April 9, 2008
Contact: Caroline Jenkins Hanna
Director of Media Relations
AMHERST, Mass.—Amherst College seniors Oscar Báez, a political science major, and Ryan Shields, a biology and sociology major, are two of just 50 undergraduates from across the United States to have been awarded Thomas J. Watson Fellowships for the 2008-09 academic year. Báez, of Boston, plans to study the impact of language policy on cultural heritage in Spain, Switzerland, Morocco, South Africa, Taiwan, Turkey, Brazil and Mexico; Bloomfield Hills, Mich., resident Shields will explore health care in the post-genocidal societies of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda and Cambodia.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Báez immigrated with his Spanish-speaking family to Massachusetts at a very young age and quickly became fluent in the speech of his adopted homeland, even while his parents struggled to do the same. His experiences learning English—and later Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Latin and some Classical Arabic—helped him realize the power of words and what they can do for “minority groups as they attempt to maintain their cultural identity and try to integrate into greater society,” as he wrote in his fellowship application. “Although I expect to study how language can shut certain groups out,” he said of his upcoming year abroad, “I am ready to embrace its ability to open up the entire world to me.”
Shields decided to apply for a Watson after spending the past two summers volunteering at hospitals in Thailand and Senegal. It was in the latter country—in an under-funded and ill-equipped facility located in a region plagued by rebel violence—that he realized he wanted to practice medicine in “the most extreme situations.” “Sadly, genocides are not confined to history textbooks and Holocaust memorials but are still happening today,” he explained in his application materials. “Although it is easier to solve a problem in hindsight, effecting actual change in the present is more challenging… I know that I cannot land in a country and save its failing health care system, but I hope to discover ways my skills and interest can be translated into helping people in dire situations.”
At Amherst, Báez founded Intercambio ¡YA! , an organization that now regularly sends groups of volunteers to a rural Dominican community to conduct health workshops and leadership training, teach English and raise funds for scholarships for university students in the region. He spent time studying in China, Italy and Argentina, and has been active with the college’s La Causa Latino cultural organization, the Center for Community Engagement and El Arco Iris tutoring and mentoring program. In addition, he participated in the admissions telementor initiative, which helps low-income students navigate the college application process.
During his undergraduate career, Shields has served as a resident counselor, admissions office tour guide, biology teaching assistant and peer tutor for introductory chemistry. He was active with the sailing team, the Amherst College gospel choir, The Indicator social and political journal and the dancing and step troupe. He also studied in Dakar, Senegal, and spent time there working for the non-governmental organization DIG (Development in Gardening), helping to build vegetable micro-gardens for HIV patients.
About the fellowship
This year, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowships will provide 50 exceptional college graduates from America’s leading liberal arts colleges with the freedom to engage in a year of independent study and travel abroad. The program was begun in 1968 by the family of Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of IBM, to honor their parents’ interest in education and world affairs. More than 2,200 Watson Fellows have studied all over the world with the support of Watson Fellowships.
Founded in 1821, Amherst is a highly selective, coeducational liberal arts college with approximately 1,600 students from most of the 50 states and more than 30 other countries. Considered one of the nation’s best educational institutions, Amherst awards the B.A. degree in 34 fields of study.