Seniors Win Watsons to Travel the World

In a sea of college seniors preparing to navigate the world beyond the 5Cs, Vera Zhu PO '14 and Christian Stevens HM '14 have secured a standout opportunity. Rather than going on to 9-to-5 employment or to graduate school, they are embarking on yearlong odysseys to the countries of their choice to research their passions—all expenses paid. Zhu and Stevens were two of only 44 recipients of the Watson Fellowship, which awards $28,000 for travel and research.

Zhu, a history major, plans to spend her year examining post-communist transitions to determine how successful they have been. She will divide her time between Hungary, Mongolia, and Ethiopia. 

“I was born and raised in China, so there are Communist members in my family," she said. "School education is infiltrated with communist ideals and ideas … I realized what I was told was not exactly what happened in China’s past. And I wondered, for those countries that have already gone through the communist period, did they find something better for their current system, or do they still struggle with the same problems?”

Stevens’ project will focus on the correlation between doctor-patient relationships and the health outcomes for patients in marginalized populations. A double major in chemistry and biology, he will spend time in Russia, China, Malawi, and the Republic of the Congo.

“There are a number of studies that show that more trust between doctors and patients really helps patients with their health outcomes," Stevens said. "It’s not always the technology that does it, or access to better resources. Sometimes it’s just trusting the doctor.”

There are only 40 colleges and universities that are allowed to nominate students for the Watson Fellowship. Harvey Mudd College, Pomona College, Scripps College, and Pitzer College are nominating institutions.

Jennifer Locke, who is in charge of fellowships at Pomona’s Career Development Office, said that students from the Claremont Colleges have often completed fellowships in areas that are not related to their field of academic study, a path that is encouraged in the case of Watson Fellowships. In recent years, fellowships have focused on a diverse range of topics, including female illiteracy, puppetry across cultures, and history as expressed through weaving. 

“If [your topic] is connected to your formal study, you have to talk about it in a way that’s not purely academic," Locke said. "You have to think about how it’s going to get you outside of the lab or the classroom or the library. If you’re proposing something that’s not tied to your academics, it should be something that’s very connected to things you do. You can’t just pick something out of the blue.”

Recipients of the Watson Fellowship do not have to produce a research paper at the end of the year but are instead required to attend a conference and give a short presentation about their experiences. In addition, Stevens said that he hopes to keep a weekly blog and a daily journal detailing his travels. Zhu said that she may produce a documentary that she will film in English to avoid attracting unwanted attention from the Chinese government.

Fellows choose their own topics and are responsible for creating travel itineraries. During their year abroad, they are not allowed to return to the United States. 

A third 5C student, Haley Brown PZ '13, was awarded a 2013-2014 Watson Fellowship and deferred travel to the 2014-2015 cycle. Her project is focused on theatrical improvisation traditions in different cultures. Brown’s fellowship year will take her to Canada, India, Italy, and Brazil.