March 17, 2010

AMHERST, Mass.—Amherst College senior and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, resident Elias Aba Milki, a biochemistry and black studies major, has received a $25,000 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for a year of independent travel and exploration. One of just 40 undergraduates nationally to be given the award, he will use it to explore how artists from South Africa, Brazil and Uganda have transformed hip-hop music into a holistic tool for improving health within their communities.

“I still can’t believe I will spend the next year traveling and studying hip-hop and health,” he said of the honor. “Living in a community is really the best way to learn about it.”


Aba Milki will begin his Watson journey in South Africa, examining the HIV awareness efforts of a radio station called Bush Radio. He will then investigate the Central Unica das Favelas’ programs treating social illness in Brazil and finish the year exploring the Hip-Hop Therapy Project’s activities aimed at reducing trauma in war-affected youth in Uganda. “All of the groups I plan to work with seek to preserve life and well-being, but also provide diverse and unique cultural contexts in which artists combine hip-hop and health,” he explained in his Watson application materials. “I look forward to learning firsthand about these comprehensive methods and how they determine a community illness and creatively heal it.

Aba Milki was born in New York, but spent much of his youth in Addis Ababa. He also lived with his family in Karachi, Pakistan, and spent time in Tanzania and Vietnam during his undergraduate years. While being a foreigner in these very different societies was hard for him at times, what comforted him and helped him get to know people was hip-hop, he said. “[It] came to the rescue, no longer just as a music genre I enjoyed, but as a friend who I would grow up with. When I had no one else to talk to, hip-hop truly understood me. It accepted me and didn’t see me as unfamiliar, like many of my peers did.” An aspiring future physician, he said he believes in the therapeutic and unifying value of the art form and hopes connecting it to medicine will help him better treat patients one day. “Not only will the Watson Fellowship allow me the opportunity to bridge these passions of mine, it will also endow me with a holistic outlook on healing, a perspective I find invaluable in shaping my future practice as a global doctor.”

“Elias is one of those one-in-a-million students that makes it so worthwhile to be a teacher,” commented chemistry professor Patricia B. O’Hara, of Aba Milki. “He is a hard worker, incredibly bright, friendly, generous and articulate. He sets high expectations for himself and meets them and takes others along with him in the process. He will be a wonderful addition to the program.”

History and black studies professor J. Celso Castro Alves was likewise enthusiastic about his pupil: “Elias is highly mature, intellectually prepared and committed to being a Watson scholar next year. And, on a more personal level, Elias is an extremely warm, honest and polite person. He can humbly engage with people of various backgrounds and—as he has since his arrival at Amherst—exert a central role in leading students to become more aware of social problems. Inside or outside the classroom, he has displayed enormous dedication, originality and maturity.”

During his time at college, Aba Milki has worked as a career adviser for Amherst’s CareerCenter, a diversity intern for the Office of Admission and a teaching assistant for the Department of Chemistry. He participated in a mentorship program helping area high school students apply to college, co-founded and chaired the African and Caribbean Students Union and served on the Black Students’ Union’s executive board and the Faculty Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid. In addition, he received a Howard Hughes Fellowship for research, a Federal Academic Competitiveness Grant and National SMART Grant. 

This year, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowships will provide 40 exceptional college graduates, from 49 of 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.