Gaela Dennison-Leonard ’16 has been named a Thomas J. Watson Fellow for 2016-17. Her project “Robes for the Modern Woman: Monastic Women and Community Strength” will take her to India, Malaysia, Thailand and Australia.
Dennison-Leonard and Benjamin Wesley ’16 were among 40 national winners of the fellowships from among 152 finalists. Each fellow receives a $30,000 stipend for a year of travel and exploration outside the U.S. Thirty Hamilton students have received Watson Fellowships over the past 18 years.
Major: Geoscience and Sociology
Hometown: Portland, Ore.
High School: Woodrow Wilson High School
A geoscience and sociology major, Dennison-Leonard studied in Thimphu, Bhutan, in 2014. Her project grew out of her interest in gender equality and safe spaces for women, along with her involvement in Hamilton SAVES. “I’ve been interested in religion as long as I can remember, although I’ve never been religious,” she remarked. “I’ve always been curious about the community and sense of support and belonging that a religious group can provide, and the inspiration and meaning belief can bring into a person’s life.”
Summarizing her project, Dennison-Leonard explained: “Monastic women devote their lives to internal betterment and serving others, and religious communities can provide refuge and support to women who would often be denied independence, education and basic human rights. Through religious groups women can address wider community needs, yet in the modern world, these women often face enormous obstacles before and after entering monastic life,” she observed. Dennison-Leonard said she will immerse herself in women’s monastic orders and activist groups, and hopes to learn from their accomplishments and struggles to connect with and serve the wider community while they stay true to their beliefs.
She recalled, “When I studied abroad in Bhutan, I became much more aware of systemic gender inequalities for Buddhist monastics in many countries. The first time I visited an abbey for Buddhist nuns, the moment I stepped through the gate I felt such a powerful sense of safety and serenity, even though their life is often devalued and disrespected. I had never felt anything like it, and I knew I had to learn more. The focus of my project really became clear to me,” she explained.
In India Dennison-Leonard will explore how monastic education shapes girls’ lives, preserves Tibetan culture and affects the villages and families outside monastery walls. She’ll also study organizations that work to empower adolescentDalit girls (formerly “untouchables”) though literacy programs, vocational training and health education.
In Malaysia she’ll learn about the role of Buddhism in end-of-life care and connect with nuns in monastic settings.
Dennison-Leonard will live in a monastery in Thailand and learn about lay connections, opposition and the nuns’ welfare and advocacy work. In Australia she’ll explore how as historic communities of Catholic nuns are changing as many young nuns are immigrant women of color.
“This journey is not about me becoming a nun or even becoming a Buddhist,” Dennison-Leonard concluded. “It is to learn about the journeys of women today, within and beyond religion, and their roles in addressing personal and community challenges.”
At Hamilton Dennison-Leonard was elected to Phi Beta Kappa honor society in February. She is a resident advisor, a barista at Café Opus, a member of the women’s lacrosse team, and peer advocate and co-chair for Hamilton SAVES (Sexual Assault and Violence Education and Support).
The Thomas J. Watson Foundation was created in 1961 as a charitable trust by Mrs. Thomas J. Watson, Sr., in honor of her late husband, the founder of IBM. In 1968, in recognition of the Watson’s long-standing interest in education and world affairs, their children decided that the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program should constitute a major activity of the Foundation. Since then, the Fellowship Program has granted more than 2,800 awards, with stipends totaling more than $29 million.