Portrait of Paul Martin Wolff and Rhea S. Schwartz.
Photo: Stephen Voss

Paul Martin Wolff (’63) and Rhea S. Schwartz didn’t have the opportunity to take a gap year after completing their undergraduate degrees at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Pennsylvania State University, respectively. They went right to law school at Harvard University and Georgetown University. From there, it was straight to the workforce.

“We had debt that we had to pay off,” Schwartz laughs, remembering early post-graduate life. “We would have loved to have been able to take a gap year and do something that enlarged our lives and those of others, but we didn’t have that opportunity,” Wolff adds. “But now we have the opportunity so that others can do what we wish we could have been able to do.”

That’s the idea behind the Wolff Fellows Program, which grants $45,000 to a graduating senior from UW–Madison’s College of Letters & Science each year. The selected fellows — who have shown outstanding achievements in both academics and community service — are given the freedom to craft an international itinerary without financial burdens.

“We hope that the fellowship will influence them in their lives to be active in their local communities and the greater communities,” Wolff says. “We’re also hoping to create a network of students year after year who can help each other and foster each other’s growth and development,” adds Schwartz, who is the namesake of the similar Schwartz Fellows Program at her alma mater, Penn State.

Their vision for this network came to life earlier this year, when the inaugural students from the Wolff and Schwartz fellowships, which both launched in 2022, met with them for dinner in Washington, D.C. The U.S. capital is where the couple has built their successful law careers and become leaders in the community and where Wolff launched his avocation as an artist.

But before all of this success, the two came from families of modest means. Both Wolff and Schwartz were able to afford college through substantial scholarships and by working jobs on the side and in the summers. Wolff remembers his time on campus at UW–Madison to be “as ideal as possible,” and when he graduated, he knew he wanted to pay it forward.

“My parents said, ‘You’ve gone to Madison almost entirely on scholarship, and as soon as you have any type of job, you need to put aside some money and send it to Madison,’” Wolff says. “My first gift to Madison was soon after I graduated, and I think it was $25 or $50.”

Over the years, as he found success, he was able to give more and more. In 1976, he married Schwartz, who had her own distinguished career and shared his generous spirit.

“The simplest way of putting it is that we’ve both been very lucky. We’re lucky to have each other, and we’re lucky to have the success we’ve both had,” Wolff says. “And when you have the ability, we feel — and I think we learned from both of our parents — an obligation to give back.”

Juliet's Journey

Meet this year’s Wolff Fellow, Juliet Chang.

Juliet Chang series of images from international travels during fellowship.
Photo: Courtesy of Juliet Chang

In May, Juliet Chang (’23) turned her tassel and celebrated graduating with majors in social welfare and educational studies. By July, she had started her yearlong international adventure. The first stop on her itinerary? France, which is where she was when we caught up with her about her plans for the fellowship. She’ll add French Guiana, Kitchener (Canada), Vietnam, Thailand and Australia to her travel log by the end of the journey. Here’s a look at why she chose these destinations:

How did you choose the countries you wanted to visit?

I plan to travel to different countries in the Hmong diaspora to see how different populations live and how that changes, depending on the language they speak in that country, the cultural context of that country — and then comparing that to my experience as someone who is an American.

So far, what are some of the highlights from  your travels?

I’ve really enjoyed talking to people. It’s very comforting knowing that even if we are strangers, there’s kind of an instant acceptance. … There are places where I can go and have a meal with someone and feel a sense of community even if I’m not necessarily French or from a certain place.

What makes this fellowship so impactful?

A lot of people get old, and they wish that they had traveled more when they were younger. When there are programs like the Wolff Fellowship, you’re really enabling a young person to travel and learn about themselves and the world they live in —
in a way that they wouldn’t be able to do without you.

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