“I will look at how the monuments have been interacted with,” she said. “Sardinia has been colonized several times.” 

Gustafson’s work on the doctorate is scheduled to begin in October. When it’s over, she plans to find work as a professor.

“I've been grinding for the past few years,” Gustafson said. “I have had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. And there is so much more ahead.”