March 14, 2011
By Katherine Duke ’05
A photo gallery of Young's work can be seen at the bottom of the article, or by clicking here.
Amherst College senior Bessie Young is one of just 18 people nationwide selected by the Henry Luce Foundation to receive scholarships to live and work in Asia from July 2011 to July 2012. Young—a native of Tewksbury, N.J., and a psychology, art and interdisciplinary triple major at Amherst—plans to travel to Japan to pursue her interests in photography and cross-cultural gerontology.
Bessie Young '11
“Sometime during college I became ‘that girl who likes old people,’” Young wrote in her application essay for the Luce Scholars program. “My passion for aging began with an advanced seminar I took the fall of my freshman year. ‘Psychology of Aging’ [taught by Lisa Raskin, the John William Ward Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience] provided me with a taste of the biological, psychological, and sociological aspects of aging, and I was hooked. The service-oriented component of the class, which paired each student with a senior citizen to visit during the semester, showed me that I had a heart for working with the elderly as well.” The Amherst Senior Center paired Young with an elderly Amherst resident named Mae Deuwson; the two women watched movies, celebrated Halloween and attended an NPR StoryCorps recording together and maintained a deep friendship that lasted until Deuwson died in 2010.
As her college career went on, Young became Raskin’s teaching assistant in the “Psychology of Aging” course, a student liaison to the Senior Center and founder and president of a campus group called Ageless, which “aims to build relationships with the senior citizen community and Amherst College through fun intergenerational events and volunteering.” She has coordinated volunteer work at the Senior Center for more than 80 Amherst students and organized several “Singing Suppers”—intergenerational dinner parties featuring musical performances. In a letter of recommendation for the Luce Scholarship, Amherst Senior Center Director Nancy H. Pagano wrote of Young, “In my 37 years here I have never seen a student leader who, through her public service, has made such a varied and long-term significant difference to our elder and college communities and endeared herself to so many.” Young’s work with the Senior Center was recently featured in the Amherst Bulletin.
Young has also used her artistic skills to explore the sociological and psychological aspects of the aging process. A 2009 Amherst magazine article highlighted Ageless: A Collaborative Listening Project—a video that she created for Amherst’s “Collaborative Art” course, using footage of interviews she conducted with local senior citizens. In 2010, she received a 100 Projects for Peace grant to spend three months photographing and speaking with elderly people in a variety of home and hospital settings in the United States and Turkey (Young is a skilled speaker of Turkish). This project has led into her interdisciplinary senior thesis, titled “Aging Constructs” : a book of photos of different senior living facilities throughout the U.S., Turkey, France and Italy, paired with text describing the architectural theory behind these structures, their psychological impact on those who live within them and what they reveal about their societies’ attitudes toward the elderly. Over spring break, Young is continuing her research at a nursing home in Istanbul. “Where we age can affect how we age,” she points out. “Our quality of life, our sense of normalcy, integrity, and autonomy, are all at stake.” (She says that this issue hit close to home several years ago, when her family members’ views conflicted over where her grandmother should spend her final days.)
Young recognized that an international fellowship could allow her to continue studying gerontology across cultures after her graduation from Amherst. In addition to an essay and multiple enthusiastic letters of recommendation from employers, professors and Amherst’s Faculty Committee on Student Fellowships, her Luce application process also involved numerous interviews in New York City. As director of the student improv comedy troupe Mr. Gad’s House of Improv, Young is accustomed to performing under pressure. “I believe it was because I had no reasonable expectation of actually being chosen for this fellowship that I was completely genuine and true to myself in each interview,” she says. But in February, she got a call from Luce Scholars Program Director Li Ling, with good news. “I was shocked,” she says. “I’m pretty sure I hung up on Ling before he finished talking. And then I wondered if I should call him back, but I was too busy jumping up and down.”
Young is currently working with the Asia Foundation, and investigating Amherst’s connection to Doshisha University, to determine her exact job placement and living arrangement in Japan for the coming year. She hopes that her work will entail both photography and interaction with Japanese elders, as well as visits to Kanegasaki, a sister city of the Town of Amherst. “Asia is witness to some of the fastest population aging in the world,” she wrote in her application essay. “I hope to see what role these population shifts play in intergenerational dynamics and quality of care for the elderly. I am excited to learn from a culture that [as artist and author Makoto Fujimura has written of Japan] ‘respects the aging process’ and knows ‘to value the ephemeral’, because it is the ephemeral process of living and aging that I attempt to capture in my photography.”
Of her long-term goals, “I know this: I want to improve the lives of the elderly and I am a photographer. I don’t know how these two points will intersect and drive my future,” Young says. “I have very specific and ardent passions, but there are so many directions they may take me in. I’m excited to take each day, of the rest of the semester and of next year, as it comes and see where I end up.”
Seventy-five U.S. colleges and universities nominate students and recent graduates for the Luce Scholarship, and 15 to 18 of those candidates are selected for the scholarship each year. Past winners from Amherst include Kimberly Shearer Palmer ’01 and Jamila Trindle ’02.