Watson Fellowship applicants chase their worldly dreams

Publication Date

Their proposals are varied, from women’s reproductive health and plein-air painting, to technological tap dancing and the power of resilience. But the four seniors vying for a coveted Watson Fellowship have this in common: a deep passion for their chosen topic and a fierce desire to pursue it across nations and continents.


Brianne Fennessy, Brittany Gilbert, Jacob LaRocca and Katie Schuff are competing in the prestigious competition, designed to send exceptional students on a journey of self-discovery and personal challenge.

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program offers a one-year grant to graduating college students “of unusual promise” to study independently outside the United States. The stipend for individual award winners is $25,000.

“The Watson Fellowship is an extraordinary opportunity for our students and a great privilege for us,” said visual arts professor David Ogawa, chair of Union’s Watson Fellowship Committee. “It makes it possible for students to explore the passions they have developed here at Union.”

Union’s Watson committee also includes Maggie Tongue, director of Postgraduate Fellowships, and professors Seyffie Maleki (Physics), Cheikh Ndiaye (Modern Languages and Literatures), Brad Bruno (Mechanical Engineering) and Elizabeth Garland (Anthropology), a former Watson Fellow.

Following are the Class of 2012 members who were nominated by the committee, with a brief description of their projects. The Watson Foundation will interview the candidates in early February, with decisions made in mid-March.


Hometown: Bedford, N.Y.

Major: Sociology

Minors: German; Women’s and Gender Studies

Activities: Big Brothers Big Sisters; Tri Delta; UCope peer educator; Sociology Club co-president

Project: “Reproductive Rights, Maternal Healthcare and Women's Empowerment"

Description: Fennessy is interested in exploring reproductive choices, access and realities faced by women across different cultures to show how these choices relate to the empowerment and progression of women in their respective societies. “Reproductive health is a key element of a women’s autonomy,” Fennessy says. To learn about cross-cultural perceptions of femininity, maternity and reproduction, she would work with women and various health care providers in Ecuador, India, South Africa and Uganda.


Hometown: North Kingstown, R.I.,

Major: Visual arts

Minors: French, art history

Activities: Mandeville Gallery assistant; co-captain, Women’s Tennis; Student-Athlete Advisory Committee; Outing Club

Project: “Landscape Impressions: Chasing the Light”

Description: Gilbert is fascinated by how landscapes are transformed by light, weather and the seasons. “Oil painting and the plein-air movement have always been an integral part of my life,” says Gilbert, whose paintings are on view through Feb. 19 at the Wikoff Student Gallery in the Nott Memorial. “The best way to capture a scene is to personally experience it with all your senses.” Gilbert would like to hone her technique and open a cross-cultural dialogue with other artists in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, England, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and Tanzania. “Taking Western artistic practices to other cultures to compare them to local artistic traditions will give me a new perspective on the world,” she says.


Hometown: Surry, N.H.

Major: Electrical engineering

Activities: President and founder, the Nott Noisemakers; Union hockey pep band; general manager and technical director, WRUC; Jazz Ensemble and Orchestra; Brass Ensemble; Intervarsity Christian Fellowship

Project: “Tapping into Hackerspaces”

Description: LaRocca is passionate about electronics and music. His many creations include MIDI, or digital, tap dancing shoes, which he hopes to patent one day. (MIDI is a standard method of representing musical notes.) LaRocca proposes a Watson year that would take him to hackerspaces, or community labs, all over the world to explore the connections among technology, music and dance. “At any one hackerspace, hundreds of inventors, builders, computer geniuses, hobbyists and artists share their knowledge, tools and experience,” he says. “These are the perfect settings in which to develop my shoes and other musical instruments and inventions, and also collaborate with others on their projects.” LaRocca proposes traveling to Argentina, England, India and Japan.


Hometown: Albany, N.Y.

Major: Math

Activities: Symposium House; Democracy Matters

Project: “Inspiring Students with Stories of Resilience”

Description: “Sometimes we all need an extra push, a dose of motivation from something outside of ourselves,” says Schuff, who plans a career as a teacher and would like to collect narratives from people of different cultures and backgrounds as a lesson in overcoming adversity. “Resilience plays a critical role in education,” she says. “Stories of resilience are empowering and humbling.” Schuff’s Watson year would take her to Panama, Guatemala, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Chile.