Whitman Students Awarded Watsons

Kate Grumbles, Staff Reporter

The Watson Fellowship is a prestigious award granted to only 40 students from across the country each year. This year, Whitman seniors Nina Finley and Sam Perkins were a part of that distinguished group. 

The Watson Fellowship was created in 1968 by the family of the founder of IBM, Thomas J. Watson. Each year, the Watson Foundation selects fellowship recipients from 40 small, selective liberal arts colleges, including Whitman. The 40 Watson fellows who are selected receive $30,000 to pursue their passion outside of the U.S. for a year. During the application process, the applicants design their own itinerary for the 12 month time period, based on the project they have chosen to pursue. Recipients of the Watson may not reenter the U.S. throughout the entirety of the Watson year, and may have limited to no contact with family and friends from home.

Having two students selected for a Watson from the same school is somewhat unexpected. Since there are 40 colleges in the running and 40 contestants selected, this generally means only one Watson Fellow is chosen per school.

Keith Raether, Director of Fellowships and Grants at Whitman, spoke about the honor of having two Watsons selected at Whitman this year.

“This is a nice watershed year for us. We, historically, have had at least one Watson nearly every year,” Raether said.

According to Raether, there are typically 16 to 20 applicants every year at Whitman who apply for the Watson. This group is cut down to around eight people after the Whitman Watson Committee chooses a group they judge as having potential to receive the fellowship, then narrowed to a final four applicants. Representatives from the Watson Foundation conduct interviews at each school then select the final 40 Watson fellows from across the country.

“There are ingredients to a Watson nominee, or fellow,” Raether said. “They’re people who have … almost an obsessive interest in one thing or another that they want to pursue in the world. They certainly have resourcefulness and imagination. They have to have both emotional and intellectual maturity, to be able to do this all on their own. I would say they have to be fairly bold in spirit to do this.”

Finley is one of the people bold enough to take on the Watson year. She will be traveling to Mexico, Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia, Malaysia and Russia to study disease ecology. She plans to focus on how the diseases in each area affect wildlife and ecosystems, and also how the people living in each area are impacted by the diseases.  

Nina’s passion for ecology and seeing ecosystems around the world informed her choices of countries to visit.

“I’m really excited to see some ecosystems that I’ve been dreaming about for my whole life. Specifically, the Pantanal, which is the world’s largest wetland located in the Brazilian rainforest,” Finley said. “That’s my first stop.”

Perkins is the other Whitman student who will complete a Watson year, focusing on an entirely different topic. Sam will travel to Australia, Chile, Japan and Nepal to study how each community interacts with wildfires and other natural phenomenon.

His choice to study wildfires next year comes from a strong family history of firefighting and the experience Sam has had working as a firefighter in Walla Walla.

“The Watson is a passion driven exploration, and studying wildfires, and specifically being involved with wildfires is something that is rooted in my family and my own history, and something I’ve done throughout college, working as a firefighter in town,” Perkins said. “My own personal history paired with my passion for exploration and travel stimulated my interest for this fellowship.”

The application process for the Watson fellowship is daunting, with multiple interviews and the task of creating a travel itinerary for a year, but Perkins suggests that people who find their passion in life should apply. 

“When applying, I never expected for the outcome to turn out how it did. I went for it anyway, and for all people who are considering it, just recognize that there are many passions that people have and there’s no harm in trying,” Perkins said.