Watson Fellowship Finalists Anticipate Transformative Experience

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for travel and self-discovery awaits four seniors competing for a prestigious national fellowship

Raizel McNally '23, Anosacha Peete-Meyers '23, Reagan Dennis '23, and Gabriel Rivas Orellana '23 (left to right) are Colby's 2023 finalists competing for a Watson Fellowship.
By Laura MeaderPortraits by Ashley L. Conti
March 9, 2023

Imagine the freedom of a year of travel pursuing your deepest passion. That possibility awaits Colby’s four finalists competing nationally for a prestigious Watson Fellowship. 

The Thomas J. Watson Foundation will announce its 2023 fellows on March 15. Just 40 college seniors nationwide will be named fellows and receive a one-year travel stipend of $40,000. The fellowship encourages self-discovery, risk-taking, and independent exploration on a global scale.

Colby’s 2023 Watson finalists—Reagan Dennis, Raizel McNally, Anosacha Peete-Meyers, and Gabriel Rivas Orellana—were selected by a committee of five Colby faculty members from a pool of 10 applicants. The finalists are among the more than 150 candidates representing all 41 of the foundation’s partner institutions.

The Watson Fellowship supports students’ projects that take them to countries of their choice. Past Colby winners include Jordan McClintock ’22, who is finishing her Watson year studying healthcare for child refugees.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend a year of travel and discovery that students design doing something they are passionate about,” said Ben Fallaw, professor of Latin American studies and Colby’s Watson Fellowship liaison. “Fellows come away with a better understanding of not just the world but of themselves.”

One of the reasons Rivas Orellana chose Colby was because its liberal arts model allowed him to take any classes he wanted and explore many different interests. “The Watson goes in conjunction with that,” he said. “I’m able to create my own project and design it however I want.” 

While putting together her project proposal, Peete-Meyers thought about people in different countries living completely different lifestyles. “It’s been such an experience to take myself out of my own shoes and think about other people and how to help them.”

The fellowship has far-reaching implications. “Students often find this amazing opportunity opens many doors long after their Watson year is over,” said Fallaw.

For a complete list of former Colby Watson Fellows, their projects, and the countries they visited, click here.

Reagan Dennis ’23  
Exile and Belonging: Exploring Black-American Expatriate Geographies
England, France, Ghana, Jamaica, and South Africa
Anthropology and government double major, African-American studies minor

In America today, a new social movement is underway. “Blaxit” refers to Black Americans leaving the United States for life abroad, fleeing the racism and oppression they experience in this country.

Reagan Dennis ’23 (she/her) is curious, what does self-exile mean? How is it felt and lived by Black Americans? How do they find belonging where they end up?

These are among the questions the Houston native hopes to answer if she is granted a Watson Fellowship. Through her travels and ethnographic research, she wants to add to the emerging study of Black geographics, which examines the relationship between race, space, and Black citizenship in the age of Blaxit.

“I’m hoping within this project to create space for my community to tell the stories of their geographies, and in a way that’s different,” said the Posse Scholar. “Not just through a paper or an article, but a map—and a memoir.”

Reagan Dennis ’23 titled her project proposal “Exile and Belonging: Exploring Black-American Expatriate Geographies.” Dennis hopes to travel to Jamaica, Ghana, South Africa, England, and France and study Black expatriate communities through the creation of maps that draw on the experiences of different Black-American individuals who have become citizens of other countries.

The idea for her project came from the desire to spend time abroad after college. As she asked herself where she would feel comfortable as a Black woman, she found herself building a map of safe and accessible places, which excluded many places on an actual map. She wondered if others had done the same sort of mental mapping.

And then after a move, how do people meet others they can identify with?

Dennis isn’t exactly sure, but finding out is part of her plan. “I’m going to go about this in the same way the people I’m studying might have gone about it,” she said. Networking online, seeking out people working for study-abroad programs at colleges, and exploring other avenues where she might find Black-American expats in Ghana, Jamaica, and the other countries she’ll visit.

It surely won’t go smoothly. But Dennis is ambitious and enthusiastic about this project and confident she will adapt. Plus, she’s learned from her coursework that an authentic anthropology experience is one where mistakes occur.

“I’m looking forward to what might happen,” Dennis said. “There’s so much opportunity in the hiccups.”

Raizel McNally ’23
Hugging Trees: Investigating Community-Forest Connections
Canada, Finland, and Palestine
Anthropology major

Standing in the Palestinian village of Al-Walaja is one of the oldest olive trees in the world. Raizel McNally ’23 longs to sleep nestled in its expansive base, joining the family that protects the 5,000-year-old tree night and day.

Al-Walaja is one of three communities McNally aims to visit to understand what drives people to connect with the land. Does that connection, in turn, protect ecosystems around the globe?

If selected as a Watson Fellow, McNally (she/her) plans to observe Palestinian stewardship of trees and the Jewish connection to trees in the West Bank. She’ll study centuries-old sustainable forestry practices and culture using the forest museum Lusto in eastern Finland as a base. And she’ll learn how the Tl’azt’en people integrate Indigenous knowledge into the business model of a lumber company on the shores of Stuart Lake in central British Columbia.

Raizel McNally ’23 poses in the woodmen’s team cabin. For her Watson Fellowship project, “Hugging Trees: Investigating Community-Forest Connections.” McNally hopes to explore the tension and connection between Indigenous and colonial practices of forestry.

This project draws heavily on McNally’s spiritual identity as a Jew from Portland, Maine, and her forestry experience as a captain of Colby’s woodsman’s team. While she’s chopped, sawed, split, thrown, and burned wood with the team, she’s thought a lot about what Judaism teaches her about relating to the environment.

She’s drawn in particular to Deuteronomy 20:19, which says, “Ki ha’adam etz ha’sedah. This passage can be translated in multiple ways, said McNally. “Is the text saying that humans are like trees, or that trees are like humans? Based on those two interpretations, what can we learn and understand?”

While in the field, McNally will use research methods and ethnographic interviews she’s learned in her anthropology courses at Colby. She also plans to work alongside people as much as she can and, of course, spend time in the forests she visits.

“My experience with forestry and Judaism has been tied to Maine, so being in places that are completely different will allow me to learn new things and gain different perspectives.”

Anosacha Peete-Meyers ’23
The Face of HIV in 2023
Brazil, Honduras, South Africa, and Thailand
African-American studies and American studies double major, anthropology minor

Even though the HIV/AIDS epidemic no longer dominates the headlines, to the 38 million people across the globe living with HIV, it’s still a timely story with ramifications for their daily lives.

More than 40 years after the virus was discovered in the United States, HIV is still around, said Anosacha Peete-Meyers ’23, a Houston native. “I want people to know that.”

If chosen to embark on a Watson Fellowship, Peete-Meyers (she/they) will visit communities in four countries hardest hit by the epidemic that have developed creative responses to it. Places like the island of Roatán in Honduras, where a nonprofit provides services to HIV-positive people, mostly women and children living in poverty.

By partnering with local nonprofits, she plans to create an anthology of narratives about HIV-positive people and their experiences with medication. Their goal is to understand daily medication regimens and efficacy while discussing medical advances such as injectable drugs. She anticipates finding inequities in care, access, and knowledge, but through her work, she hopes to start a conversation to carry from country to country.

Anosacha Peete-Meyers ’23 plans to travel to Brazil, Honduras, South Africa, and Thailand for their project “The Face of HIV in 2023.”

Peete-Meyers also plans to create an altar or a shrine in each community they visit to honor those who have lost their lives to HIV and to make available items the community needs. At these altars, which they envision as both a work of art and a community project, people can either leave or take items as they see fit.

Peete-Meyers will take a few items from each altar herself to share with subsequent communities on what will be her first excursion outside of the United States.

It’s a journey the QuestBridge Scholar dreams of to build awareness about HIV in today’s world while destigmatizing the disease. “A diagnosis is life-changing but not social suicide,” they said.

“There are so many different things now that help make life positive and manageable. People just don’t know about them because it’s not talked about as much.”

Gabriel Rivas Orellana ’23
Filling the Gaps: Trans Belonging in Latin America
Argentina, Chile, and Puerto Rico
Latin American studies major

When Gabriel Rivas Orellana ’23 was a teenager, he longed to talk to his mother about the intricacies of his identity as a young transgender person. His barrier wasn’t only fear, but language. Rivas Orellana (he/they) had learned to talk about his identity in English, but his mother only speaks Spanish.

By centering his Watson project on stories, Rivas Orellana plans to illuminate the lives of queer and transgender people of color while also finding Spanish words to better express his story. Especially to his family.

If selected as a Watson Fellow, Rivas Orellana plans to delve into transgender archives in Latin American countries. They will add to those archives by collecting oral histories of today’s trans folks and turning them into podcasts. They also hope to create safe spaces where transgender people can explore their community’s missing and hidden histories.

Rivas Orellana will work with nonprofits like the Argentinian group Archivo de la Memoria Trans (Archive of the Trans Memory), which is actively looking at historical material, creating a digital archive, and sharing it worldwide.

Gabe Rivas Orellana ’23 titled their Watson project “Filling the Gaps: Trans Belonging in Latin America.” Rivas Orellana hopes to delve into transgender archives in Latin America and engage with past generations’ photos, newspaper articles, and personal correspondence to gain a deeper understanding of the archival representation of trans culture.

“This project is about giving back, versus taking,” said Rivas Orellana, a Posse Scholar from Houston. The interviews, videos, photographs, and transcripts he amasses will be given to each community and shared online. “I hope to empower the community as much as possible.”

At the same time, Rivas Orellana anticipates experiencing secondary trauma listening to trans stories, many of which may include violence. Luckily, he learned the value of compartmentalizing his emotions as a legal intern interviewing trans immigrants of color applying for asylum.

“If I dwell in the violence in the recounting of these lived experiences, this project loses its full potential as queer life encapsulates more than just trauma,” said Rivas Orellana, who has plans to stay safe and decompress while traveling.

Rivas Orellana’s work will offer reminders that queer and transgendered people are human and deserve to be loved.

“This project’s purpose,” they said, “is to give queer and transgender people the ability to see their histories of resistance and joy reflected back at them.”