2016 Watson Fellows Explore a World in Transition

AMHERST, Mass. - Throughout the world, political upheavals and changes in the global climate are having a deep impact on some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. This year, two Amherst College seniors will embark on global journeys to learn their stories, as the College’s 2016 Thomas J. Watson Fellows.

Aleksandra Burshteyn and Benjamin Walker are among 40 fellows hailing from eight countries and 21states. The Watson Foundation selected these fellows from 152 finalists competing on the national level. This year, close to 700 candidates at 40 select private liberal arts colleges and universities across the United States submitted proposals.

Fellows receive $30,000 for 12 months of travel, college loan assistance and a health insurance allowance. This year’s fellows are traveling to 67 countries.

A citizen of the United States and the Russian Federation, Burshteyn grew up hearing stories from her family about the fall of communism in the former USSR.

Alexandra Burshteyn '16

Burshteyn will spend her Watson year visiting countries that are currently undergoing similarly sweeping transitions, or where such changes are part of recent memory. She will travel to the Czech Republic to learn how it left behind both 'Czechoslovakia' and communism, and to South Africa, to learn about life after apartheid. Her travels will also include time in Northern Ireland, to learn how people grapple with compromise and reconstruction amidst unresolved tensions, and in Mongolia, where urbanization is often at odds with a traditionally nomadic way of life.

"It is, after all, easy to announce that communism or apartheid is over, that a ceasefire is begun, but another thing to implement that reality on the ground," she said in her application. "How do people grapple with their memories and experiences of life that were structured around a world, a series of institutions and cultural values, which suddenly no longer exist?"

Her plans include immersing herself in the arts and writing communities, volunteering with cultural organizations and even working in stables.

Benjamin Walker '16

Walker channeled his experiences growing up among the rich and poor of Philadelphia into activism around workplace and immigrant rights. At Amherst College, he has served as lead coordinator for the fossil fuel divestment campaign.

Walker plans to immerse himself in several communities displaced by the effects of climate change: Kiribati, Fiji, India, South Africa and Bolivia. He plans to produce a podcast exploring how people forced to migrate because of environmental upheaval understand "home." He will meet families, farmers, activists and slum-dwellers.

His future plans involve advocating for those most affected  by climate  change.

Jeannette K. Watson established the Foundation in 1961 as a charitable trust in honor of her late husband, Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM. In 1968, in recognition of Mr. and Mrs. Watson's long-standing interest in education and world affairs, their children decided that the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program should constitute a major activity of the Foundation. The Foundation restructured in 2015, unifying its program activities under the Watson Foundation.

More than 2,800 Watsons have been named since the Fellowship's founding in 1968. Watson Fellows have gone on to become international leaders in their fields, including CEOs of major corporations, college presidents, Grammy winners, MacArthur grant recipients, Pulitzer Prize awardees, diplomats, artists, lawyers, doctors, faculty, journalists and renowned researchers and innovators.

Amherst has had 91 Watson Fellows during the program’s history.