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Four students earn Watson Fellowship nominations

There is nothing elementary about the Watson Fellowship. According to Doug Cutchins, Director of Social Commitment, it is “one of the most incredible opportunities for an undergraduate.”

The Fellowship, which has invited Grinnell College to participate since its founding in 1968, offers forty graduating college seniors a year to explore and travel the world in order to purse a project they are deeply passionate about.

Watson Candidates
Three of the four Watson applicants, left to right, Alex Reich '11, Courtney Sheehan '11, and Ethan Heppner '10.5 near Mac Field - Sophie Fajardo

“The whole purpose of it, really, is to invest in students who demonstrate outstanding promise and who, [if given this opportunity], will go off and realize what they’re capable of doing.” Cutchins said. “They can take on the entire world all by themselves, completely independently, and be successful in taking on this enormous challenge. And [they will] feel like, ‘Well, I did that. Now when I come back I can do anything I want to.’”

Grinnell College has graduated 66 Watson fellows. With only three exceptions, it has had at least one Watson fellow in each class. Past projects have concentrated on a range of topics, from retracing the steps of Che
Guevara’s “Motorcycle Diaries,” to studying the socioeconomic impact of African runners.

This year’s Watson nominees are Ethan Heppner ’11, Alex Reich ’11, Courtney Sheehan ’11, and Ngoc Truong ’11. Despite their projects concentrating on incredibly diverse ideas and regions around the world, the nominees all share a strong passion for the ideas that inspired their projects.

Ethan Heppner’s project involves an exciting blend of biking, comics and sustainable economics. Heppner’s project is entitled, “Bridges to a Better World: How Do Community-Based Nonprofits Foster Sustainable Development?” He plans to travel to Ecuador, Morocco, Botswana and China.

“The organizations I will be working with cover a broad range of issues,” he said. “So it’s not just about forestry, it’s not just about education, it’s a combination of multiple things, because I wanted to really see the connections between the various …[I’m also interested in] how the people in these organizations connect with the people outside. That’s part of what the biking is about. It’s getting to know the people on the outside of the organizations.”

In an unconventional and original manner, Heppner actually submitted his proposal in the form of several pages of carefully hand-drawn comics.

“I’ve been drawing comics since seventh grade,” he said. “Some of the panels I look at and I’m like, man, I put several hours just into that panel. Into the thought of what I would write in it first, what the storyboard would work out to be, then I would sketch it…[some pages] I would say I spent maybe a total of four or five hours on.

The comic panels depicted his experiences, ideas and plans. Heppner has big plans.

“One of the things I’d like to do is…combine economic development with cartooning. I think the way that a lot of economic development is approached is really abstract models that usually don’t fly in the real world. … The comics are [about] how you relate it back—to ordinary people as well, not just economists.”

Alex Reich, a biology major, embarked on his ‘Watson journey’ this summer when he decided that he wanted to observe, experience and discover the greater implications for indigenous people in the face of climate change and globalization.

“I was laying awake at 2 a.m. one night when it hit me,” he said. “‘I could go to the Arctic with the Watson.’“

Reich entitled his proposal, “We Are What We Eat: The Far North and Its People in a Changing World.” Should Reich be selected as a recipient for the Watson fellowship he would travel to five different countries across the Arctic—Canada, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia.

Reich broke his proposal down into three parts. The first would involve working with scientists and anthropologists to learn about their perspectives on the scientific impacts as well as the possible solutions to a variety of issues.

“I would travel to several different Arctic countries and learn about how small, indigenous communities are being impacted by climate change and globalization,” Reich said.

The second level would be to work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are involved with issues such as indigenous food security and health.

The final level of his proposal is about human interactions. Quite literally Reich hopes to focus much of his energy on building connections with local community members and experience the impacts that climate change and globalization are having on these members first hand.

“My goal is to go to these different places, meet different people, learn about different circumstances and see if there’s any way to apply them to my life,” he said. The point of the Watson fellowship is for nominees to grow if they do go on the fellowship.”

Another nominee, Courtney Sheehan, is an independent major studying visual culture, which is somewhat similar to film studies. Her project is entitled, “The Politics of Film Festivals.” She plans to travel to Croatia,

Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia, Netherlands and India. Inspired by a deep love for studying film, Sheehan expresses an even stronger love for sharing film with others.

“I deeply enjoy the academic study of film but even more than that, I love seeing people appreciate and interact with film, which is why I am the SGA Films Chair,” she said. “I have been nuts about movies since I was a kid recreating scenes from The Matrix in my basement. I came to Grinnell and learned about the politics of film. … A film festival is the act of sharing a movie blown up a million times. So politics are bound to wind up in a film festival. I mean, Mussolini spearheaded the first film festival ever in Venice for the purpose of using film as fascist propaganda.”

Like Heppner, Sheehan too expressed her intense motivation.

“I didn’t do anything except work on the Watson proposal for two straight weeks,” she said. “It was the most draining and exhilarating experience of my college career. … I learned that I am willing to put my body and my brain through hell for an opportunity like the Watson.”

Ngoc Truong, a Political Science/English Double major with a passion for speechwriting, is another nominee. Her project proposal is entitled, “Typewriters in Politics: Speechwriting in Open and Closed Societies.”

Truong hopes to travel to five different countries to examine how speeches given by politicians represent the level of openness of a society. Specifically, she hopes to collaborate with governmental speechwriters and gain a better insight into how the different aspects of speechwriting are influenced by both the culture and values of the country but also by the interests of the government.

“During my time in these different countries I’ll be observing how open a society is based on how their governments communicate with the people,” Truong said.

If chosen as a Watson Fellow, Truong plans on traveling to India, South Africa, Singapore, Vietnam and Australia. Each of these countries represents a different kind of government, culture and political agenda.

“Vietnam will be the most closed society that I visit while Australia represents the free western democracy.” Said Truong, “It’s a comparative study on the relationship that a government maintains with its people based on the speeches given by that particular government.”

This year, 21 seniors applied to be Grinnell College nominees for the Watson Fellowship.

“I can tell you though that sitting in the decisions, it’s very difficult,” Cutchins said. “This year the conversation went three hours to try and figure it out … especially with something like this where it’s so subjective. … It’s always very painful to do. .. there’s many more that [deserve to be nominated] than we have space and ability to do so.”

The four who have been selected are now a part of 160 nationwide nominees – only 40 of which will then be selected at Watson fellows.

“We hope one will get it, we’ll be overjoyed if two get it,” Cutchins said. “Maybe they get nominated, maybe they win.”

But Cutchins stressed the importance of the application process as a powerful opportunity for an applicant to further understand themselves and their passions.

“What a great gift to give yourself at the beginning of your senior year—to know who [you are] and what [you’re] passionate about. And that to me is what the Watson is about,” Cutchins said. “It’s about taking time at the beginning of the senior year to define—what am I passionate about? Who am I? If really, I could do anything in the world after graduation, what’s my biggest dream? … And maybe someone gives you $25,000 to do it.”

The Watson Fellowship will announce awards by March 15, 2011.

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