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Seniors receive Watson, Zeff travel fellowships

By Joey Capparella     4/4/13 7:00pm

What is the Watson Fellowship?

The Watson Fellowship is a chance to give a year to graduating seniors to travel around the world to pursue a project of personal passion. All 40 fellows have different projects. It was founded by Thomas J. Watson and his wife. When he was in college, his dad gave him a sum of money and said, "Go away for a year and travel, see the world, and find yourself. After he founded IBM, he said it was the most rewarding year of growth.

I cannot come back to the United States for 12 months or go to any country in which I have had significant experiences. I know it's going to be lonely and challenging. I can't foresee all the challenges, but I also can't foresee the growth.

Why did you choose to apply?

I was just going to go to medical school. This past summer, I went to Nepal for a Poverty, Justice and Human Capabilities internship and volunteered in a women's shelter for women exiting the sex and entertainment industry. I was teaching English and self-defense. This experience made me realize there's so much of the world that I still want to see. After college, I won't have much time to explore the world, especially if I start on a path of medicine. I've spent so much of my life in a classroom, so I didn't want to go to another university right away, no matter how prestigious. The spirit of the Watson really matched what I was looking for because it's not limited by anything.

What are your plans for the year?

So far, I'm planning on going to Sweden, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia, Japan and Peru. My project is on how female survivors of sexual assault find empowerment again and how they navigate different resources like health care, justice and law enforcement. For instance, in Sweden, gender equality is a required subject to be taught in schools. They have national projects that fund the recovery process. How does that compare to South Africa where there's an HIV/AIDS epidemic? I will be trying to interview people from all of these different sectors to find [out] more about things like prevention education or training for law enforcement. 

From what I hear from previous Watson fellows, you can only predict a quarter of what your trip will go like, so I can see my project growing and evolving throughout the experience.

What do you hope to gain from this experience?

In a lot of ways, this is linked to my life goals. My goal is to be a public health worker, OB/GYN, or some sort of primary care doctor that creates projects and implements initiatives that combine human rights advocacy and public health advocacy to raise awareness of gender-based violence. I want to be a lifetime advocate for gender equality and against gender-based violence advocating for survivors of sexual assaults in particular. I want to help break the silence surrounding sexual assault and raise awareness for this issue.


What is the Zeff Fellowship?

Roy and Hazel Zeff fund a year of exploration for one Rice student ranked highest by the [Rice Faculty Committee on Awards and Fellowships] who does not receive the [Watson Fellowship.] It's 12 months of pursuing whatever you can think of with a $25,000 budget. You can't go to any countries on the travel advisory list, though.

Why did you choose to apply?

I'm a huge travel junkie, having spent time last year backpacking around Israel and Palestine. [The fellowship] offered the greatest flexibility and independence by allowing me to design my own creative project. My main academic interests are migration and labor, so I developed an idea to fuse writing and migration. After interviewing migrants in Europe, I knew I wanted the opportunity to go more global, especially in Asia and the Middle East.

What are your plans for the year?

I'm going to Qatar, Jordan, UAE, South Africa, and Bangladesh. I will be writing short stories about and alongside migrants in the transportation service economy. By interviewing taxi and rickshaw drivers, I will explore their migration paths and how they navigate their socioeconomic position and use creativity to engineer upward mobility. In a way I'm going underground. I'm not planning to attach myself to many formal non-governmental organizations or structures, because I think it can be an impediment especially when you're trying to do a project that focuses on the people.

For instance, in Bangladesh, there aren't any NGOs that work with rickshaw drivers. Because they have a form of labor and an income, they are often not addressed by NGOs. Dhaka is the rickshaw capital of the world and Bangladesh has one of the largest instances of rural to urban migration in human history.

I took a creative nonfiction class at Rice and it only solidified my desire to use stories to share knowledge. To disseminate stories about migrants working in precarious forms of labor, we cannot rely exclusively on scholarly articles, since they seldom hit the general public. Stories can be a more accessible medium. I'm giving myself deadlines by submitting to literary journals and magazines.

What do you hope to gain from this experience?

I'm trying to contextualize local stories of migration in the broader narrative. Most of my family still works in the NYC taxi industry, so I have a personal stake in these stories being heard. People don't think about how the [taxi industry] contributes to cultural retention and the continued practices of a culture. It's a topic that I feel very close to. I think [my personal connection] would help humanize it more and make it less like I'm an academic reporting on this. In a way, it establishes my credibility.

Interviews by Joey Capparellac

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