Oberlin has been a partner institution with the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship since the inaugural class of 1969. To honor this milestone, we prompted our Watson alumni to reflect on how the fellowship shaped their personal and professional lives.
Nathan Leamy '07
From Farm to Fork: Eating in the Wake of the Green Revolution
During my Watson Fellowship I learned how openness breeds openness. Arriving in communities where I was a stranger was intimidating. I usually started with an initial contact, but that would lead to others. I found that by asking questions and showing my interest in the lives and work of others, my network spread. My curiosity was welcomed and rewarded during the fellowship, and has continued to be throughout my life and career.
Kevin McHugh '06
The Music of Megacities: Cultural Homogenization in Super-Metropolises
The Watson was an invaluable chance to see the world at an important time of transition in my life. It put a lot of what’s happening in the world into perspective, something you can only gain from first-hand experience, and after 10 years I’m still processing everything that happened. I’ve maintained a lot of connections, and now live in Tokyo as a musician in great part because of my Watson project.
David Walker ’72
Translating and Writing Poetry
My Watson year was a formative experience in countless ways. It was my first travel abroad, my first time living on my own, my first experience of London (where I spent most of the year), and my first real exposure to world-class theater. In my subsequent time as an Oberlin faculty member, I’ve taught dramatic literature and playwriting, directed plays, led many London theater trips for alumni and students, taught in the Oberlin-in-London Program six times (with another upcoming), and chaired the London Program Committee for a decade. I’m passionate about the value of travel and study abroad. It’s hard to overstate how profoundly the trajectory of my life has been shaped by winning the Watson.
Jonathan Curley ’00
Games, Environment, and Dialogue in Rural Latin America
The most challenging and rewarding aspect of my Watson year was finding connections, friends, and purpose as an outsider in unfamiliar places and cultures. The adventures and misadventures are vivid almost 20 years later. The year helped set me on my way to my career designing science curriculum for elementary and middle school classrooms.
Robert Eichfeld ’91
Post-War Reconstruction Possibilities for Small Business Development Projects
I had a wonderful adventure on the Afghan border, yet realized that I did not want to spend my life in development or diplomacy after all. Looking back since then, the most valuable lessons for me were to pursue a passion with gusto, and to have the courage to pivot too.
Stefan Kamola ’01
Voices of the Land: Sound Mimesis in Tuvan Throat Singing
I still love the Classics, which I studied at Oberlin, and I return to them whenever I can, but the ideas I first encountered on my Watson year have become my life’s work. That year shaped me more than any other single year I have lived.
Steven Katz ’74
Community Action, Organization and Political Power
After graduating in 1974, I arrived in the UK to work on my Watson project—how people adapt to life in British “new towns”—only to discover that a team of researchers which had been put into the field by Her Royal Highness’s government had produced a superb multi-volume study on exactly this question. Fortunately, the Watson folks allowed me to shift my focus to what I really wanted to look at: how community organizers succeed, and when they fail. That led to the best wanderjahre I could have ever hoped for. I’ve applied those life lessons ever since.
Steven Mayer ’70
Study of Attitudes Towards Government
Being a Watson Fellow changed my life in one important respect: it gave me an abiding love for England, its traditions, culture, and places. I lived in London and traveled throughout the countryside, and became enamored of both. I also learned to love English literature, traditional music, and—believe it or not—food.
Gail Schwieterman ’13
From Sea to Spoon: A Dive into the Shark Industry
My Watson year was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it pushed me to become the best version of myself. Years later, my memories of Watson still inspire courage, resilience, and faith in my own abilities.
John Strong ’69
I was the very first Oberlin Watson fellow—the only one from the class of 1969. In truth, I was lucky because, 50 years ago, relatively few of us applied; nobody had ever heard of the fellowship, and male seniors were busy figuring out how to get a draft deferment after graduation (which the Watson Foundation couldn’t provide). My project was to study and experience Buddhism—three months each in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Japan. In those days, one did not have to inform the Foundation of everywhere one was going, so I added some extensive travel in between to Buddhist sites in India, Nepal, Myanmar, Indonesia and wartime Laos and Cambodia. Then, an unusual set of circumstances led me to be the first American to visit China during the Cultural Revolution. I was young, it was an adventure, and formative in many ways. I went on to a career as a Buddhologist and a college teacher, during which the things I learned on my wanderjahr have served me well indeed.