It’s the kind of dreamy opportunity that inspires longing, maybe even lust — to spend your first year out of college traveling the globe, expenses paid, in pursuit of a project closest to your heart. When it’s over, there is no assessment by a professor or a review board, no external reckoning of success. That’s the way of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, and if it sounds astonishingly easy, consider the long trip home, when the only evaluation that matters begins to percolate.

“You don’t want to have this opportunity and be on the plane ride home thinking, ‘I should have put myself out there more,’” says Ginny Dosch, who as Hamilton’s fellowship coordinator has guided 34 students to Watsons over the years.

Danielle Roper ’06 put herself out there. She entered a stand-up comedy competition in Lima, Peru, having never before told a joke in front of an audience. She was exploring political humor and social transformation in Latin America, and when the director of a prominent Lima improv group encouraged her to enter the contest, in the spirit of a Watson Scholar, she did. And won.

Danielle Roper ’06
Danielle Roper ’06 in Kingston, Jamaica, in front of a mural on Fleet Street. Now an assistant professor in the Romance Languages Department at the University of Chicago and working on a book about humor and race in Latin America, she spent her year after Hamilton as a Watson Fellow.

This marks the 50th year that the national Watson Foundation has fledged new graduates on journeys of “purposeful, independent exploration.” At the moment, four members of Hamilton’s Class of 2018 are roaming the world as fellows. Hamilton is the only college in recent years to have four students selected from a single class.

The foundation’s enticing goal is to give new grads a year to “explore with thoroughness a particular interest, test their aspirations and abilities, view their lives and American society in greater perspective, and, concomitantly, develop a more informed sense of international concern.” Over the decades the foundation has sent forth nearly 3,000 fellows. Hamilton’s first came in 1969, with 72 more to follow and counting. Forty colleges are eligible to nominate as many as four students each year for a Watson, with no guarantee of securing even one.

If there’s a shared thread connecting the Watson projects, it’s authenticity. Dosch says successful projects grow from a fire in the belly. An exceptional project on its own won’t suffice. “So Watson wouldn’t say, ‘We’re just looking for the coolest project out there. We’re looking for the person and the project,’” Dosch explains. The foundation considers characteristics such as leadership, resilience, and even courage.

Hamilton’s four newest fellows can just about count on their yearlong life lesson shaping their careers. A recent Watson Foundation survey found that more than 75 percent of former fellows say the experience became their professional foundation. Post Watson, Roper earned a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese from New York University, recently taking a tenure-track job as an assistant professor in the Romance Languages Department at the University of Chicago. She is writing a book about humor and race in Latin America. “There’s no ifs or buts or maybes — the Watson changed my life substantially. It opened up a whole career path for me, like I never would have imagined,” she says.

From the Ashanti Goldfields in Ghana to the copper mines of Zaire, the Watson journey had a lasting impact on Percy Luney ’70, a geology major who visited 10 African countries and African and mining research institutes in France and England. He was studying the countries’ use of natural resources. “It’s always been a part of me as I’ve looked at things in perspective of natural resource management and the environment,” says Luney, an attorney.

Percy Luney ’70
Watson Fellow Percy Luney ’70 at home in Florida.

His wide-ranging career included these jobs (and more): vice president at Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency; law school dean and professor at Florida A&M University; president of National Judicial College; dean and professor of law at North Carolina Central University School of Law; and professor at Duke University School of Law.

When Luney received his Watson he had two golden opportunities to juggle — he was also accepted into Harvard Law. Luney decided that if he had to pick one, he’d go with the Watson. He’d never traveled abroad, and he saw the fellowship as a blessing he wanted to experience. It all worked out. The foundation let him delay his fellowship until after his first year at Harvard during which he took a contracts course that helped him analyze agreements between mining companies and African governments.

Howard Rosenbaum ’90 in the placid waters of Long Island Sound. As a Watson Fellow he studied humpback whales. He now directs a Wildlife Conservation Society program.

Pitching the Vision

At Hamilton the road to a Watson runs through a College nominating committee that includes Dosch, the dean of students, and four professors from a variety of disciplines. It’s one of the few committees that faculty actually want to serve on, says Richard Bedient, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Mathematics, who has chaired it for more than two decades. “Each year we interview a dozen or more candidates, the majority of whom will, of course, not be nominated, but in conversations later in the year and sometimes at Reunions, I’ll talk to one of these folks whose life trajectory was changed by the experience of sitting down and honestly answering the question, ‘If I could do anything I wanted to do, what would it be?’” Bedient says. Only a handful of people ever ask themselves that crucial question, he observes.

Students arrive at their interviews nervous. The projects are deeply personal for them, borne of their life experiences and passions. “When they are answering the question ‘What would I do if I had a year?,’ they are really talking about ‘What do I dream of?,’” Dosch says.

Almost 30 years later, Howard Rosenbaum ’90 remembers how badly he wanted a Watson by the time it was his turn to face the committee. Watching stressed students come and go from their sessions, he felt ready to supply any fact the panel might desire. The biology major proposed spending his fellowship identifying geographic differences in humpback whale tail fluke pigmentation patterns. He would do it in Mexico, Australia, and Japan, and hit New Zealand for work related to dolphins. (He later added Colombia to his itinerary.)

As Rosenbaum’s interview unfolded, he felt pretty good about things, except for the disconcerting silence of one committee member, a heavy-hitting history professor with a reputation as a tough teacher. The man didn’t ask a single question, which Rosenbaum figured was either a very good or a very bad sign. It turned out the professor was won over by Rosenbaum’s excellent command of the geography and pronunciation of the places he intended to visit.

“The hardest thing about that fellowship was getting through the Hamilton interviews,” says Rosenbaum, who earned a doctorate in biology at Yale and now works as director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants Program and senior conservation specialist in global conservation.

Lauren Howe ’13 harvesting quinoa in Bolivia while on her Watson travels.

The Traveling Life

For some, the hardest thing about a Watson is going months without seeing family or friends, a separation that was more profound in the years before Skype, FaceTime, or free international calls. Sometimes it’s the stress of finding a place to live or research contacts without speaking the local language. Sometimes it’s knowing how to stay safe. “This is really the ultimate independent year, and the ultimate test of one’s resilience,” Dosch says.

During Roper’s first days in Nicaragua, she felt clueless about what to do or how to do it. That knowledge would come, as would an understanding of when to push on or pull back. “It’s about exploring the world in a way that’s safe, being adventurous, deciding to go for basically anything you ever thought you wanted to. And it’s unbelievable. You meet all these interesting people, and there’s no experience that could match it,” she says.

Lauren Howe ’13 faced her biggest test in La Paz, Bolivia, researching her project, “A Sustainable Future for Food and Farming: Modern Technology and Traditional Wisdom.” She came close to harm through a scam she’d actually read about and even circled in her Lonely Planet guidebook as she prepped for her journey. But the scammers were very good, seemingly professionals. They posed as officials in an elaborate ploy to convince Howe that a problem with her passport required her to accompany them in a car to a police station. She held her ground and didn’t go, but it scared her. The incident unfolded just after she arrived in Bolivia, tired from nine months of travel and readjusting to Spanish.

“I think that one of the blessings of the Watson is that, out of necessity, I really had to trust people. I wouldn’t have gotten very far during the year if I had kept a wall up. But there are instances, of course, where being overly trusting can backfire, and so I think that’s what happened in that scenario,” Howe says.

Howe gardening
Howe Gardening with Former street children in Tanzania

Her judicious trust panned out when she decided to travel to Punjab, India, where she had no contacts and hadn’t initially planned on going. Through a network that connects volunteers with work on organic farms, she found a host who invited her to stay with his family and introduced her to farmers for visits and interviews. “It became clear that his hospitality and generosity were out of a desire to show people his part of India, educate them on the agricultural situation, and help tell the stories of farmers,” Howe remembers.

She recently finished her first year of a master’s program in international agricultural development at the University of California, Davis. She says that when she started her Watson, and even when she was out in the field, she wasn’t familiar with the concept of agricultural development, yet that’s what her Watson was pretty much about.

David Tabachnick ’77 is a sociology professor who continues to make films.

No Two Alike

The wide-open nature of the Watson and the academic diversity of students who seek it create a splatter-painted canvas of projects. David Tabachnick ’77 was an economics major who planted himself in France for his entire fellowship to shoot a documentary film. Regina Joseph ’87 hopscotched to just about every country in Western Europe, plus India, Thailand, Malaysia, Nepal, and what was then Burma. She was attempting to trace the murky origins and history of the tarot deck and its influence on literary history and Jungian archetypes.

Many Watson seekers are motivated in part because they’ve never traveled abroad. By the time both Tabachnick and Joseph entered Hamilton, they’d traveled and lived around the world. Tabachnick’s father was a professor who had a chance to work abroad, which set Tabachnick in motion at an early age. By the time he moved to the Hill, he’d live in Nigeria, France, England, Sierra Leone, and Kenya.

“One thing I had learned is that I just wanted to stay in one place and learn it. You know, one year is actually a short time. You think it’s a long time but it’s not. I needed to pick one place and just dig around and learn about it as deeply as possible,” Tabachnick recalls.

His film, in English titled New Mown Fields, is a portrait of two French farm families. He looked at two sheep farms, one run by college-educated young people who gained access to land with government help, the other by a traditional farming family in the Pyrenees Mountains. Tabachnick stayed in France months after his Watson ended to work on the film.

His career has been episodic: working in theatre lighting in New York City; graduating from law school and taking jobs in legal services and bankruptcy law; and earning a doctorate in sociology, a long-held interest. Tabachnick figured it would be easier to make films as an academic than as a lawyer, and it would allow him to stay involved in issues of international development. Today he is a sociology professor at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, where he teaches students to make documentary films and still makes his own, sometimes showing them to his classes.

Regina Joseph ’87
Regina Joseph ’87 strikes a pose in the lobby of the Woolworth Building in New York City, home of the Watson Foundation.

Joseph is a designated “superforecaster” who has built an international career envisioning the future for public- and private-sector clients. Superforecasters are highly accurate predictors of the future who have been vetted through an experimental program run by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, a part of the federal Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Joseph is a member of an IARPA-funded research team that works on human-machine innovation for use in geopolitical predictive accuracy. She also pursues her own entrepreneurial ventures.

One of her early achievements was forecasting, in 1989, the rise in digital media. She also created Blender, which she describes as the first ad-supported, nationally distributed digital magazine. It debuted in 1994, before the rise of the web.

And it all relates back to her tarot deck project, which, Joseph explains, “was about the nexus between visual information systems, the advent of psychological theory and divination, and how humans use divination as a way to seek out certainty in uncertain times and the methods they use to acquire certainty about the future.”

Entering Hamilton she was a math- and science-oriented student with an affinity for writing and languages. In college she delved into psychology, philosophy, literature, psychology, Carl Jung, and archetypes. Across her interests she spotted a recurring theme of symbolism and the influence of Gnostic systems. In particular, she was fascinated by the tarot deck, wondering why so many intelligent people believed in its power. As she went deeper, she was thrown by the fact that the tarot deck seemed to lack a specific origin story. A Watson project was born.

Today’s Watsons

Among them, Hamilton’s four roving scholars in the Class of 2018 plan to trek to 12 countries, with overlap in India, Germany, and Japan. But there may be more, or fewer, because when curious fellows set out, they zig and zag. It’s OK to cut one country and add two more if the stipend can stretch with it. 

The fellows are studying skateboarding communities, students’ paths to college, active meditation, and therapeutic radio. That last is the brainchild of psychology major Isabel O’Malley ’18. In her investigation of radio, storytelling, self-help, and community healthcare, she intends to visit Spain, India, and Brazil. A week into her Watson, in Cape Town, South Africa, she already had experienced what fellows before her have discovered — the challenge of striking a balance between planning and spontaneity. How can she find safe, ethical short-term housing but have the freedom to move wherever her project takes her? And how should she manage her personal expectations? O’Malley wants to produce her own podcast — and focus on the voices of the podcasts she works with. “I’m realizing this balance is often found through trial-and-error,” she says.

When the year runs out, on her plane ride home, O’Malley hopes she can tell herself she’s been a responsible and respectful traveler, a traveler who educated herself ahead of time to ensure that she would be. “I’ll make a lot of mistakes,” she acknowledges. “I hope I take each learning opportunity with grace, not wasting too much time beating myself up over what went wrong, but rather deliberately working to grow.”

Our Dear Watsons

On the 50th anniversary of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship program, here’s a list of Hamilton recipients through the decades and the original focus of their project

Brooks McCuen ’69, Systems of Physical Education • John Suplee ’69, Painting • Percy Luney ’70, Use of Natural Resources • Stephen Munn ’70, Literature, Art, and Music • Frank Anechiarico ’71, Politics of Cultural Institutions • Harry Long, Jr. ’72, Economic Development • Richard Nelson ’72, Writing • Brewster Taylor ’72, Writing • Roman Tybinko ’72, Painting • William Delaney ’73, Writing • Roy Schecter ’73, Writing • David Buck ’74, Folk Museums and Preservation Societies • William Song ’74, Ancient Roman and Chinese Law • Jack Levy ’75, Industrial Democracy • Joseph Lewis ’75, Tropical Landscape Painting and Music • Kenneth Gross ’76, Renaissance Art and Architecture: City Planning • Peter Sommer ’76, The Holocaust • David Tabachnick ’77, Land Tenure: A Documentary Film Study • Robert Dolan ’78, A Study of French Polynesian Islands • Kevin Hanlon ’79, Painting in the Haunts of Great Writers: An Experiment in Imagery • Lisa Meyer ’79, Drawing and Photographing Primitive Flora • Anne Doherty ’80, The Cultures of Mountain Peoples • Dana Haley ’80, Poster Art • Geoffrey Schad ’83, Music of the Sufi Orders in Islamic Countries • Andrew Ring ’84, Engineering of Gothic Architecture • Cameron McWhirter ’86, Ethnic Divisions in the Eritrean Conflict • Regina Joseph ’87, Origins and Influence of the Tarot Card • Kathryn Hartzell ’88, Base Camp Management in the Himalayas • Margaret Karalis ’88, Cross-Cultural Examination of the Shoeshine Boy • Ezra Kopelowitz ’88, Religion and Political Conflict • Michelle Gladwin ’89, Japanese Businesswomen: A Video Documentary • Sonia Williams ’89, Performing Arts in Africa and the Caribbean • Howard Rosenbaum ’90, Photo-Identification of Humpback Whales’ Pigmentation Patterns • Robert Cooper ’91, Sea Turtle Nesting Activity: Research and Conservation • Jessica Clark ’92, Cross-Cultural Medical Care: Western Psychiatry • Michelle Meade ’92, Chinese Conceptions of Music of the Western Tradition • Kosali Ilayperuma ’94, Social & Economic Transitions: Unheard Voices • Alex Humphreys ’95, Inventing a Role-Playing Game • Sangeeta Budhiraja ’96, Feminism in the Indian Diaspora • Mark Siedner ’00, Societal Influences on the International Fight Against HIV • Louisa Smith ’01, A Globalized World: An Analysis of the International Art Market • Justin Stein ’01, From Dharma to Dollars: Commercialization of Universal Energy • Ava Bromberg ’02, The Public Artist: Creating Space in the 21st Century City • Huy Huynh ’03, Acculturation in a New Nation: The Vietnamese Refugees • Christopher LaRosa ’03, Shaping Media: Evolution Through Communication Technology • Jeffrey Dyer ’04, The Soul and Music of the Khmer People • Hilary King ’05, Grounds for Change: Coffee & Coops • Kristofer Rios ’05, In Search of the Perfect Beat: Rare International Funk Music • Danielle Roper ’06, Humour as Protest: A Study of Stand-Up Comedy in Mass Media and Popular Theatre • Caitlin Jacobs ’07, An Examination of the Coexistence of Big Cats and Humans • Gregory Hartt ’08, Looking to the Horizon: African Views of Climate Change and Environmentalism • Magdalena Wierzbicka ’08, In the World of Words: Exploring Creole Culture through an Oral Lens • Austin Hawkins ’09, Earth Architecture: The Keystone to Our Environmental Footprint • Kenyon Laing ’09, Traffic: Red Light, Green Light? Prostitution & the Modern Day Slave Trade • Kevin Rowe ’10, Farm to Table: New World Cities and the Changing Landscape of Cuisine • Max Wall ’10, Preserving and Transforming: Exploring the Relationship Between People and Fermented Foods • Mary Phillips ’11, Safe Spaces: All-Girl Environments and Their Role in Community Development • Nathan Schneck ’11, Voluntary Poverty: A Means for Individual and Community Transformation • Julia Wilber ’11, A Single Thread: Producers and Consumers of Fair Trade Clothing • Spencer Gulbronson ’12, The Universal Language: Exploring Creative Approaches to Math Education • Lauren Howe ’13, The Future of Food: Modern Technology and Traditional Agriculture Systems • Nathaniel Livingston ’14, Performing Culture: Contemporary Expressions of Oral and Musical Traditions • Alyson Raynor ’14, The Path of Rehabilitation: Exploring the Lives of Traumatic Brain Injury Survivors • Lisbeth DaBramo ’15, Water Ways: Exploration of Water Sustainability Strategies • Erika Marte ’15, The Faces and Functions of Educational Volunteerism in the 21st Century • Gaela Dennison-Leonard ’16, Robes for the Modern Women: Monastic Women and Community Strength • Benjamin Wesley ’16, What Moves Us: Exploring the Reflection of Culture in Car Enthusiasm • Kureem Nugent ’18, Cultivating Cultural Capital: Exploring the Path to College • Isabel O’Malley ’18, Therapeutic Radio: Storytelling, Self-Help & Community Health Care • Paula Ortiz ’18, Active Meditation Across Disciplines of Impermanence • Marquis Palmer ’18, Skateboarding Communities

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