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Sasha Kuzura ’17 and Ale Rodriguez Wheelock ’17 announced Watson Fellows

Kuzura and Rodriguez both have exciting and educative journeys planned for next year. Photo by Helena Gruensteidl.

Two members of this year’s graduating class, Oleksandr “Sasha” Kuzura ’17 and Alejandra “Ale” Rodriguez Wheelock ’17, have been selected as recipients of the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.

As part of their award, Watson Fellows receive a 30,000 dollar to travel abroad and pursue an independently designed academic project. During the yearlong span of their fellowship, the students will live abroad, immerse themselves in local communities and engage in their personal research topics on a global scale.

During his fellowship, Kuzura plans to travel to Thailand, Peru, India and Bosnia to explore the applications of shoestring engineering across a range of cultures. Kuzura hopes to identify the different ways that folk engineers respond to the limited resources made available to them through the application of endless ingenuity, innovation and shared knowledge.

Kuzura’s project was inspired by his two grandfathers, who are both engineers, and the summers he spent with them in Ukraine as a child. Specifically, Kuzura drew comparisons between their approaches to engineering and those exposed to him in college. As a physics major at Grinnell and a student in the 3–2 engineering program with Dartmouth College, Kuzura is distinctly aware of the different ways attitudes towards engineering have been shaped by culture and social biases.

“One of them built a house … in two weeks, with both of his hands, all by himself,” Kurzura said of his grandfather. “When I started reflecting on engineering in the West … and then the way things are done where I grew up, I was struck by how incredible [folk engineering] is. Here, we have all of these pre-fab houses and hyper-technological advancements — but do we really need all of that?”

During his yearlong exploration into community engineering practices, Kuzura plans to interview locals, observe their engineering practices and directly work alongside them in their various projects. Reflecting on his upcoming travels, Kuzura emphasized the personal responsibility he feels over his Watson Fellowship project.

“A year of time is significant — it’s huge. And when we’re given an opportunity like this, it’s our responsibility to use it for all its worth. I’m hoping that I’ll have the self-awareness to know that I’m living the year to its full potential,” Kuzura said.

In contrast to Kuzura, Rodriguez Wheelock, an international student from Guatemala, plans to spend her Watson Fellowship exploring the way that counseling interventions provided in pediatric cancer centers have been shaped by cultural, historical and religious attitudes towards death.

As a philosophy and psychology major with a concentration in neuroscience, Rodriguez Wheelock partially credits her personal experiences and her academic pursuits at Grinnell with the development of her research project.

“My time as a student not only gave me the philosophical and psychological basis to realize this project — [it also] gave me the confidence to try something that has never been done before … Having the confidence to say ‘I’m going to do this’ came from being in Grinnell and being faced with a lot of academic challenges,” Rodriguez Wheelock said.

Rodriguez Wheelock’s project will take her to a range of different pediatric clinics and hospitals in the United Kingdom, Rwanda, India and the Dominican Republic. In each country, she plans to shadow counselors and observe the way social and psychological interventions vary from culture to culture.

“I don’t know where these stories will take me.  I’m just trying to follow through and see what will happen … I’m going to try to understand something that some of the greatest minds in history have written about and tried to understand. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Why do we constantly fight something like cancer?” Rodriguez Wheelock said.

Kuzura and Rodriguez Wheelock, along with 38 fellow finalists from Watson partner colleges, learned of their acceptance in mid-March, following an intensive application process. To be considered for the fellowship, fourth year students were asked to submit detailed proposals outlining their project topics, personal goals and overall travel plans. In preparation for the sheer intensity and responsibility of their independent travel experiences, applicants were also encouraged to consider the nuances and distinct benefits that come with pursuing their studies abroad.

“The application process started in the early summer … [but] I only realized that I was going to do it a month and a half before the deadline. I make no exaggeration — every single waking moment I spent thinking about it for a month and a half. … I spent the whole time thinking about why do I want this, what kinds of things are important to me and what can I do with a year,” Kuzura said.

As both Rodriguez Wheelock and Kuzura prepare for their graduation in May and their upcoming year of travel, both will continue to be driven by their genuine curiosity, drive and passion for their work. Like the 75 Grinnell graduates who have already been awarded the prestigious fellowship, Wheelock and Kuzura can now proudly call themselves part of the Watson Fellowship program’s network of global scholars and leaders. 

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    Steve GumpApr 14, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    Congratulations, Ale and Sasha! I’m proud of you both for applying for the Watson Fellowship and know you’ll both have a transformative year ahead. Now, members of the Class of 2018 who are thinking about applying should check out the Watson Fellowship resources on GrinnellShare. The application deadline will be early in the fall term, so don’t let it sneak up on you!