By: Carol Madsen, District Newsletter Editor,
Public Image Committee Member, RC of Bridgton-Lake Region
Each year, Rotary International awards up to 50 fully-funded fellowships for dedicated leaders from around the world to study at one of its seven peace centers. This year the candidate Cassandra Varanka, sponsored by Bridgton-Lake Region Rotary Club, was one of these 50 winners. Chosen from some 600 applicants across the globe, Cassandra will study at the University of Queensland's (Australia) Rotary Centre for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution starting in early 2023. This Centre is part of a global program to advance research, teaching, practical training and knowledge on issues of international relations, conflict resolution and peace-building. It offers a tailored Master's Degree in International Studies, aimed at potential world and community leaders, designed to have a practical effect on addressing international and regional conflicts.

The fellowship, worth more than $75,000, will fully fund tuition and fees, room and board, round-trip transportation, and all internship and applied field study expenses. Each year the Rotary Peace Fellows begin an 18-month program of study. Fellows are selected from countries and cultures around the globe, based on their prior experience in peacebuilding and their potential for future leadership roles in conflict resolution. In Cassandra’s case she has had extensive policy experience in nuclear disarmament as a congressional aide, and in leadership positions at Foreign Policy for America and Women’s Actions for New Directions. Her goal is to use newly acquired skills to forward the use of diplomatic rather than military solutions for conflict resolution.

Cassandra heard about this prestigious award from her uncle George Szok, a long-time Rotarian with the Bridgton-Lake Region Rotary Club. She thought the fellowship could be an extraordinary opportunity to advance her knowledge and practical skill in conflict resolution. And after her impressive presentation at a Bridgton-Lake Region Rotary meeting in April 2021, it was clear to all that she was unquestionably an excellent candidate for this global fellowship. The Club Board and then the entire membership formally voted to endorse Cassandra as its chosen applicant for this fellowship. Thereafter she was interviewed by members of the Rotary District Peace Fellowship Subcommittee, and ultimately endorsed as the sole candidate from District 7780 that comprises 41 clubs from Rumford, ME to Portsmouth, NH. 

Cassandra now lives and works in Washington DC, but has strong ties to New England, where she was born, finished her college studies, and where her parents still live. She is especially attached to Bridgton where her parents have a vacation home and her uncle resides. 

We at the local Rotary Club are indeed proud of Cassandra, her successes to-date and look forward to seeing her progress through this fellowship program and beyond. Rotary Club President Jessica Putnam said, “We couldn’t be prouder. This is the first time we have recommended a candidate for this global fellowship and it has inspired us to seek out candidates in the future. We work with so many outstanding young people in the lakes region. Another global peace fellow could be among them.”

Bob Gravino, District 7780 Foundation Committee Rotary Peace Scholars Subcommittee Chair, and a major advocate of the Peace Center Program, remarked recently to the Bridgton-Lake Region Rotary leadership “My sincere thanks and appreciation to the Bridgton-Lake Region Rotary Club for recommending Cassandra Varanka to the District as a candidate for the Rotary Peace Fellowship program. She represents the best attributes that Rotary is seeking in an applicant, one that both your Club and the District can be proud. I’d like to also mention that the peace fellowship and its funding through the RI Foundation is an excellent example of how our individual and club contributions come back to us in the form of funding projects Rotarians support such as Peace Fellows, Polio Plus, District Grants and Global Grants. I hope this helps us all Connect the Dots.”
For more information about this program, check out