Watson Finalists Visualize Year of Travel and Self-Discovery

Four seniors are vying for a prestigious Watson Fellowship that promises a transformative global experience

Nick Bayley '24, TJ Guercio '24, Jenna Denaver '24, and Emily Kwen '24 (left to right) are Colby's 2024 finalists competing for a Watson Fellowship.
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Ashley L. Conti
March 4, 2024

For four Colby students, the early days of March are electric with anticipation. As finalists for a highly competitive Watson Fellowship, they’re awaiting March 15, when the Thomas J. Watson Foundation announces its 2024 fellows. 

If granted a prestigious Watson Fellowship, they’ll undertake a global journey and execute a personal project based on their deepest interests.

Colby’s 2024 Watson finalists—Nick Bayley ’24, Jenna Denaver ’24, TJ Guercio ’24, and Emily Kwen ’24—were selected by a committee of seven faculty members from a pool of 17 applicants. The finalists compete nationally with candidates representing all 41 of the foundation’s partner colleges.

Only 40 of those national candidates will receive a Watson Fellowship and the $40,000 stipend that accompanies it.

“The Watson Fellowship is more than the chance to chase a dream around the world for a year,” said Ben Fallaw, professor of Latin American studies and Colby’s Watson Fellowship liaison. “It is a step off the academic path and a chance to reconsider the direction you’ll take for the rest of your life.”

A Watson Fellowship supports graduating seniors to pursue a personal project outside of the United States for one year. The program aims to enhance fellows’ capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership, and to foster humane and effective participation in the global community. 

Colby has participated in the program since 1971, winning 66 fellowships. For a complete list of former Colby Watson Fellows, their projects, and the countries they visited, click here.

Nick Bayley ’24
Watson Project: Exploring Life and Tradition through Canoeing
Cambodia, Fiji, India, and Indonesia
English with a Concentration in Literature and the Environment major and Cinema Studies minor

For many Americans, their connection with a canoe is primarily recreational. But for others worldwide, the canoe is a necessity for everyday life.

Minnesota native Nick Bayley ’24 wants to understand the relationship between the canoe and peoples of Southeast Asia and Polynesia who rely on the boat for their livelihood. If Bayley wins a Watson Fellowship, he will search out people who build canoes or use them for fishing, transportation, or to earn a living.

“The canoe is this little thing, but it’s a huge area of inquiry for culture, economy, food, and all these really interesting things,” said Bayley, noting that investigating societies’ relationship to water is also a big part of his project.

Nick Bayley ’24, an English major, in the wood shop at the Colby-Hume Center. Bayley’s Watson project is titled “Exploring Life and Tradition through Canoeing.” He hopes to build and paddle canoes in India, Indonesia, Fiji, and Cambodia to experience the vast differences in canoeing among communities in these four countries and learn how canoes impact daily life.

As a child, Bayley explored the outdoors through Minnesota’s Red Wing Environmental Learning Center, traveling around the Midwest canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing, and more. In high school, he paddled in the Boundary Waters and built a cedar-strip canoe. At Colby, he’s twice led first-year students on canoeing COOT trips.

Bayley is also a woodworker and hopes to relate to and collaborate with traditional boat builders in places like Lao Island in Fiji and South Sulawesi in Indonesia. In Cambodia, he’ll experience freshwater canoeing on the Mekong River and attend Bon Om Touk, the Cambodian Water Festival. He hopes to live with fishing communities in Kerala, India, and also paddle Kollam, India’s “gateway to the backwaters.”

He isn’t sure what he’ll encounter in each country, but he’s confident in finding connections and building relationships. Spending a semester in Tanzania as a junior taught him how to develop trust by being compassionate and kind, learning some of the language, and showing interest in local culture.

“The way we do things in the U.S. is not by any means the only way. There’s so much out there,” said Bayley. “That’s really what drives this project, my interest in learning more about the world and becoming even more engaged and aware.”

Jenna Denaver ’24
Watson Project: Resilience in Single Mothers: A Global Perspective
Australia, Costa Rica, Germany, Philippines, and South Africa
Global Studies major and Economics minor

The United Nations estimates there are more than 100 million single mothers worldwide (UN Women, 2020). Who are these women? What are their stories?

Jenna Denaver ’24 wants to know. If named a Watson Fellow, Denaver will travel to five continents to meet single mothers and organizations that support them. Through one-on-one conversations and family activities, she will gain insight into single motherhood, strategies for adapting, and support systems in a variety of cultures.

Single motherhood is a complex phenomenon, but Denaver wants to focus on the resilience of these women. “They’re making it work because they have to make it work, and they want to make it work for their children,” said the senior from Staten Island. “I owe it to my mom, myself, and other single moms to empower them.”

Jenna Denaver ’24, a global studies major, on Miller Lawn. Denaver’s Watson project is titled “Resilience in Single Mothers: A Global Perspective,” and she hopes to explore single mothers’ remarkable strength and resilience through conversations and volunteer work with organizations.

Denaver and her twin sister were born to two women via a sperm donor. However, when Denaver was 10, her mother left the relationship and moved the girls to a new home. There were difficult moments, Denaver said, but overall, she had a positive experience raised by a single mother.

“My mom is my hero and inspiration because of her strength and resilience.”

Denaver has jump-started her project by talking over Zoom with single mothers in Germany, Costa Rica, and Sweden. During her 10-week stay in each country, she will develop a rapport with women before meeting their children. After that, she’ll help in any way possible through babysitting, dinners out, or volunteering in community organizations.

While she travels, Denaver plans to create a small book to distribute at the end of her Watson year. It would begin with a statement from her mother and expand with words of wisdom and advice collected from women she meets. 

A Watson Fellowship is a “beautiful opportunity” to help others and to grow as a woman, said Denaver. “It will foster more of an understanding and empathy for other single moms out there.” 

TJ Guercio ’24
Watson Project: A Voyage to Diverse Climate Perspectives

Australia, India, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and the United Kingdom
Environmental Science and Anthropology double major

How does a climate advocate travel the globe with a minimal carbon footprint? On freighter ships, said TJ Guercio ’24, who plans to pass through 40 ports as he seeks solidarity with advocates and organizations fighting for climate justice.

If awarded a Watson Fellowship, Guercio will explore climate change by befriending like-minded individuals from diverse backgrounds to understand their motivations, strategies, and personal stories.

Crossing the oceans by ship, he’ll have opportunities to converse with ship captains, deckhands, and other “slow tourists,” as well as people he’ll meet at his destinations. “This will be a collaborative dialogue,” said Guercio. “I want to share ideas while listening and learning.”

TJ Guercio ’24, an environmental science and anthropology double major, near Colby’s upper arboretum. His Watson project, “A Voyage to Diverse Climate Perspectives,” takes as its point of departure that climate change brings up a range of emotions: fear, uncertainty, denial, anger, grief, and more.

Growing up in Avon, Colo., Guercio developed a strong connection to the alpine ecosystem hiking 14,000-foot mountains and fishing in rivers “swollen with snowmelt.” But invasive species, warm winters, and dry summers have wreaked havoc on that idyllic landscape. His family now keeps a bag packed in case a wildfire forces an evacuation.

The inspiration for Guercio’s Watson project came from his junior year in Copenhagen, where he learned about organizations and movements advocating for climate justice. He came away with a hunger to meet other passionate people.

In addition to Copenhagen, Guercio’s Colby experiences included a Jan Plan in Salamanca, Spain, and another in Namibia; two weeks as a cultural heritage researcher in Ecuador through DavisConnects; and research aboard a Canadian Coast Guard vessel in the Gulf of Alaska with Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, where he spent a semester as a junior.

Throughout his far-reaching experiences, he grappled with how to reconcile competing issues such as renewable energy, Indigenous sovereignty, globalization, and climate justice. A Watson Fellowship will allow him to better understand how other advocates confront these same challenges.

“These people are dreaming of what the new world is going to be. They’re fighting for those most impacted by climate change,” said Guercio. “Which is really all of us.”

Emily Kwen ’24
Watson Project: Korean Hanbok: Constructing a Collective Identity
Canada, England, Germany, Japan, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam
Psychology and Educational Studies double major

In Korea, the concept of han often describes emotions resulting from traumatic loss of collective identity, such as the division of the Korean peninsula. Today, han reflects the Korean diaspora on a global scale.

Emily Kwen ’24 struggles with han as a South Korean immigrant who always felt “in-between” growing up in New Jersey. If Kwen wins a Watson Fellowship, she will create a set of traditional Korean garments called hanbok with the help of Koreans living in six different countries.

“Art, and the act of creating in community, holds more power collectively than I could ever create alone,” said Kwen, an artist who knits, crochets, and sews. “Maybe it will help to bring a sense of healing to the han that pervades my life as well as doing the same for others.”

Emily Kwen ’24, a psychology and educational studies double major, in the Pugh Center. Kwen’s Watson project, titled “Korean Hanbok: Constructing a Collective Identity,” is a collaborative art effort of hand-making hanbok, a set of traditional clothing, with Korean diasporic people’s names stitched into the fabric meant to explore a more inclusive definition of what it means to be Korean.

By partnering with Korean community centers, Korean churches, and arts-based organizations, she will sew both a men’s and women’s hanbok using material from each region. She will also invite Korean participants to add their names to the garments, which she will stitch on. As she travels, the hanboks will take shape and carry a message about today’s Korean identity, which historically was rigidly defined.

“Collaboratively stitching the clothes together represents a sort of unity and subverts traditional expectations of who’s generally accepted as within Korean culture and who gets to speak about being Korean,” she said.

Kwen’s courses at Colby have been key to helping her understand her personal story. Topics such as identity development, educational inequities for immigrants, and Korean history have validated her struggle with identity while confirming that it’s also global.

“I hope my project prompts people to look at their own history and the things that make them who they are,” said Kwen, who is learning to embrace her multicultural life. Her project represents hope that there is space for herself and others on the outskirts of Korean identity.

“If there isn’t,” she said, “I will make the space.”