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Michelle Olakkengil ’17 Awarded Prestigious Payne Fellowship


Psychology and Sociology alumna Michelle Olakkengil is poised to be an agent of change in the field of global health. Thanks to her impeccable record of academic excellence and leadership at Stony Brook, she now has the backing to take her next steps educationally and professionally.

Michelle Olakkengil
Michelle Olakkengil

Olakkengil ’17 has been selected for the prestigious Donald M. Payne International Development Fellowship. She competed against applicants from across the country and was one of only 10 selected from a pool of 244. Michelle is the first ever recipient of this award from Stony Brook University as well as from the entire SUNY system. The Payne Fellowship will provide her with:

  • $96,000 to pursue her Master of Science from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • A congressional internship in Washington, D.C. during summer 2019 and an overseas internship in a USAID Mission during the summer of 2020
  • Guaranteed placement in the USAID Foreign Service where she will embark on a career in diplomacy

“As a first-generation American born to Indian immigrants,” Olakkengil said. “I struggled to find my place among my peers and really understand who I was and what I wanted to do. But coming to Stony Brook University, I was able to take advantage of opportunities to discover my interests and connect them to my roots.”

As a sophomore, Michelle was invited to participate in the selective JFEW SUNY Scholars Program in International Relations and Global Affairs, which provided her with a paid internship at the Global Partnerships Forum in New York City. She continued this upward trajectory by going on to receive the SUNY Chancellor’s Award and the Stony Brook Alumni Association Past Presidents Scholarship. Michelle also served in high-profile leadership positions such as the President’s Council of Student Advisors and the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Advisory Council.

“When Michelle received the email from Payne, I told her that I was thrilled, but not necessarily surprised,” External Scholarships and Fellowships Advisor Jen Green said. “To provide an exhaustive list of the ways Michelle shared her talents with the university community is nearly impossible. She did so many things and she did them very, very well.”

Michelle in Madagascar
Michelle in Madagascar

Michelle tirelessly promoted the wellbeing of women and girls both in- and outside of the classroom. She leveraged her undergraduate research experience in the Stony Brook Hospital’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Medicine to successfully apply for the State Department’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. This award enabled her to continue her work by examining the sexual and reproductive health of women in three rural villages in Madagascar with support of the Centre ValBio Research Center maintained by Stony Brook Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Dr. Patricia Wright.

Michelle’s advocacy for women drove her leadership efforts on campus as well, most notably her involvement with the HeForShe Steering Committee and the Planned Parenthood Emerging Leaders Council. Michelle also brought this commitment to her roles as a Resident Assistant, Orientation Leader, and Undergraduate College Fellow helping to teach a first year seminar course.

Michelle credits her success to the many mentors she met during her time at Stony Brook University. She originally learned about the Payne Fellowship through External Scholarships and Fellowships Advisor Jen Green, and was encouraged to apply. Jen continued to support Michelle throughout the process.

“As a mentor and friend, Jen has always gone above and beyond in helping me prepare and feel confident — everything from shopping with me for the perfect interview outfit to reassuring late night texts before the big day,” she said. “It’s rare finding a ‘cheerleader’ who is truly invested in your success and dreams.”

Michelle Olakkengil
Michelle (left) presents in 2017 as part of Stony Brook’s HeForShe Gender Equality Conference.

Associate Professor of English Susan Scheckel was particularly instrumental in developing the written portion of Michelle’s application for the Payne Fellowship. Scheckel initially wondered how it would be possible to synthesize the broad range of Michelle’s activities and accomplishments into a unified “storyline.”

Says Scheckel, “As I listened more attentively, I noticed the way she lit up when talking about moments when she made a difference in the lives of others. The storyline was clear and the story has just begun. The same talents, resourcefulness, and determination that brought Michelle to win this prestigious fellowship will ensure her future success in advancing the causes about which she is so passionate.”

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