Memorial fellowship established to honor the life and vision of Sheffield native Samya Stumo

“She was this emerging powerhouse who everyone knew was going to change the world and was going to save lives.”

Samya Stumo
Samya Stumo. –Courtesy of Mike Snavely

Samya Stumo was just getting started.

The 24-year-old Sheffield native was on her way to Kenya in March for her first assignment as a health financing analyst for an advocacy group when the Boeing 737 Max carrying her, and 156 others, crashed six minutes after takeoff in Ethiopia, killing all on board.

Now, her loved ones want to see her work to improve and achieve universal, quality health coverage continued. With the ThinkWell Institute, the nonprofit Stumo began working for in January, her family is establishing a memorial fellowship to fund the work of other “visionary women” to affect change, focused on “human-centered healthcare.”

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Stumo’s partner, Mike Snavely, told Boston.com that the 24-year-old’s family began discussing the idea of the fellowship when everyone gathered in Massachusetts for her funeral.

“We all, in addition to the personal loss of Samya as someone that we all loved dearly, were also very acutely feeling the loss of her from her career and from the field that she was working in,” he said. “Because she was this emerging powerhouse who everyone knew was going to change the world and was going to save lives. So in response to that sense of loss, the family had a desire to find a way to build her legacy in a way that was true to her vision and was true to the way that she wanted to make change in the world.”

Snavely said that after brainstorming, what seemed most meaningful and impactful was to reward other women who are emerging leaders and “visionary players” with a demonstrated commitment to innovation and disruption in the field of global health.

The hope is that the memorial fellowship will also help women who might be facing financial barriers in their work.

“Samya during her master’s work was having to spend a lot of time working as a waitress to pay rent while she was trying to do these revolutionary things in the field of global health,” Snavely said. “Her family felt strongly that Samya would have accomplished even more if she hadn’t had to worry about financial barriers. So our goal was to provide financial support for women who are trying to do similar things and to allow them to flourish without worrying about finances.”

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According to her family, from a young age, Stumo was a “bright, energetic child.” She taught herself to read as a 4-year-old and was homeschooled on the family farm until eighth grade. At age 14, she attended Mary Baldwin College for a year, before returning to high school. She graduated when was 16 years old and subsequently enrolled at UMass Amherst, where she majored in anthropology and Spanish.

Snavely met Stumo in the summer of 2014 in rural Peru, where she was doing field work for her undergraduate honors thesis and he was working toward his doctorate in anthropology.

Stumo had a “fearless spirit” and “infectious energy” that drew people to her, Snavely said. At the time, the UMass student was interviewing women and staff at local clinics to analyze the unintended consequences and impacts of the social services provided by the government.

Samya Stumo at work. —Courtesy of Mike Snavely

“Samya was working to give a voice to these women who were otherwise voiceless in the larger health system in Peru,” Snavely said. “And that theme of giving voice to marginalized groups very much defined the work that Samya did and the vision that she had for her future work.”

Stumo went on to pursue and receive a master’s degree in global health at the University of Copenhagen, where she studied how services provided to patients with Hepatitis C could be improved.

Stumo, Snavely said, was “driven” to disrupt the status quo in global health.

“She, from her anthropology background, had a very critical eye for structures that were harming or oppressing groups of people and just reinforcing the power of those that were already in power,” he said. “She sought out areas within the world of global health to counteract inequality and try to break the cycle of the reproduction of power.”

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Snavely said that once his partner completed her degree in Copenhagen, she knew that she wanted to work for ThinkWell, having been following their work and mission for some time.

She moved to Washington, D.C., and applied.

“She just set her sights on it and never looked back,” Snavely said. “And I think that in many ways encapsulates her personality. She is someone who when she knows what she wants, she goes out and gets it done. And that very much played out in her career and very much would have made her a force for change in the world.”

Depending on fundraising, the goal is to have the fellowship, The Samya Rose Stumo Memorial Initiative for Universal Quality Healthcare, run on the academic calendar, according to Snavely.

According to ThinkWell, winning proposals for the fellowship would receive up to $100,000 per year for up to two years, with the nonprofit providing “seed-funding, leadership development, hands-on support, and networking opportunities” for fellows. The fund will be governed by her family.

So far, the initiative on GoFundMe has raised more than $27,000 of an $80,0000 goal in just under a month.

The hope is that the first fellows will start their work in the summer of 2020, Snavely said.

“This has been a very emotionally challenging endeavor for everyone involved,” he said. “Because we wish we weren’t doing this and Samya was just here and could do things her own way. But the only thing harder than working on this project would be to do nothing at all to try to build her legacy. So we’re just trying to do what we think may be honoring her, honoring the woman that she was. And we know we won’t get it perfect, but we know the types of impacts that she had on us and had on her work. And we’re just trying to stay as true to that as we can.”