Test-Driving Their Passions: As Watson Fellows, Recent College Graduates Spend a Year Abroad without the Requirement of Producing a Research Project. but Most Do, and Academically and Professionally, the Experience Proves Priceless

By Davis, Noah | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, November 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Test-Driving Their Passions: As Watson Fellows, Recent College Graduates Spend a Year Abroad without the Requirement of Producing a Research Project. but Most Do, and Academically and Professionally, the Experience Proves Priceless


Davis, Noah, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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Thomas J. Watson Jr., the late president and son of the founder of IBM, wrote in his autobiography, Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond, that he had a hard time finding his own direction as a young man. In 1968, he got his brother and sisters to back him in "establishing an unusual fellowship program," he says, which would turn out to be the Watson fellowships, which are named after his father, Thomas J. Watson St., and financed with money from his parents' estate. The fellowships, he wrote, "are really a reflection of the kind of kid I'd been."

Over the last 40 years, the Thomas J. Watson Foundation has awarded $29 million in fellowships to seniors graduating from 50 mostly top-tier colleges with fewer than 3,000 students. In 2007, 50 graduates received $25,000 (or $35,000 if accompanied by spouse and child) to pursue their dreams abroad for one year. Each "Wattle" follows a serf-designed program, with the only requirement being that they pursue the project for a year outside of the United States. In the words of the foundation, the money is "an investment in a person," not an investment in the project.

After being vetted by their school and passing through a rigorous application process, fellowship recipients are essentially left to pursue their research. They file quarterly reports and update the foundation with emergency contact information. Although many present projects at the yearend conference hosted by the foundation, they aren't required to produce one. In other words, there's nothing to prevent recipients from spending the year living the life of a beach bum on the French Riviera.

Except, of course, their own drive and ambition.

"I'm so passionate about my project that absolutely nothing could stop me," says Derron "JR" Wallace, a 2007 graduate of Wheaton College who is in Guatemala doing research. "Today, I woke up very, very sick, but I said, 'I'm going on the road because I have churches to visit.'" For his project, Wallace, who was born in Jamaica, is exploring the relationship between Pentecostalism and social justice, a passion he developed while studying sociology and the African Diaspora.

Rosemary Macedo, the executive director of the foundation and a former "Wattie" who studied international cooperation in oceanography, says Watson fellows are exceptionally driven. "You have to understand that these kids are Type A high-achievers who are gung-ho about their projects," she says. "When considering applicants, we stress maturity, character and integrity."

The long and arduous selection process ensures that the honorees will take advantage of the opportunity. By his or her senior year, any student can submit a project proposal to the application committee. Faculty members review applications, and four students are chosen to continue the application process. The students work individually with an advisor to flesh out and refine the proposal, which is then submitted to the Watson Foundation. A group of scholars from various fields then choose the recipients.

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A Springboard To a New Career Path

Despite the freedom, Watson fellows say they place a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves.

"For someone who hasn't done a Watson, it definitely does seem like, 'Oh, wow, a year-long vacation,'" says Ethan Nguyen, a Vassar graduate and member of the 2006-07 Watson class. "But it's not like that. It's all about being your own evaluator. I pushed myself harder [during my year abroad] than I ever have academically."

The year-end conference in New York, the only formal gathering sponsored by the foundation, provides extra motivation to impress one's peers with the scope and findings of a project.

"It's not a competition, but you're so proud to be part of the group," says Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and moved to the United States with his parents as a teenager. …

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