2017 Watson Fellows
Tomal Hossain ’17, Sheila Chukwulozie ’17E, and JinJin Xu ’17

Two Amherst students and one alumna are among the 40 recipients of this year’s Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, the highest number of fellows among the 27 colleges honored.

This year’s fellows will travel abroad for projects on music in Muslim countries, refugee and migrant mothers, and a woman breaking into the male-only tradition of West African masquerade dance.

Watson awardees come from 40 private liberal arts colleges and universities across the United States. The fellowship provides $30,000 to support international projects in any field, as well as college loan assistance as required.

This year’s fellows were awarded from a pool of 149 finalists. Amherst was distinguished for being the only school with three winners: Sheila Chukwulozie ’17E, Tomal Hossain ’17 and JinJin Xu ’17. 

Chukwulozie plans to use the fellowship to travel to Senegal, Sierra Leone, Trinidad, Ghana and Liberia to apprentice with mask makers and cloth weavers who create costumes for the traditional masquerades, such as the Mmanwu of the Igbo people in her native Nigeria.

“At the end of the journey, my desire is to be the first woman from either my mother or my father's village to carve a mask and create a full-bodied masquerade, which would generate new energy within my traditional culture,” she wrote in her statement to the foundation.

At Amherst, Chukwulozie majored in theater and dance and was the sole student speaker at TedX Amherst 2014. She cofounded the Amherst College African and Caribbean Students Union. Eventually she hopes to earn a doctorate in African religion and philosophy.

Hossain, a music and computer science major from Los Angeles, plans to explore the musical cultures of Muslim-majority communities in Senegal, Morocco, India and Indonesia.

A member of the Amherst College Jazz Ensemble, he has served as president of the South Asian Students Association and performed with the Central Javanese Gamelan Ensemble.

“This year is about exploring … through conversation, participation and lessons,” he wrote. “How has music been patronized or censored by organized groups or religious doctrines? What is at stake when individuals challenge orthodox beliefs with regard to music’s place in Islam? How have musicians, concert organizers and audience members reconciled their commitments to music with the beliefs and actions of orthodox Muslims?”

After his Watson year, Hossain plans to pursue ethnomusicological study concentrating on traditional South Asian arts and Muslim-majority societies. His long-range plans include teaching and performing, with the intent of spreading awareness about musical genres currently in decline or subject to censorship.

Xu, who is graduating with majors in English and history of art, will research how women experience motherhood when forced to relocate because of unrest or economic need.

She plans to travel to Thailand, India and Australia, conducting interviews with refugee mothers and working migrant mothers. Then, in Germany and South Africa, she’ll engage with artist-activists and assemble her research into book form. Xu has already begun work on Mami's Tail, a book of nonfiction prose-poetry about her family’s experiences.

“I grew up in Shanghai calling three different women ‘mother,’ only learning later that ‘mother’ is supposedly defined as a singular role,” she wrote.

At Amherst, she has served as editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Circus, president of the International Students Association and host of a talk show for WAMH, the College’s radio station.

Her long-range plans include earning an M.F.A. and/or Ph.D. before returning to China to teach literature or creative writing.

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 the Watsons’ longstanding 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 start in 1968. This year's class comes from six countries and 21 states. They'll travel to 67 countries.