Cara Tratner ’12 has recently been awarded the prestigious Watson Fellowship, and will now have the opportunity to travel to five different countries to study alternative education systems. Tratner is still in Crazy Thesis Mode, but she took some time out of her schedule to talk to The Argus about her passion for education, her excitement about the unknown future, and the funny coincidence surrounding her award.
The Argus: Could you briefly describe the Watson Fellowship?
Cara Tratner: Basically, it gives you an opportunity to create a project that you want to complete over the year. The Watson is a one-year grant that allows you to travel to two or more countries you’ve never been to before. Your Watson plan can be absolutely anything you are passionate about. They say “we are investing in the person, not the project.” It’s weird because I don’t think I did anything in particular to deserve this, but it’s a cool opportunity I feel really lucky to have.
A: And where are you going?
CT: Peru, Guatemala, Ghana, Uganda, and India.
A: How many students usually get it?
CT: 40 people from around the country, all from small “prestigious” liberal arts schools. The application process is ridiculous, so I can talk about that if you want.
A: Please do.
CT: You have to write about your project, and how it’s personally relevant. Also, for me, the process of establishing contacts with people all over the world made me realize that I’m really passionate about the subject. It’s a crazy idea—you can design a project about absolutely anything, absolutely anywhere in the world, and make it happen. In the process of thinking about it, it was just kind of a dream. I never thought about the reality of doing it. I still haven’t been able to process it. It’s surreal to think I will spend a year doing this!
A: So what exactly will you be doing?
CT: I’m looking at alternative education—education for communities that have been excluded from the mainstream education system in their country for political or cultural reasons–and looking at community-based structures of learning. How people who have been excluded are more aware of problems with the education system, and are able to construct more radical ways of learning. It came out of an idea that education is a top-down process, often focused on standardizing and universalizing. I’m interested in looking at ways to make it more culturally and locally specific and ways that it becomes empowering and unique, and whether the strategies that get developed out of community-based structures can be applied in other ways.
I’m also sick of studying from books and in classrooms in this really detached, theoretical way, when a lot of the problems need to be answered on the ground. To me, this was the perfect way to do what I already love doing—which is meeting a lot of people and learning about their lives and getting myself out of my comfort zone. I think that’s an interesting way to learn.
A: Will you be sitting in, learning with students?
CT: I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to be doing honestly! I have a framework set up, but there’s no way I could predict what I’m going to be doing, because I’m going places I’ve never been before and seeing things that I could never understand before. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. I imagine I’ll be sitting in on classes and finding ways I can play a part. To me it’s important to have reciprocity, which is interesting because in the fellowship, that’s kind of discouraged, which I don’t know how I feel about. Maybe I’ll find some way to contribute to the types of community that I think are doing important things in the world.
A: How did you get interested in this subject originally?
CT: I think part of the way I arrived at this topic was the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education and seeing it as a unique, alternative form of learning for people who have been so thoroughly denied opportunities—one example of how creating a different way of learning with people can be really powerful. And education can serve a different role than it currently is serving; it has the potential to change the way we view ourselves, our society, and the way we interact with each other, that I don’t think our school system is doing that right now. I’m looking for where people are not accepting this system.
A: How did you get interested in the Watson Fellowship?
CT: It’s funny, actually—the first time I ever heard about the Watson, we were all in this house in Georgia with the Frisbee team, and my friend Liana got the call saying she got the Watson, and she started crying. Evelina just turned to me and said, “That would be somthing you would be interested in.” And for some reason, that has stuck in the back of my mind since then. Then, to be in the same house, the same week of spring break, two years later, and get the same news was wild.
A: What are you most scared of or worried about for this trip?
CT: I’m not worried about safety—don’t know why! Somehow I have the fundamental trust that people are good, and I’ll find the path that I need to take. It just feels like a really big adventure! Being so disconnected from my support system and being independent for a whole year is terrifying, especially because I’m not rooting myself in any one place. And I’m not allowed to return to the U.S. for an entire year. [The Watson] pushes you to detach yourself from everything you’ve been doing for your whole life and do something radically different. I’m sure it will make me grow.
A: Do you have any outside-of-Watson plans for the year while you are traveling?
CT: I think part of the cool thing is that I don’t know much about the places I’m going to. I feel liberated by not having a plan and not knowing what I’m going to do. I’ve spent the past four years of my life always knowing what the next step was, having a structured order. I’m excited to see where this Watson takes me. When it comes down to it, I have no idea.
A: Can you describe an example of one of the alternative education systems you are visiting?
CT: In Uganda there’s a couple I found that are really fascinating—because of the crazy political history of violence and war and civil conflict, there’s room for education to have a powerful effect. One of the initiatives is trying to bring computer literacy and Internet access to communities that are completely cut off from that, which is not an approach I would have thought of for people who have literally been displaced from their homes. There are other ones that are focusing more on cultural solidarity and awareness and empowering communities that have been previously cut off. There’s some things that are just funky or random or interesting ways of viewing education—some particularly democratic models of schooling, which I think is a really powerful movement right now.
A: Is there anything that you’d like to add?
CT: The only other thing is that I feel incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, but I don’t think I was more qualified or worthy than the other applicants; I wish we all could have this opportunity! I know it sounds silly…I don’t know, I’m so happy to have this, but I feel so privileged. I feel there are so many people who could have this crazy transformative adventure, and why am I the one who has it? You don’t really know. And yes I’m passionate about this…but I believe everyone deserves a chance to follow their passions and be able to do what they dream of doing.