Penn scholar's road to a Rhodes scholarship

By Susan Snyder
Philadelphia Inquirer

Abigail Seldin wanted the Pennsylvania Lenape - who come from a long-hidden culture - to open their world to her, so that she could accurately portray it in a museum exhibit for all to learn from.

So when she was a University of Pennsylvania sophomore, she went to a meeting with members of the Lenape nation bearing hamantaschen - a symbol of her own Jewish culture - that she had baked for them.

"I think that may have been one of the things that made them trust her more," said Harriet Joseph, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships at Penn. "They saw that she understood her cultural heritage and also would be able to understand their cultural heritage and cherish it, the way she cherished her own."

Seldin's warm yet tenacious approach paid off: She gained the trust of the nation's elders and became the first Penn anthropology undergraduate to curate an exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

And this week, the 20-year-old's accomplishments gained national recognition after she was named one of 32 American Rhodes scholars.

She was among 769 students nationwide vying for the honor. Caitlin E. Mullarkey of Wilmington, from Swarthmore College, and three students from Princeton - Stephen J. Hammer of Carrollton, Texas, Scott M. Moore of Louisville, Ky., and Timothy S. Nunan of Palos Verdes, Calif. - also were named.

Seldin, now a senior and a native of Tierra Verde, Fla., will begin her studies at Oxford University next October, following in the footsteps of such prominent Rhodes alumni as Bill Clinton and Kris Kristofferson. The Rhodes program offers a free ride, worth about $50,000 a year.

"I'm hoping to continue my work with the Lenape, and I hope my award brings increased attention to the work we've been doing for two years together now," Seldin said yesterday afternoon, just before heading off to her legal studies 101 class.

The exhibit, "Fulfilling a Prophecy: The Past and Present of the Lenape in Pennsylvania," will remain on display at the museum through next September. She co-curates it with Chief Robert Red Hawk Ruth, chief of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania.

The student scholar, who is simultaneously working toward her bachelor's and master's degrees in anthropology, said her interest was sparked when her parents took her to visit major museums around the country as a child.

"Every city I'd go to, I'd want to see the museum," she recalled.

Seldin, the daughter of David Seldin and Judy Seldin-Cohen, both Wharton graduates, curated an exhibit on the Pecos Indians as a high school student at Phillips Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Andover, Mass.

As a freshman, Seldin approached Joseph and asked if she could be part of Penn's undergraduate research program. It was unusual for freshmen to apply.

"She just pushed me, and I said 'All right, apply,' " Joseph said.

Seldin researched the Lenape and crafted an exhibit in both the English and Lenape languages, Joseph said. She persisted even after she received some negative comments.

After much preparation, Seldin joined other Rhodes applicants last weekend for a cocktail party and formal interviews on the Haverford College campus - one of the interview sites. She learned Saturday that she won.

At Oxford, she will study in the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology.

Her dream: to one day direct a major anthropology museum.

"We're thrilled that she has gotten this kind of recognition," said her mother, Seldin-Cohen, retired from sales and marketing and living in Charlotte, N.C. "What she has been very creative about in the work that she's done is making exhibits accessible to normal people."

She said her daughter always seemed to be fascinated by the connection between an artifact and a story.

"These aren't just things. These are things that are part of people's lives," she said.

Seldin estimates she spends about 20 hours a week working at the Penn museum, while taking five courses at Penn. She also serves on the Penn Museum Student Advisory Board.

But she still has time for some other favorite activities, including baking. At one time she considered going to pastry school and becoming a professional baker.

Merging her baking of the hamantaschen with her study of the Lenape was rewarding, she said.

"It was remarkable, especially that one ended up helping me with the other so much," she said.