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Four Seniors Named Watson Fellowship Finalists

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a prestigious yearlong grant that allows recent graduates to explore the world abroad. This year, Ursinus’s Watson finalists, as nominated by the faculty, are Kristen Cooney ’22, Simbarashe “Simba” Kanjanda ’22, Neva McGowan ’22, and Gabrielle Pitt ’22.

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Ursinus is one of 41 colleges eligible to nominate candidates for the fellowship, which allows recipients to “engage their deepest interest on a global scale.” The one-year stipend is $36,000, and the foundation—which began the fellowship program in 1968—also provides (through reimbursement) health insurance, the equivalent of 12 months’ of payments on outstanding institutional and federally guaranteed (Perkins, Stafford) loans, and an additional stipend for the support of Personal Assistance Services (PAS) or a spouse.

“[Applying for] the Watson Fellowship is something I have been considering ever since my freshman year when I first heard about it on my tour of Ursinus,” said Kanjanda. “I have always been interested in travel and cultural differences, and there is nothing that I have come across yet that is as compelling as the Watson experience in speaking to my desire for exploration.”

Pitt, who hopes to explore what the concept of “being healthy” means in different countries, also first learned about the fellowship as a first-year student and “hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it.” She said the hardest part of the application process was establishing contacts in each of the countries she plans to visit. “Though I sent a seemingly endless amount of emails to different institutions and physicians, many of them never responded. It took a lot of time and persistence to build that network and the project itself.”

For McGowan, applying for the Watson Fellowship—a process she calls “rigorous but rewarding”—became more of a priority after her plans to study abroad were canceled due to COVID-19. “There are so many things to be excited by: the travel, a self-guided project, the people you will likely meet. These are all once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” said McGowan. “If I become a fellow, it will be a year of my life solely dedicated to learning and growth.”

Below the finalists describe their projects and the inspiration for them.

Kristen Cooney
Majors: Art and Environmental Studies

The Proposed Project
I will visit a variety of countries with different biomes, climates, and socio-cultural contexts to understand why people are drawn to particular plant and animal species in these different places, pinpointing one or a few anchor species in each country. Using seasonality to my advantage, I will arrange my visits in order to correspond with any significant phenomena unique to each species to learn about why people are so devoted to them.

In the warmer months, people flock to Iceland in droves to see the nesting Atlantic puffins, celebrating their cute and cuddly appearance. In Australia, people are wild for salties (saltwater crocodiles), which are respected for their brute strength and ferocity, and found at Australia’s world-renowed Crocoseum. In Peru, blue morpho butterflies, prized for their beauty and delicate nature, are among the thousands of other lepidopteran species (moths and butterflies) that call the Peruvian Amazon home. Spring in Japan is when the cherry blossoms begin to bloom, coinciding with brilliant festivals surrounding flowering viewing, as they are revered for their beauty. The needs of these places ecologically, socially, and culturally, all come to a head at places and times because of people’s devotion to them, and I want to know why. Why are people so personally devoted to these species, and how is this experience shared with others? Through my dialogues relating to the charisma effect of these flora and fauna, I will use my own creative documentation and artistic practice to communicate my findings.

The Inspiration for the Project
The basis of the Watson Fellowship is that the project is at the core of your interests and passions. In short, “the project is you.” Since I know my passions—my love of the natural world, art, and creativity—it wasn’t all that hard to come up with some ideas.

Simbarashe “Simba” Kanjanda
Major: Biology

The Proposed Project
My project attempts to explore the complex relationship between human migration and cultural identity, using the concept of brain drain (emigration of skilled/talented/educated people from an environment) as a connector between the two. I want to primarily study the nature of the movement from people’s native environments, and the impact these transitions have on the involved individuals and local communities’ cultural identity. In Mexico, I want to study internal and external “brain drain” of different groups and classes; In Nigeria, I focus on “brain drain” in the healthcare field and how it shifts traditional views of medicine amongst major Nigerian ethnic groups; In India, I explore an exciting trend of “reverse brain drain” that has seen many Indians returning to their country. In England, I will look at “brain gain” and observe how different immigrant groups interplay in a multicultural environment. I hope that my studies and experiences in all the countries will leave me better informed on how the concept of “brain drain” can be used more effectively in ways that benefit everyone. Hopefully, this project will also provide perspectives that will make me more well-informed about where I stand with my cultural identity and where I wish to be in the future as an international student.

The Inspiration for the Project
My project idea was very organic and aligned with my past and current situation in my life. As an international student, my transition to the USA revealed a lot of perceptions and feelings I had never really thought about regarding inequality and power differences. I began to think about why I was moving away from home and whether I would go back to my country after my education. Most of the people around me who had left Zimbabwe did not ever come back, despite the country’s need for them. I also realized that whilst i was abroad studying, I began to lose aspects of my cultural identity and even had some changed views about my country. This prompted me to look more into this phenomenon of human migration, particularly “brain drain,” and its impact on cultural identity.

Neva McGowan
Majors: Health and Exercise Physiology, and History

The Proposed Project
I will look at the horse-human relationship and its reflection of human-human relations in societies around the globe. I plan to explore the impact and significance of the horse in different locations, moments, and class groups; looking at how the human-horse relationship is both embedded into society’s history as well as still present within current culture.

The Inspiration for the Project
The Watson Fellowship that is all about self-discovery, so the goal is to propose a topic that is clearly attached to who you are as a person. I kept this in mind when thinking about a project topic. I knew I wanted to pursue something that would make people say, “Wow, that seems like something you would do” when I told them about it. Coming from this perspective, I knew immediately that I wanted my topic to be about horses. I have been riding since I was 2, and horses have always been a part of my life. Knowing I wanted this as my focus, I moved forward and allowed my project to shape around my current academic interests, eventually landing on my topic of “Horses Relation to Human Society.”

Gabrielle Pitt
Major: Health and Exercise Physiology
Minors: Neuroscience and Spanish

The Proposed Project
I plan to travel to Austria, Italy, China, Kenya, and Peru to explore what it means to be “healthy” and how that vision of health is affected by diet, exercise, and the natural environment. In my year abroad, I will visit hospitals, wellness clinics, yoga studios, and surf camps to observe what therapies cultures outside of the US are using to deal with pain and heal in a holistic sense.

The Inspiration for the Project
The Watson Fellowship requires a lot of self-reflection and encourages you to center your project around what you care about most in the world. And while I knew that I wanted to do something involving yoga and holistic health, it was really hard for me to narrow that down at first. I tossed many different ideas back and forth with teachers, family members, and my advisor, Dr. van de Ruit, until I finally settled on an idea that I am beyond excited about. By simply going through the process, I have learned so much about myself, which has given me a clearer sense of what I want to do once I graduate from Ursinus.

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