Fifty Years of the Watson Fellowship

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a special edition of Arches magazine that commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Watson Fellowship, in which we explore the travels, stories, and reflections of Puget Sound’s fellows. For the best viewing experience, download the autumn Arches PDF.


Fifty years ago, America was in turmoil.

In the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, and riots broke out across the country. Senate hearings to investigate the Johnson administration’s handling of the Vietnam War were ongoing. During the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, two black athletes raised their fists in silent protest of racial inequality. America’s unity at home and reputation abroad were deteriorating. It may not be coincidence, then, that 1968 was the year the children of Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM, created the Watson Fellowship. 

Arthur Watson, the second son and a graduate of the international relations program at Yale, believed that the future of business and technology depended on cultivating a global perspective. “World peace through world trade” was his motto as he guided his father’s company to become one of the most powerful corporations in America. IBM aside, the Watson Fellowship, as conceived by siblings Helen, Jane, Thomas Jr., and Arthur, is arguably the family’s best legacy. As American society became more polarized, the Watsons quietly built an apparatus that would create infinite generations of “humane, effective leaders.” With personal growth, perspective, and insight at its core, the Watson Fellowship hinges on the inevitable sea change that occurs within human beings when they leave the familiar, embrace the foreign, and come to know themselves within a wider worldview. 

The most progressive aspect of the Watson Fellowship is that it invests in the person, rather than the project. Candidates from 40 partner colleges—all liberal arts institutions—undergo a highly competitive process, involving detailed project proposals and interviews, in their senior year. Ultimately, though, they are chosen for eight personal qualities: leadership, imagination, independence, emotional maturity, courage, integrity, resourcefulness, and responsibility. Fellows are given a $30,000 stipend and a “rare window” of time after graduation to engage their deepest interests while exploring the world. They are not permitted to set foot in the United States for a full year, but beyond that rule, “they decide where to go, who to meet, and when to change course.” There have been nearly 3,000 Watson Fellowships awarded to date, including 27 to Puget Sound alumni. (Though the Watson Fellowship has existed for 50 years, Puget Sound has been a partner college for 25, starting in 1993.)

If the philosophy behind the Watson Fellowship sounds familiar, that’s because it’s so akin to the values of a Puget Sound education. With a liberal arts foundation deeply rooted in humanism—elegantly defined by Humanist magazine as “a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion”—Puget Sound graduates embrace their responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity. When each of our 27 alumni became Watson Fellows, they launched the adventures of their lives, exploring their passions on an international scale and affirming the dignity of every human being they encountered. 

In this special issue of Arches, we are telling their stories. Today, they are leaders in creative, tech, and business industries; teachers, scholars, and lawyers; and individuals still bushwhacking their own glorious paths through life. Fifty years after the Watson Fellowship began, as the country reels from a familiar breakdown of discourse,  humanity, and truth, it’s clear that we still need these courageous adventurers, these compassionate leaders, these fluent arbiters of disparate worldviews. In fact, we have never needed them more.


By Stacey Cook, editor
Header photo courtesy of My Nguyen; taxonomy by Pop Chart Lab
Published Oct. 26, 2018