The 55th class of Thomas J. Watson Fellows was announced on Wednesday, March 15, and included one Wesleyan graduate. Jocelyn Velasquez Baez ’23, one of this year’s recipients, plans to use her fellowship award to travel to the Philippines, Ecuador, Nepal, Ghana, New Zealand, and Canada (with the hope of going to more locations) to look into the role of health and medicine in Indigenous and ethnic communities.
“I am looking into whether integration or disintegration [of medicine] is ethical or correct,” Baez said. “The Watson Fellowship might help me answer this question, as I can meet different medical practitioners and leaders in communities.”
The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship provides a one-year $40,000 stipend to graduating seniors to pursue independent projects on a global scale. The Watson Foundation board selects students who display qualities such as emotional intelligence, leadership, integrity, and independence, as fellows are responsible for mapping out their entire trip: where to travel, what they plan to do and with whom, and what they wish to gain from the experience. Assistant Director for Fellowships under the Fries Center for Global Studies (FCGS) Erica Kowsz explained the first few steps of the application process.
“It’s really up to the individual applicant to put forward a project proposal that takes advantage of the broad nature of the Watson Fellowship and explores a topic that they are very passionate about,” Kowsz said. “From that framework, you should think about how you can explore your idea across many different settings.”
The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is not open to the general public, and is extremely selective. Students may only apply if they attend one of 41 partner campuses, all liberal arts institutions with fewer than 3,000 students, making it a highly unusual fellowship. Only four competitive seniors from the pool of Wesleyan students that submit proposals are nominated by the FCGS to continue on to the national competition.
“We run a campus process, where people will submit a version of the application earlier than the national deadline,” Kowsz said. “And then we have a Watson committee through the Fellowships Office that will meet with a subset of between seven and 10 people, depending on how many are submitted and how many are competitive proposals. And then we do that sort of a day-long panel style interview with everyone. That is part of what helps inform which four we choose.”
After four students are selected from the University finalists, they have the opportunity to revise their submissions before the national deadline, typically in early November. Submissions are then read by the Watson Foundation Board.
Along with their written application, every applicant participates in an interview with a representative from the Watson Foundation who visits campus. The representative stays on campus for a full day to speak to each applicant for about an hour. This makes it crucial that the Fries Center for Global Studies’ fellowship selection committee chooses a competitive applicant who can withstand the rigors of the application process.
“We typically have one and occasionally two fellows that win,” Kowsz said. “I think there have been a few years where nobody got it, but that was pretty uncommon.”
One of last year’s winners, Livia Cox ’22, used her Watson grant to fund a project entitled “Pain Policy,” which examines pain within different cultures. Her questions address how people conceptualize pain, and how they deal with it on the level of medical institutions, traditional practices, and policy.
According to Kowsz, the project was substantially inspired by Cox’s work with a nonprofit she founded in Middletown, which distributed Narcan.
“Livia’s project is closely associated with the opioid epidemic,” Kowsz said. “It is growing out of our society’s response to the universal problem of pain, given that pain medications are an instrumental part.”
Baez was always interested in public health as a Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and Science and Society double major. She was specifically concerned with how it relates to her community as an Indigenous woman of K’iche’ Maya heritage.
Baez remembers making traditional elixirs, tonics, herbs, and teas with her grandmother when she was younger, and this experience as an Indigenous woman in the medical and public health fields prompted the question of the ethics behind integrating Western and Indigenous medicine, and whether indigenous knowledge should be shared on a global scale.
“I just wanted to be a physician, one day to take up space in Western science, Western medicine as an indigenous person,” Baez said.“But now talking to these people and learning so much from their experiences, maybe there’s a different way of doing that where I don’t need to take up space, but rather make my own space.”
Baez has previous experience working with global community leaders, and wishes to continue with her Watson grant. Through a connection made with Gordon Career Center Health Professions Advisor Mildred Rodriguez, she was able to travel to rural villages and clinics in Guatemala to obtain different perspectives of Indigenous and Western medicine. She was also a research assistant at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and at the University of Michigan.
These experiences have exposed Baez to systemic racism within medicine that generates a lack of trust between both Indigenous and western communities. She intends to become a physician and integrate both modes of treatment.
Baez also spoke about the process of planning for her fellowship, elaborating on how she decided the countries she will visit.
“I started going through Facebook, Instagram, [and] other social media outlets to find people that promote the use of Indigenous medicine or traditional medicine and I started making connections,” Baez said.
As for advice for future Watson fellows, Baez recommends proposing a project that can only be successful with a travel component, and one that will transcend beyond academic interest.
“Your project should go deeper than just your career,” Baez said. “It should pertain to your identity, and be some form of question that you can only answer by traveling the world.”
Carolyn Neugarten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.