Big news! The 2013-2014 Watson Fellows were announced last week and I’m so pumped to welcome them to the crew. If they’re anything like me, they’ll spend the next few months planning and dreaming about their upcoming trips and will suddenly find themselves in their first foreign country, wondering what the heck they got themselves into, how they’ll survive 12 months of independent travel, family-less holidays, and suitcase-living, and how many cultural taboos they’ll break before offending someone or seriously embarrassing themselves. (Hint: it probably won’t be very many)
In light of the recent announcement, I thought it would be fun to explain the Watson Fellowship in detail and offer a few tips for the upcoming crop of fellows. Keep in mind, though, that all 40 of us have our own projects and itineraries and were given very little guidance in terms of how to approach our journey. In fact, while former Watson Fellows were encouraged to reach out to us before we departed, we’ve been asked to refrain from communicating with current fellows until we all meet for the first time at the Returning Fellows Conference in August. That rule ensures that our years truly are solo and that we don’t use anyone else as a crutch or a travel companion. So hopefully this post will illuminate both the beauty and the challenges of the Watson Fellowship for interested friends and family, as well as shed a little light on what’s ahead for the newly christened Watsons. I apologize in advance for the length of this one, but it’s not a topic for which I’m ever at a lack of words.
What is this sweet gig and how did I get it?
The Thomas J. Watson Foundation was established in 1961 by Mrs. Thomas J. Watson, Sr., in memory of her husband, the founder of International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). The Watson Fellowship, which is given annually to 40 graduating seniors from 40 participating liberal arts institutions, funds “a year of independent, purposeful exploration and travel — in international settings new to them — to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community.”
In the spring of my junior year, I watched everyone around me tackle the LSAT, MCAT, or GRE, interview with various firms and businesses, and take sure-footed strides towards a looming career. As a history, psychology and sociology major with extremely varied interests but no solid career trajectory of my own, I juggled a few ideas around, including graduate school, the FBI, and becoming a prison warden (none of which are out of the picture yet). On a whim, I also paid a visit to OFUR (the Rice University Office of Fellowships and Undergraduate Research) and had a nice, lengthy chat with Dr. Quenemoen, who, along with Dr. Akli, would advise and guide me through inordinate application drafts over the next year. During that initial meeting, my eyes were opened to the array of awesome scholarships that were just waiting for ambitious undergrads like me to scoop up.
The idea of foreign study and travel was hugely appealing to me because, as a collegiate distance runner with 3 seasons of competition each year, studying abroad during college was pretty much out of the question. That’s not to say it’s not possible, because occasionally people preemptively forego seasons of eligibility to develop a stronger base that they can tap into during a fifth year. While I did have a few seasons away from competition, unfortunately my injuries crept up without warning and I never had the luxury of planning a competition lay-off in advance. So with that in mind, as well as some inspiration from my siblings’ amazing study abroad experiences (Matt in Sydney, Rach in Buenes Aires, Luke in San Sebastian), I felt like it was my time to see the world.
I spent the later part of the spring semester, the entire summer break, and most of the fall obsessing over various applications that had the potential to whisk me away to a far-off country. Some, like the Rhodes and Marshall, were more serious and academically-oriented, while others, like the Fulbright and Wagoner, were a mix of cultural immersion and classroom or independent study.
And then there was the Watson. It didn’t fit into any category that I knew of, and I loved that about it. It was a big question mark of a year, and pondering the limitless, personal answers became a hobby, a challenge, and an obsession. There was never any question as to the direction my proposal would take: distance running was obvious. What I spent months mulling over was what exactly I would pursue in relation to running, where I would venture to find some clarity, and how the whole project would align with both the spirit of the Watson and my personal aspirations. In the end, I hatched this idea as the foundation of my project, which also served as the introduction to my project proposal:
“Track and field is the most global of all sports. It transcends national, demographic and socioeconomic boundaries, and attracts representatives from more countries to its major competitions than any other sport… As a runner and a sociologist, I am deeply curious about my running counterparts around the world. If I am awarded the Watson Fellowship, I will spend one year exploring the running cultures in five countries with unique and storied running histories: England, Ethiopia, Japan, New Zealand and Finland. My ultimate objective is to construct an encompassing and comparative view of these diverse running environments as I investigate the role of running on an individual, societal and global scale. To do this, I will explore four main aspects of each running culture: history, recreational running, elite training and social attitudes. Specifically, in each place, I will survey the evolution of the sport, the popularity and structure of recreational running, the workout regimens and lifestyles of elite runners and the society’s general perceptions and support of the sport. I will interview athletes, coaches and spectators, run on popular trails and tracks and compete in meets and road races, while recording my thoughts and observations in both a journal and blog…”
Hundreds of drafts of the project proposal as well as a personal statement, budget, itinerary, and contact list, a few frustrated tears, and two interviews later, I got an email that sealed my fate for the next year, and probably for many more years down the line. Along with my 39 fellow Fellows, I was selected for the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and, provided that I accepted the offer, I had about four months to prepare, pack, and hightail it to my first destination.
Most parents would cringe at the thought of their 23-year-old daughter (who has absolutely zero directional skills and is regularly confused for a pre-teen) venturing off to foreign countries on her own for a whole year.
I can honestly say, though, that when I was awarded the fellowship, my parents and I didn’t even have a discussion about whether or not I would do it. They knew that my heart was totally in it and gave me their immediate, wholehearted, selfless support. That is something that I will always be grateful for, as it made my transition into the deep unknown world of independent traveling much easier, smoother and more enjoyable. I will admit, though, that I got my fair share of safety lectures and tips as I prepared, and that I still get regular reminders to “Be safe!” and to downsize my trust of every stranger I meet. (still working on that last one)
So how does it work and what’s the catch?
Each fellow is given a lump sum to be used however he or she sees fit over the course of the year. It’s definitely adequate for a year of living, but isn’t enough to support an extravagant existence by any means. We’re asked not to dip into our personal accounts or to accept lavish donations so that all fellows live within a similar means, learn how to create and follow a budget, and practice relatively simple living. Some people choose to spend most of their funds on nice accommodations in a few select places, while others like me spend mostly on plane tickets. It’s a trade-off and something that must be decided by each individual.
Believe it or not, there’s very little we have to do as Watson Fellows. We’re asked to write three quarterly reports during the year, submit a final financial accounting upon our arrival home, and attend a Returning Fellows Conference over a long weekend in August. In addition, before embarking, we signed a surprisingly short and lenient list of guidelines for the year. Some of the major rules include:
> We must leave the U.S. for 12 months and may not return except in extreme circumstances and with approval from the Watson Headquarters.
> We may not travel to countries with U.S. State Department Travel Warning or under U.S. Department of the Treasury Embargo.
> We may not travel to places where we’ve studied or lived before.
> We must travel independently, limiting our visits from friends and family and resisting the urge to travel extensively with people that we meet along the way.
> We must represent the Fellowship Program, our college, and our country well.
> We must notify the Fellowship Office of significant changes in itinerary or in the scope or focus of the project.
How to prepare for a year on the road…
Packing for 365 days is a serious task, even for someone like me who is perfectly content wearing running clothes all day every day. So in Matt-Wade-during-exams fashion, I started a packing list about 3 months in advance to be sure that I didn’t leave anything major out. Looking back on my list, it probably wasn’t necessary to include details such as “4 paperclips” and “2 rolls of tape without the dispenser.” Then again, I love my office supplies and would have hated for loose papers to be roaming around in my “folder with side pockets and dividers”!
My very first post (How to Prepare for a Year on the Road) covers my major preparations in the few weeks leading up to my departure, but I have some things to add to that list.
> If pictures are important to you, invest in a good camera. It’s totally worth it, and nothing captures the essence of a trip quite like photographs and videos.
> Prepare a little spiel about what exactly you’re doing and why, because you’re going to give it at LEAST five hundred times over the course of the year. Probably more. I’m still so excited about my project and journey that I honestly don’t mind describing it over and over again, and I find that other people’s interest and enthusiasm fuels my own.
> If at all possible, connect with former Watsons in your area who can help prepare you both mentally and logistically. After I received the fellowship, I had the extreme pleasure of getting to know Sandy Wallis, my interviewer who happens to live in Houston with her husband and two daughters. We met for lunch and she also arranged a dinner for a few other Watsons and I. Both times, I walked away feeling intensely excited about my trip and privileged to be part of the Watson family.
> At the risk of sounding cliche, pack lightly! Especially if you’re bouncing around between quite a few countries, don’t burden yourself with clothes or items that are impractical or culturally insensitive. I guarantee that you’ll end up shipping a good amount of your belongings home or ditching them along the way, so spare yourself the trouble and fill your suitcases wisely.
…And when to trust yourself to just wing it
Equally as important as preparing properly for your Watson year is planning on doing a whole lot of improvising as you go. You can’t possibly bring or anticipate everything, so the earlier you accept that, the more organic, smooth, and enriching and the less stressful and forced your journey will be. This one took me about a month to figure out, but now, rather than worrying about solidifying accommodations months in advance, I generally keep my focus on my current and very next destination. As long as I’ve arranged a place to stay for the first 5-7 days of my arrival in a new country, I know I’ll be okay. It’s much easier to meet people, get a feel for a place, and make plans once I’m actually there, and I’ve never been left in the dust.
As an example, I arranged to stay in a flat for my first month in England and was initially worried because I didn’t plan beyond that. About two weeks into my stay, a friendly Irish guy moved into one of the other rooms, we quickly became friends, and he ended up connecting me with his buds and running club in Ireland. Through that fortuitous overlap and friendship, my next month kind of planned itself and resulted in a tremendously enjoyable trip. If I had solidified a place to stay in England for September, which was my original plan, I wouldn’t have been able to jump at the opportunity to check out a new country, nor would I have met some of the funniest, kindest, most interesting people I’ve come across so far.
After my first month renting a flat, I’ve managed to crash with other running-involved people in every place I’ve been, and have found those experiences to be extremely valuable. Not only do I have much more fun and save a bit of money that I use to reach more destinations, but I get to see how other people live in different parts of the world, learn all about people over long meals and heated games, and form lifelong friendships that I’ll always treasure.
So far, I’ve stayed in 47 beds with well over 100 hosts, who have included: a national steeplechase coach, race organizers, personal assistant to Usain Bolt, pro triathlete, adventure racer, running author, recreational runners, Olympic champions, club captains, exercise physiology PhD candidate, sports photographer, NCAA champion, track agent, and former conference competitors. These people have broadened my perspective on running, deepened my appreciation for the hard work that goes into the sport itself and behind the scenes, and most of all, taught me how to be a gracious, welcoming host. I hope to reciprocate the bottomless kindness and hospitality I’ve been shown to many of my foreign friends when I get back to Texas.
What’s a typical day for a Watson Fellow?
The beauty of this fellowship is that such a thing doesn’t exist! Part of the challenge is to figure out ways to occupy your time that are both productive in terms of your project, as well as enjoyable and culturally relevant. It’s not possible or fulfilling to spend all of your time focused on one theme (running, for me), and the Watson directors are totally aware of that. I’ve found it useful and satisfying to set small goals for myself along the way (interviewing distinguished runners, trying out new trails or parks, observing or participating in running events, researching and reading about the history of athletics in each place, etc.) that give me a sort of purpose and direction. But I also embrace the flexibility of my schedule and jump at the opportunity to explore a new place or get to know my hosts and the locals in different contexts.
In addition, fortunately for me, my project can be quite consuming if I let it, and I’ve had very few moments of boredom yet. I can easily spend the good portion of a day doing two runs, some core or gym work, grocery shopping and cooking, and relaxing with the people I’m staying with. It’s also easy to kill a few hours researching my next country and doing a little (but not too much!) planning for it. I must admit that I’ll feel a little lost and empty when finding a roof to sleep under is no longer a regular feature on my to-do list. As stressful and cumbersome as it is at times, it’s a task that’s loaded with possibility and excitement, and that always results in a unique experience and some lasting friendships.
How do I keep track of my adventures and memories?
I touched upon this briefly in my Over the Hump post in January. I’m a massive list-maker, doodler, and writer, so this is an area that I take quite seriously. I write what I’ve done and how I’m feeling in a journal each day– sometimes filling out a few pages and other times taking up just a few lines– and also include ticket stubs, notes, maps, and such. I also keep ongoing lists of people I want to keep in touch with, songs and artists I’ve picked up in each country, recipes from my hosts and local cuisines, a huge photo collection, and notes on different runners, coaches and training styles I’ve encountered. In addition, I put each month’s experiences into an illustrated timeline that are fun ways to capture my memories and feelings and to tap into my love of art and drawing. I think it’ll be really neat to sift through all of these records in years to come, and they’ll also help me portray this otherwise pretty indescribable year to others.
Recommendations for future fellows:
I’ll end with some tips for the 40 graduating seniors that are about to slide into my shoes and jet off on a worldwide tour, exploring the subject that speaks to their hearts as running does to mine.
> Live in homestays as much as possible. In no other situation will you get a better feel for a culture or form deeper relationships.
> Recognize that your year will likely look very different from your original project proposal. Before embarking, I planned to visit 5 countries. By the time I finish, I’ll have spent significant time in about 15.
> At the same time, know that there is value in getting to know one place intimately and that you won’t be able to absorb as much of a place in a rushed trip. Seek a balance between stability and change, and adjust as you go if necessary.
> Also remember that you planned your agenda for a reason, so don’t ditch a destination because it becomes inconvenient or frightening. The challenge will be good for you and you just might surprise yourself with the outcome.
> Dabble in activities with locals and your hosts that are conducive to relationship-building. I’ve found that activities such as cooking, running, hiking, and playing games are fun and comfortable ways to learn about other people and open up to them about yourself.
> Whatever it is, as long as it doesn’t put your or your health at risk, try it. Especially if it makes you a little nervous and forces you out of your comfort zone. For example, an Irish dish that’s essentially baked blood? Sure! A match-making festival for senior citizens? Absolutely!
> Even if you aren’t there long, make an effort to learn at least a little bit of a place’s primary language. A few key words and phrases will go a long way, other people will appreciate it, and you’ll learn not to expect others to cater to your preferred language.
> When the inevitable homesickness sweeps in, keep yourself occupied and know that it comes in waves. Avoid thinking about what you’re missing at home as much as possible, and dive a little deeper into your current destination.
> Allow yourself plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity. I’ve found that booking tickets as I go, rather than purchasing them all in advance to save some money and apprehension, is totally the way to go for me. It allows me to determine when I’ve fulfilled my exploration of a place and to tinker with my itinerary if I want to.
> Always check a country’s travel and visa requirements. Many places allow US passport-holders to visit for 90 days or less without a visa, but a few require outgoing tickets or other forms of documentation.
> Tap into your niche’s network and embrace the snowball effect. In other words, communicate with people who are related to your field in the places you’re going and don’t be afraid to ask them to put you in touch with other people as well. Some of my best friendships and training partnerships have come from friends of friends of friends (or further down that line), and I love the small world feeling of the running community.
> Take advantage of older, different, and personal ways of keeping in touch. I’ve always been a fan of hand-written letters, but sending postcards and snail mail from different countries, as well as video messages on special occasions, has been a great way to stay connected to people back home.
Well, that was a whirlwind! If you made it all the way through this one, props. And if you’re one of the fantastic 40, get ready for the time of your life. If any specific questions come up or if you’re curious about certain aspects of this year, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cheers to dreaming crazy dreams and finding ways to live them out!