When the school’s most recent winner of the prestigious Watson Fellowship, Liana Woskie ’10, embarks on her whirlwind 12-month journey through South Asia and Africa later this year, she will continue the long history between the Watson year abroad and the University. The fellowship grants winners a $25,000 stipend to travel the world and conduct independent research. Since its inception in 1968, the fellowship has sent 87 University students overseas for a year to study subjects that they are passionate about, be they biotechnology in Costa Rica, political and social satire in Greece, or traditional styles of percussion in the Middle East.
“Wesleyan students are seriously creative and have the intelligence, talent, independence to create phenomenal [Watson] projects—projects which these students have been passionate about for years,” said Dean Louise Brown, the University’s liaison to the Watson Fellowship. “Everything that the students have done in their lives is the jumping off point for the Watson. It has to show not only creativity, but challenge, innovation, and feasibility.”
The Watson Fellowship was started by the Thomas J. Watson Foundation in 1968, seven years after its creation. The foundation was named in honor of the late founder of the computer giant IBM. The fellowship was started by Watson’s children, who were inspired by their parents’ long-standing devotion to education and international affairs. Since its inception, the Foundation has awarded more than $29 million in stipends to nearly 2,300 students nationwide.
The fellowship originally drew students from a large pool of institutions. Nowadays 40 of the country’s most elite small colleges, including many of Wesleyan’s peer institutions, are eligible to nominate students. Students apply during their junior year by submitting a project proposal in hopes of being nominated by their college for consideration at the national level. The Foundation chooses 40 students, whom they finance to carry out their proposals in the far corners of the world during a one-year “Wanderjahr” (German for “a year of wandering”). Fellows are given free reign and are considered their own advisors, adjusting their projects and answering questions in the way they see fit as they travel.
Over time, the stipend amount has increased and the variety of projects has broadened. Nearly every year since the foundation of the fellowship, the University has sent at least one student, and often more, from varying majors.
Next year, Woskie will study the role of community health workers in Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Tanzania, and Lesotho. Past winners Adam Goss ’01 and Josh Blumenstock ’03 studied the cultural implications of active volcanoes and technology integration in rural communities in locations across the world, respectively. Alumni projects have researched history, music, sciences, culture, and their myriad crossings, yielding insight unique to the opportunities afforded by the Watson Fellowship.
“Our hope is that by returning from a life-changing year abroad, Watson fellows will be enriching business, science, arts, academia, and other fields in the United States,” former Watson Fellowship Director William Moses told The Argus in 1997.
University alumni and Watson winners have found themselves reaching new heights within these fields and more, truly enriching them as Moses envisioned. Naomi Mezey ’87, a major in the College of Letters, received $11,000 to travel to Spain.
“I’m planning to write a play set against the background of the Spanish Civil War that contains literary and historical figures as well as fictional characters, and explores the relationship between art and politics…” said Mezey to Argus in the spring of 1987, shortly after she was announced a winner. “[But] things come up. You never know what, and your project changes. There’s all kinds of potential for adventure.”
Now, Mezey is a professor of law at the Georgetown School of Law. Other University Watson winners have gone on to excel in the sciences, academia, and numerous other fields.
The University’s Chairman Emeritus Steve Pfeiffer ’69 was part of the first class of recipients, which also included three other University students. Since his year abroad, Pfeiffer has worked his way to become chair of the executive committee at Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P, an international law firm where he specializes in international business relations and foreign investments. Aden Burka ’70 studied preschool educational programs across Europe and Israel before receiving his PhD in Psychology from the University of Rochester. Now Dr. Burka serves as a psychologist with the Ochsner Healthcare System in Louisiana, specializing in child and adolescent psychology. After traveling across Eurasia researching the development of Armenian community and identity, Carl Robichaud ’99 is now the program officer of the International Peace and Security program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
“[The Watson Fellowship] takes care of everything so you can follow your dreams,” Robichaud told The Argus shortly after winning the prize in the spring of 1999.
As Woskie begins her “Wanderjahr” later this year, she’ll become the latest entrant into a long legacy of international travel through the Watson Fellowship at the University, an opportunity that, according to Dean Brown, is tailor-made for University students.
“Wesleyan fits the Watson like a hand in a glove,” she said.