Waiting for a Watson

Colby’s Watson Fellowship finalists anticipate transformative experience

By Laura MeaderPhotography by Gabe Souza
March 11, 2021

On March 15, four Colby seniors will learn if they’ve won a prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. If selected, a life-changing opportunity awaits.

In the 51 years that Colby has participated in the program, 65 Colby seniors have won a “Watson,” as it’s informally called. They’ve studied nomads in Mongolia, runners in Kenya, river communities in Southeast Asia, children subsisting on trash dumps in India, and much more.

The Watson Fellowship is a one-year grant to pursue one’s deepest interest through a personal project outside of the United States. It encourages self-discovery, risk-taking, and independent exploration on a global scale.

“The Watson Foundation is not funding the project,” said Ben Fallaw, professor of Latin American studies and Colby’s Watson Fellowship liaison. “They’re funding the student, the person, and the potential for leadership in that person.”

Colby’s 2021 Watson finalists—Ben Bogorad, Olivia Hochstadt, Minji Ko, and Whitney White—were selected by a committee of six faculty members from a pool of 15 applicants. The finalists go on to compete nationally with 154 other candidates representing all 41 of the foundation’s partner institutions.

Only 40 of those national candidates will receive a Watson Fellowship and the $36,000 stipend that accompanies it. Because of the pandemic, fellows will be allowed two years to complete their project.

Inspiration for the Colby projects evolved from personal, sometimes challenging events in the finalists’ young lives. They reflect characteristics that Fallaw said are central to successful Watson applications: creativity, emotional maturity, and a sense of purpose.

Even if they’re not selected, the students said that identifying a project and putting together a proposal had value.

“The whole process of having to think very carefully and very deeply about what I’m interested in and why was a really powerful thing to do,” said White. “It’s given me the chance to reflect on how I can really find a path for myself that will be interesting to me and that will be meaningful in other ways.”

The nature of the Watson Fellowship, Ko said, “gives fellows a lot of agency that we really haven’t had before. No one is telling you what to do; everything is driven by what you want to do.

“It’s a crazy, unique opportunity that doesn’t come around very often.”

A complete list of Colby’s Watson Fellows, their projects, and the countries they visited is available here

Ben Bogorad ’21

Ben Bogorad ’21

Destructive Disasters and the Communities that Remain
Kazakhstan/Uzbekistan, Montserrat, Tonga

Biology major, chemistry and Russian double minors

Last February, a day on the slopes in Montana turned tragic when Ben Bogorad ’21 crashed, cartwheeled through deep powder, and punctured his femoral artery. Airlifted off the mountain and whisked into surgery, doctors saved his life and leg despite losing at least half the blood in his body.

Back home in Massachusetts, his semester abroad canceled, he found recovery difficult, physically and mentally. In the wake of his own brush with death, he began to wonder about others’ misfortunes, especially those that happen to entire communities.

Bogorad’s Watson project question soon welled up: When faced with natural and manmade disasters, why do communities choose to remain?

The answer is bound to be complex in the locations Bogorad has chosen to visit. The Aral Sea region in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, an apocalyptic world where former port cities now sit in deserts following the draining of the Aral Sea. The island nation of Montserrat, with its capital city buried following a 1997 volcanic eruption. And the Polynesian country of Tongo, forecasted to be submerged in Bogorad’s lifetime due to rising seas.

“I want to see how communities have taken the card they’ve been dealt and used it as a mechanism to move forward, improve their lives, and get past the initial disaster,” he said.

As a budding filmmaker, Bogorad plans to talk to residents, local agencies, and government officials and then compile and juxtapose personal stories into a short documentary film. He’s most interested, he said, in the human ingenuity at play in these communities. How have they endured a difficult situation, taken the best parts, and then not only remained and persisted but grown and recovered?

“If I’ve learned anything from my accident,” he said, “it’s that I’m so lucky to go out and have experiences. This Watson gives me the chance to explore new places, learn about other people, and be in challenging situations.”

With a heightened appreciation for living each day, Bogorad thinks his Watson promises to be “a big, big adventure.”

Olivia Hochstadt ’21

Olivia Hochstadt ’21

Threads of Creativity: Knitting Cultures Together

Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Scotland
Spanish and art history double major

Knitting had long been a hobby for Olivia Hochstadt ’21—until her first Jan Plan course at Colby transformed it into a defining passion.

In the course Sheep to Shawl, Hochstadt learned new fiber arts skills but also toured Maine’s sheep and alpaca farms, seeing firsthand the very creatures from which the fibers came. “This class opened my eyes,” Hochstadt wrote in her Watson application, “to the deep connection fiber artists form with the animals and the environment around them.”

That moment of clarity grew into a hunger for similar experiences in other countries, specifically in South America and Scandinavia, where fiber arts have been practiced for generations and are an essential part of rural and indigenous economies.

Hochstadt’s Watson will be immersive and interactive: shearing sheep, spinning fibers, and slogging through the farmyards where she’ll live. Picture her visiting a small spinning collective in Peru, learning from a knitwear designer in Buenos Aires, and weaving Panama hats and shigras bags from palm and agave fibers in Ecuador.

In Scandinavia, she plans to join knitting groups in the Faroe Islands, learn knitting techniques for Selbu mittens in Norway and lopapeysa sweaters in Iceland, and spend weeks at a time in small communities working with sheep farmers, mill workers, and designers.

Hochstadt’s project has other threads that include issues around sustainability, economic security, especially for women, and entrepreneurship.

In the future, she dreams of making a living as a designer of original knitwear, a “modern, creative artist who’s connected with time-honored traditions and making really cool stuff that people today and young people would enjoy.”

Ultimately, Hochstadt’s ambitious Watson itinerary will be a window into understanding herself by connecting with others who share her passion. “It’s as much about the act of doing the project, the knitting, and the spinning,” she said, “as it is about the people and the self within all of that.”

Minji Ko ’21

Minji Ko ’21

Musicians of Color: Diversity within Classical Music

England, Germany, Norway, South Korea
Mathematical sciences: statistics major, chemistry and music double minor

South Korean Minji Ko ’21 was born into a family and culture captivated by classical music. As she grew into a musician herself, she developed a particular love for Beethoven and Schubert.

But when the Black Lives Matter movement erupted, she began to think further about musicians of color and their place in the white world of classical music. The violinist then questioned her own place in the field.

“I realized that it’s not enough just to participate and play the music itself,” she said. “In regards to my own identity as an immigrant woman of color, how did I find such a place that’s been so historically exclusive?”

To explore diversity in classical music, Ko will travel to countries with rich musical traditions and seek out other musicians of color. She’ll attend concerts and rehearsals, “where dynamics and interpersonal issues come into play,” in her attempt to unravel the complicated duet between race and classical music.

The countries she’s chosen include two that are racially diverse, Germany and England, and two racially homogeneous, Norway and South Korea.

In Germany, she’ll visit the international orchestra The Bridge, where Turkish and international musicians fuse Western and Middle Eastern classical music. In London, where many successful Black classical musicians are based, Ko will explore how the city’s diverse music scene clashes with white classical music.

While in predominantly white Norway, she will investigate the dynamics of the elite orchestra Trondheim Symfoniorkester, where a woman of color conductor leads a group of almost entirely white musicians. And in South Korea, she’ll see her compatriots anew, an entire society that holds classical music in high regard.

“How have others like myself navigated an art form that’s never been meant for them? How have they grappled with and reconciled that?” Ko asked. “How does it inform their playing and even their own identity?”

These are questions she believes are difficult to answer. “The musician identity seems to trump all other identities belonging to race or culture,” she said. “It’s so big, which is both moving and beautiful.”

Whitney White ’21

Whitney White ’21

Remembering Traumatic Pasts

Armenia, Colombia, Germany, Japan, Poland, South Africa
Art history and global studies double major

Memory can be tricky. Traumatic memory even trickier. How do people remember things? What, in turn, do they hide?

Whitney White ’21 will spend her Watson trying to understand how people remember traumatic pasts across cultures, geographic regions, and time. Think the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Armenian genocide, apartheid.

“I’m looking at places where there’s this friction within people in these societies,” White said. “How do you move on as a country when you’ve had challenges as a country together?”

White will approach her project in each location in three phases. First, she’ll look at monuments and public spaces of remembrance from an outsider’s perspective, “studying how countries choose to present events to others,” she said. Next, she’ll investigate institutions that make decisions about how traumatic events are remembered.

Her final phase, she anticipates, will be the most challenging: talking to locals. By spending several months in each country, she hopes to develop strong enough relationships that people will open up and share. She wants to understand, she said, how they define themselves and their country through their own past.

White’s own past inspired this project. “I have a family that has one side that tends to be very secretive and not forthcoming about the past,” she said. “I felt that as a child, and I was very, very aware of it.” That experience has informed her academic trajectory, influencing the courses she’s taken, her plans for graduate school, and, now, her Watson project.

In addition to helping clarify the path she’ll take in graduate school, White thinks her project has the potential to have a positive impact on others. It’s cathartic talking about traumatic events, she said, and a way to build better cross-cultural understanding.

“Even though these things are very personal,” she said, “they’re also in a way pretty universal.”

Watson Foundation

Top Image:
Watson Fellow Jasmine Yiyuan Qin ’12 at the source of the Amazon River, Mismi Mountain, in the Andes of Peru. For her project, “In Search of a Shared Future: Where the River Fairies Were,” Qin studied river communities along the Rhine, Amazon, Mekong, Ganges, and Murray-Darling rivers.

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