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Steven Duong ’19 awarded Watson Scholarship: Exploring containment through poetry and aquariums

Steven+Duong+19+will+use+his+Watson+felllowship+to+produce+a+poetry+manuscript+while+travelling+abroad+to+Malawi%2C+Shanghai%2C+Bangkok+and+Trinidad+and+Tobago%2C+drawing+from+interviews+with+fellow+freshwater+fish+enthusiasts.+Photo+by+Sarina+Lincoln.
Steven Duong ’19 will use his Watson felllowship to produce a poetry manuscript while travelling abroad to Malawi, Shanghai, Bangkok and Trinidad and Tobago, drawing from interviews with fellow freshwater fish enthusiasts. Photo by Sarina Lincoln.

Steven Duong ’19 has received a Thomas J. Watson fellowship, a $30,000 grant to be used on a project of personal interest through a year of international travel. Duong is one of 41 students to receive the award this year, all of them graduating from one of the 40 liberal arts colleges partnered with the Watson Foundation.

Duong first became interested in applying for the Watson after attending a 50-year reunion event last April for past Grinnell Watson fellows. There, he heard about how transformative the experience was for several alumni. After consulting with English professor and Grinnell Watson fellow Hai-Dang Phan ’03 and Ann Landstrom, the fellowship advisor at the Center for Careers, Life and Service, Duong began working on his application.

To apply for a Watson, potential fellows must write both a personal statement and a description of the project they would like to pursue the following year. From there, four finalists are chosen to be interviewed by a panel of current faculty and a representative from the foundation. Duong, an English major, went through several drafts and ideas before finishing the application.

“My idea was not a passion project at first and I knew that I shouldn’t be applying for this unless it’s a passion project. … With this fellowship, it’s not necessarily about the project as much as it is about the person. The journey that you engage in can’t be a really academic paper or dissertation, it has to be a project that is personally significant to you,” Duong said.

Ultimately, Duong decided to explore the theme of containment within the context of two of his own passions: poetry and aquariums.

“A poem is a very condensed object. It’s like lines, it’s not a story that you can have room to flesh out. … You have to condense things into a box, and essentially that’s what I see aquariums as, because you’re taking nature, or I guess what nature is, and you’re displaying it in a box.” Duong said.

In exploring this concept, Duong will visit Malawi, Shanghai, Bangkok and Trinidad and Tobago. He will work with a variety of people who share a common interest in freshwater fish, a passion he found while taking care of his family’s fish tank growing up. These collaborators have occupations ranging from biologist to aquarium store owner to Betta fish fighters.

“It will be me speaking with these people, interviewing these people, and then simultaneously working on my own poetry manuscript which will be about my travels and my relationship to these people and these fish.” Duong said. He is also potentially interested in writing a novel inspired by his experiences.

Duong also highlighted how his experiences at Grinnell have prepared him for such an opportunity.

“Being at a liberal arts school like Grinnell and taking classes in different disciplines and just always having to be aware of how different disciplines connect, that’ll really help me when I’m abroad. Even reaching out to some of these scientists, telling them that I come from a writing background and a humanities background, but I’m very curious about these parts of science and how they intersect — that was really interesting to a lot of these people and they were excited about it, because everyone has multiple interests.” Duong said.

In the 51 years since the Watson Fellowship’s inception, Grinnell has produced 80 recipients. Last year, Nomalanga Shields ’18 and Artis Curiskis ’18 were both granted fellowships. Shields’ project focuses on housing sustainability and activism in displaced communities in Hungary, India and South Africa. Curiskis has been exploring global soccer diplomacy in the United Kingdom, Russia, Georgia, India, Chile and Spain.

Though Duong has yet to determine exactly when his travel will begin, the Watson Foundation requires fellows to leave the country before August 1 and not return for the duration of the following year.

“These people, we all have our own stories and our own experiences with writing or with the fish, that’s the commonality I guess, but I’m excited to hear the stories of others. … I’ve always been surrounded by people who I know really well, so I think I’m a little nervous to be on my own, but I’m also excited for the challenges.” Duong said.

Duong said he is looking forward to being able to dedicate himself more fully to writing and as cultivating new relationships with people he wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to meet.

“If you really have a project that you feel is essential for you to grow and is so individual to you, I would pursue this opportunity. I don’t think any other grant or fellowship would give you the same freedom as the Watson because you get to explore what you’re interested or obsessed with, basically,” Duong said. “So if you’re obsessed with something and you want an opportunity to explore that obsession, you should apply. That’s essentially what my project is.”

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