Test-Driving Their Passions

Thomas J. Watson Jr., the late president and son of the founder of IBM, wrote in his autobiography, Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond, that he had a hard time finding his own direction as a young man. In 1968, he got his brother and sisters to back him in “establishing an unusual fellowship program,” he says, which would turn out to be the Watson fellowships, which are named after his father, Thomas J. Watson Sr., and financed with money from his parents’ estate. The fellowships, he wrote, “are really a reflection of the kind of kid I’d been.”

Over the last 40 years, the Thomas J. Watson Foundation has awarded $29 million in fellowships to seniors graduating from 50 mostly top-tier colleges with fewer than 3,000 students. In 2007, 50 graduates received $25,000 (or $35,000 if accompanied by spouse and child) to pursue their dreams abroad for one year. Each “Wattie” follows a self-designed program, with the only requirement being that they pursue the project for a year outside of the United States. In the words of the foundation, the money is “an investment in a person,” not an investment in the project.

After being vetted by their school and passing through a rigorous application process, fellowship recipients are essentially left to pursue their research. They file quarterly reports and update the foundation with emergency contact information. Although many present projects at the yearend conference hosted by the foundation, they aren’t required to produce one. In other words, there’s nothing to prevent recipients from spending the year living the life of a beach bum on the French Riviera.

Except, of course, their own drive and ambition.

“I’m so passionate about my project that absolutely nothing could stop me,” says Derron “JR” Wallace, a 2007 graduate of Wheaton College who is in Guatemala doing research. “Today, I woke up very, very sick, but I said, ‘I’m going on the road because I have churches to visit.’” For his project, Wallace, who was born in Jamaica, is exploring the relationship between Pentecostalism and social justice, a passion he developed while studying sociology and the African Diaspora.

Rosemary Macedo, the executive director of the foundation and a former “Wattie” who studied international cooperation in oceanography, says Watson fellows are exceptionally driven. “You have to understand that these kids are Type A high-achievers who are gung-ho about their projects,” she says. “When considering applicants, we stress maturity, character and integrity.”

The long and arduous selection process ensures that the honorees will take advantage of the opportunity. By his or her senior year, any student can submit a project proposal to the application committee. Faculty members review applications, and four students are chosen to continue the application process. The students work individually with an advisor to flesh out and refine the proposal, which is then submitted to the Watson Foundation. A group of scholars from various fields then choose the recipients.

A Springboard To a New Career Path

Despite the freedom, Watson fellows say they place a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves.

“For someone who hasn’t done a Watson, it definitely does seem like, ‘Oh, wow, a yearlong vacation,’” says Ethan Nguyen, a Vassar graduate and member of the 2006-07 Watson class. “But it’s not like that. It’s all about being your own evaluator. I pushed myself harder [during my year abroad] than I ever have academically.”

The year-end conference in New York, the only formal gathering sponsored by the foundation, provides extra motivation to impress one’s peers with the scope and findings of a project.

“It’s not a competition, but you’re so proud to be part of the group,” says Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and moved to the United States with his parents as a teenager. He spent a year in Europe and Australia studying the coping strategies for post-traumatic stress disorder in refugees from his home country.

Although the Watson Foundation does not organize get-togethers after the conference, nor does it facilitate other types of interaction among fellowship alumni, Watties have a strong sense of allegiance to the program. More than 120 former Watties are part of a group on the social networking site www.facebook.com, and alumni in cities around the country hold parties on March 15, the day the new crop of fellowship winners is announced.

The bond is a result of the life-altering experience the fellowship allows a small group of people.

“This is not a usual life experience,” says Tabitha Decker, a member of the 2001-02 Watson class. “It’s an incredible gift that you’re given.”

The “investment in a person” philosophy changes the career paths of many fellows in unique ways.

For Decker, who is now working towards a doctorate in sociology at Yale University, a year researching female taxi drivers in Cape Town, South Africa; Melbourne, Australia; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, was a surprising precursor to her continued scholarly work.

“When I came back to grad school, I expected to do the work I had been doing on policy, and I’ve found I’m kind of hooked on the more applied research and the more practical stuff,” she says. “I did this ethnography of taxi drivers in New Haven [Conn.] last year, and I think my Watson project is key to the work that I’m doing in grad school right now.”

Nguyen’s project changed his career plans.

“Coming back to the States, I had a pretty good job offer in Europe [working for a consulting company], but I turned it down to pursue the Watson further,” he says. “I’m working as a translator for a medical center that specializes in post-traumatic stress. It allows me to do more research and academic work. The only reason I took the job was because of the Watson. It really inspired me to continue my project.”

Charles M. Collins, a member of the first Watson class of 1969, says his experience has affected every job he has held.

“[My project] was like a springboard into the next years of my life and onto where I am at age 60,” says Collins, president and CEO of the YMCA of San Francisco. “The thing the Watson offers you is a very high-altitude perspective. You, at a very young and formatively developmental stage, are given the opportunity to look at things from the top of the mountain. And that means that size and scale and complexity of dimension really are not intimidating. The respect that the Watson year gives you, I think, gives you a lifetime of opportunity.”

Wallace, who’s currently engulfed in the experience, recognizes the impact his travels will have.

“The Watson gives me an opportunity to test-drive my passions and see if they could lead to a career path,” he says. “At the close of the year, whether I choose to work for a human rights organization or work in educational policy, I can attribute that to the experiences I’ve had in my Watson year.” For more information, visit www.watsonfellowship.org.

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