Meet Whitman Watson Fellowship Nominees

Isabel Mills

In the next few months, Whitman College seniors will find out what the next year of their lives entails. Four of these seniors hope their futures will include a Watson Fellowship.

This fellowship is a chance for 40 students from 40 liberal arts colleges to receive $28,000 to go abroad for a year to execute a project of their choosing.

To become a Watson Fellow, students must be a senior in one of the chosen colleges, and they cannot return home for 12 months. Seniors Josh Melander, Ann Chen, Nandini Rathi and Isabel Zarate are all Whitman nominees for the fellowship.

This year, approximately 36 students showed interest in the project. Director of Fellowships and Grants Keith Raether described the application process these students have gone through.

“This year 16 students began the formal application process, and 14 completed full applications. The applications were read by the five-member internal Watson selection committee. The committee short-listed nine students for interviews. At the conclusion of those interviews the selection committee discussed all candidates and decided on the four nominees.” said Raether.

Isabel Zarate
Photo by Marra Clay

Zarate is a psychology major and has always been interested in how individuals respond to certain situations. Her parents are originally from Mexico, and her personal connection with being enrolled in an education system that was culturally different than her home life pushed her to research this issue more in her Watson project.

“The questions are basically how do you integrate immigrants into your education system and how does going into an education system that isn’t culturally your native education system affect your identity. People have performed studies about where immigrants succeed the most, but not many have asked how people feel about compromising between the values of one culture and another,” said Zarate.

Zarate expressed a desire to go into education reform or public policy one day, and this Watson project would give her the background she would need to decide what to do in these fields.

While abroad, she plans to do a qualitative study by talking to high school and college students about their experience in foreign education systems. She is also already in contact with certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and researchers who have asked similar questions.

“What is our education system producing? Are we producing critical thinkers that can go into any field, or are we using a model that just needs to be flipped? I think those are the kinds of questions I want to be thinking about while I think about career choices,” said Zarate. 

Xialing Ann Chen
Photo by Marra Clay

Chen’s project also reflects her passions. The book “The Little Prince” has motivated her ever since she was little. The book is essentially a fairytale written during World War II about a young boy who visits multiple planets, each with different problems that relate to our world. 

Chen will go to Poland, France, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea to explore the residues of inhumanity in those places and to see how “The Little Prince” spreads its messages of humanity to the people. One particular way she will do this is by physically reading the book in different languages to those who have lived through war crimes, Korean refugees and sick children to see what different perspectives come about.

“Every time I read something about peace in general, it always brings me back to “The Little Prince.” It’s been so long and yet people still read it, and I wonder what kind of essence the book has that makes it able to propagate so successfully, and how different languages mediate that,” said Chen.

Rathi also has an intense itinerary. She is planning on traveling to South Africa, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Jordan, Nigeria and Morocco to investigate how the male-dominated field of filmmaking varies in different cultures.

“My project is about women filmmakers in different cinema cultures around the world. I read about some interesting trends. For example, in the [United States] in 2012, the number of female directors for the highest grossing 250 films was only 9 percent. As compared to that in the Arab world, for example, almost half the directors are women,” she said.

Rathi will travel to a few different film festivals, looking at how these events help women break into the industry. The ones she will attend are directed specifically at women. One in London is called Images of Black Women, and it showcases the work of black women directors or films concerning black women. Another one in Paris is solely dedicated to lesbian and transgender women.

Nandini Rathi
Photo by Marra Clay

“So it’s not just about being a woman, but about being a woman of color or of sexual minority. And depending on where in the world you come from, and what kind of privileges you have, all these things change the game completely. And without taking them all into consideration, it’s impossible to make any statement about filmmakers and what they are able to do,” said Rathi.

All four finalists have completely different projects, and all are equally passionate. This passion is what has driven them through the entire journey. Although the application process is quite lengthy and strenuous, each of these applicants declared that it was entirely worth it.

“Even if you don’t get it, it gave me the opportunity to self-reflect in a way I never had before, and it’s giving me an opportunity to think more about what I want to do in the future. So I think I will have a better understanding of myself. One of the things about the Watson is that it’s all about the process and the journey starts with your initial idea,” said Zarate.

When the Watson fellows return from their year abroad, they will attend a national conference and give a short speech about their experience. Quarterly reports must be sent to the fellowship foundation, but other than that, the outcome is all up to the individual.

“The Watson is really amazing because they’re not interested in your project –– you are the project. All they want is to give you a year to go out and experience the world. And when you come back, you don’t have to give anything. You are who you are,” said Chen.