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Opeyemi Awe ’15 wins the Watson Fellowship

Awe, who is also SGA President and a Posse Scholar, will spend a year pursuing independent study. Photo by Chris Lee.

On Monday, March 16, Grinnell College announced that SGA President Opeyemi Awe ’15 was the College’s newest recipient of the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Awe, an International Affairs major and the first Grinnell Posse Scholar to win the award, will take the opportunity to pursue a year of independent study around the world after graduation.

As one of 50 college graduates selected from 40 colleges around the country who showed “unusual promise,” according to the Fellowship’s mission statement, Awe was awarded $30,000 from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation for a program of independent study and travel. Awe said that a number of different feelings overcame her when she discovered she had won the award.

“When I found out, I was a whole mix of emotions, but I was too shocked to cry,” she said. “I was really happy that the work and the energy had been put to good use.”

Awe stated that she plans on using this opportunity to examine the different ways in which entrepreneurship has helped contribute to the economic development of different countries.

“I want to look at whether there are lessons that can be taken and applied from a developed country to a developing country,” Awe said.

She will start by visiting South Korea, and from there she plans on going to Brazil, Indonesia, Kenya and Rwanda but noted, “Anything can happen midway.”

“The good thing about the Watson is that you can change the countries you go to,” she said.

Awe explained that she ultimately hopes to help with Africa’s economic development and take what she’s learned from her year of study back to where she considers home.

“I’ve seen family members struggle back in Nigeria, and I’ve been to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, and I’ve always been interested in Africa’s economic development,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of potential there, but there are a lot of structural and foundational things that still need to be addressed before it can grow. The opportunity to learn about countries where things are going better has encouraged me to take the lessons back to Africa.”

According to Steve Gump, the director of global fellowships and awards at the Center for Careers, Life and Service, the Watson Fellowship is unique from many other fellowships in that it isn’t focused on academics.

“It’s not a research project, and you’re not allowed to have classes in a classroom setting. You’re not going to study something—you’re going to learn by being and doing,” Gump explained. “It’s an opportunity to go around the world, engage with people actively and demonstrate your passion for whatever you’re going to do.”

Those who helped Awe in the Watson Fellowship application process said that this ability to be active and engage is one of Awe’s many strengths, both as a person and as a scholar.

“She is very good with connecting with other people,” said Professor Eliza Willis, Political Science, who wrote Awe’s recommendation letter. “I could see her going to place to place and making connections with people.”

In order to apply for the Fellowship, the first on-campus application is due mid-September as the College selects four nominees who will send their project proposals to the national organization. Awe said that at first she was hesitant to apply.

Awe, who is also SGA President and a Posse Scholar, will spend a year pursuing independent study.  Photo by Chris Lee.
Awe, who is also SGA President and a Posse Scholar, will spend a year pursuing independent study. Photo by Chris Lee.

“Did I have a good enough idea, was I doing something unique and distinct?” Awe said, explaining her thought process when she was applying. “But the more I learned that the Watson is about investing in the people more so than the project, I felt that I was someone worth investing in. Talking to people I trusted helped a lot [too].”

In the end, Awe ended up applying close to the deadline.

“I didn’t actually put pencil to paper to write my application until less than 36 hours before the on-campus application was due,” Awe said with a laugh. “I absolutely do not recommend doing that.”

In spite of the imminent deadline, Awe described how she was able to complete a strong application because she had clear ideas and was passionate about the topic.

“I had lots of ideas that had been boiling and bubbling in my head for three and a half years,” she said.

After her year abroad, Awe said that she plans on working for a consulting firm.

“Supporting entrepreneurs, supporting people who want to create jobs and formalize the economy, support economic growth, this is … very much what I want to do with the rest of my life,” she said.

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