Hannah Springhorn ‘19, an astrophysics and art history double major at Colby, was selected as Colby’s 65th Watson Fellow last spring. The prestigious fellowship, awarded nationally to only 41 graduating students in 2019, offered recipients the opportunity to spend a full year exploring a project outside of the United States. Springhorn traveled to Ecuador, Peru, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Ethiopia to investigate food culture within distance-running communities around the world. She spoke with Assistant Director of Audience Engagement Chris Kasprak ’12 to reflect on her time abroad, the difficult decision to return to the United States as COVID-19 spread, and how she plans to finish her project when it’s safe.
Q: What is your project about?
My project explores the relationship between food, culture, and body image within distance-running communities around the world. So I set out to interview and talk with athletes and coaches, nutritionists, chefs—people who are involved in running communities—to understand what lays the groundwork for the cultures of disordered eating that are so prevalent both within distance-running communities and in women’s sports in general.
Q: Why are you devoting so much time to explore these issues?
It’s very personal—it has come from my own understanding, my own relationship with food and how that’s been challenged over the years. When I was diagnosed with some chronic health conditions, it changed the way I approached my own eating. It made me think about the messaging that I was receiving as an athlete about how I needed to change my own body to perform better.
Q: Tell me about how you felt last August as your project got underway. What were your biggest challenges? How did you overcome them?
I really threw myself in the deep end in those first couple weeks in Ecuador. It hit me as soon as I landed at the airport in Quito how alone I was. I was really forced to slow down—I’m usually a very busy person and used to filling up my schedule, and then I was just entirely by myself without a schedule. But I had an agenda, I had goals. My main goal was to meet people—I went to the main park in the center of the city and just introduced myself to all of the different running teams. Things just started happening and I just started saying ‘yes’ to a lot of different things.
Q: What have been some important outcomes/conversations that have resulted from your work?
I think it’s some of the smaller conversations I’ve had with people that stick out most for me. I’m remembering talking with these two athletes in Ethiopia. We were sitting in the sauna, and they asked me about my project and what I was doing with it. And without me even asking, they started talking about their own experiences with their coaches, these traumatic events that have happened in their lives, how they’ve never really had the opportunity to talk about them before. That happened a lot, and it made me realize these are issues worldwide—not just in Western, privileged cultures.
Q: Did your project change over the course of your time abroad?
I think the biggest factor was the fact that I started my year out injured. I was not able to run at all for the first couple months of my project, so I wasn’t able to engage in that huge part of my project. And I really felt defeated because of that. But it also allowed my project to grow. In Germany I started looking at some other aspects of this project, like examining more of the social frameworks that allowed these cultures of disordered eating to flourish.
Q: In what ways did your Colby education prepare you to tackle the demands of a Watson year?
I have a lot of different angles on that. From a nuts and bolts perspective, it’s really interesting what my art history major taught me. Being able to look at images with a really critical eye has been so powerful this year. And being able to curate my own social media feed and understand how those images fit into this larger diet-and-wellness culture has been amazing. And it’s only something that I’ve been able to do because I was taught at Colby to look at images with such a critical eye and be able to place them within these social and historical contexts.
Colby teaches you how to ask questions, how to ask the hard questions, how to get ambiguous answers, and follow up with different questions and come at a problem from a lot of different angles. That’s the only way to do a Watson. There are no clear answers and no clear framework to operate under.
Q: As COVID-19 began dominating the headlines, what were you thinking? How did you ultimately make the decision to pause your project?
I had just arrived outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Europe had just shut down, and we got an email from the Watson Foundation essentially saying that we had to decide if we wanted to return home or stay in place. And if we did decide to stay in place, we had to locate in an area where we felt comfortable with the healthcare being provided for what we needed. As someone with underlying chronic health conditions, I decided to return to the Northeast. It was a really hard decision to make, and it’s one I’m still struggling with.
Q: What are you doing in the interim? Are you continuing to work on your project from home?
The beautiful thing about a Watson is you have the freedom to make Plan B. Like everyone else, I’m sort of going with the flow. I am definitely still engaged with my project. I think what’s particularly interesting is that this period of time is exposing a lot in terms of our own internalized anxieties around exercise and food. I think diet culture is rearing its ugly head, when in reality we’re in a global pandemic and that should not be the priority.
Q: What are you planning to do once you can safely travel again?
I plan on going back out. The Watson Foundation has given us the freedom to continue after the end of our official year. So I had about four months left in my year. Whether I end up going to spend four months or six months or whatever it is, I’m definitely planning on going back.
Q: Where do you want to go?
I was planning on going to Kenya and then spending some time in Australia before flying to Japan for the 2020 Olympics, which are now the 2021 Olympics. So I think it would be really cool to still do that.
Q: You mentioned last year you were interested in pursuing a career in global health. Did this experience change your mind?
I think, if anything, this year has absolutely confirmed to me that I would love to work in global health. I don’t know exactly what capacity, but I really want to go back to school. I want to explore medicine in this global health capacity. So going back to school to get an M.P.H., and go to medical school, in whatever order. I’m not quite sure yet. But to work on this project and come at it from that perspective is absolutely what I’m thinking about in terms of next steps. We’ll see how it plays out.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A Watson year can be very lonely, a very challenging experience. But it was what happened in those unglamorous moments that really defined and shaped my year.
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