A Year and a World Trip Later, Watson Fellows Tell Their Stories

August 11, 2009

Forty-nine college graduates-some exhausted, most exhilarated-poured into Tacoma from around the world last week, after a year of exotic travel and the pursuit of some very individual and often unusual inspirations. University of Puget Sound graduate Emilie De Wulf '09 flew in from Mongolia, while Rachel Gross '09 returned from a year in Chile, Argentina, Tanzania, India, and Europe.

The two young women were part of a group of U.S. college graduates from 23 states and five foreign countries who won a 2008-09 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a $25,000 award to promising college graduates which allows them to pursue a year of independent study overseas. Some call it the "dream fellowship," as it allows students to explore a topic they are passionate about, with little requirement for written reports, and the means in their pocket to travel anywhere in the world. On Thursday, Aug. 6, all 49 national fellows descended on the University of Puget Sound campus to share their stories during a three-day conference. The graduates left the United States last August, and for a full year were not allowed to return home.

De Wulf, who studied horse training in traditional cultures, learned to throw a lasso from a galloping horse in Brazil, and how to ride in the style of bullfighters in Portugal. She discovered that in Mongolia, where you ride standing up in the stirrups, you can travel at a full gallop and feel as though you are standing still in the vast open tundra of Central Asia. She arrived in each country with little idea of where to find the local horse trainers. She simply asked around. She says now, "I really had a lot of luck. The world is small." De Wulf plans to return to Chile to work as a horse trek guide for six months, and to write a book.

Gross, who studied mountain hut systems and the meaning of wilderness, discovered a new way to view land ownership: in Scandinavia under "Everyman's Rights" you can pitch a tent almost anywhere and pick the berries off your neighbor's fenced land. She spoke about being handed fresh pears by basket-bearing villagers as she passed them in Tanzania. "They had no strict sense of ownership" of produce from the land, she said. She trekked without seeing a soul for two days at a time on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and reveled as she watched a sunrise from the Himalayas in India.

Other Watson Fellows studied child soldiers, ant colony behavior, and heirloom seed preservation. One student explored musical voices around the world, another conflict resolution in the sport of ultimate Frisbee. At the conference each graduate gave a presentation on how they had spent their year. They met in discussion groups, and enjoyed a formal dinner and cookout. Many will now go on to do graduate studies, while others seek jobs.

The Watson Fellowship is awarded to graduating seniors who are nominated by participating colleges and universities. The Thomas J. Watson Foundation looks for people likely to lead or innovate, and gives them a great deal of independence in pursuing their interests.

University of Puget Sound has had 20 Watson Fellows since it began its affiliation with the foundation in 1993. The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program was established by the children of Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of IBM, and his wife, Jeannette Watson, to honor their parents' longstanding interest in education and world affairs.