JinJin Xu standing on a crowded bridge connect Asia and Europe in Istanbul
JinJin Xu, a 2017 Watson Fellowship recipient, crossing the bridge connecting Asia and Europe in Istanbul.

Fifty years ago, two young Amherst alumni departed on overseas journeys, one to Europe, the other to Africa, where they would explore the world through the lenses of their interests (in their cases, film and photography). These year-long expeditions were funded by a fellowship that continues to send new graduates to do globally what they’ve done at Amherst: namely, to challenge themselves and indulge their curiosity.

In the words of a more recent fellow, Sonali Duggal ’00, “You are kind of out there, doing your own thing, figuring things out for yourself.”

In the half century of the program’s existence, the Watson Foundation has awarded its Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to graduates of 40 partner colleges, including nearly 100 Amherst alumni. The fellowship offers financial support (currently $30,000) in any field for the academic year following graduation.

“I have been completely taken by the Watson program since I arrived at Amherst,” said President Biddy Martin said at an anniversary dinner for former Watson Fellows, held during Homecoming weekend last fall. “It rewards people who are independent thinkers, who are creative, who are self-motivated, who are willing to go off into places you’ve not been, to explore. And to try to lower the walls between and among peoples, cultures, civilizations—that is an extraordinary opportunity.”

Most years, Amherst has boasted one or two Watsons. Seven times the College had three, and 1975, 1987 and 1999 each saw four Amherst grads departing to pursue Watson projects around the globe.

What follows are of the stories of six past Watson Fellows—some who spoke at the anniversary event, and others who talked with us later.

In Hitchcock’s Steps: Dan Keller ’69 (Amherst Major: Independent)

“It was a huge change of life and an eye-opening experience,” said filmmaker Dan Keller ’69, one of two inaugural Amherst Watson Fellows. Edward Clarke ’69, Amherst’s other premiere Watson, studied photography in London and traveled to Africa to do photography. He died in 1992.

Keller spent his Watson year soaking in the atmosphere of film history.

“I ended up traveling to the stomping grounds of some of the film directors that I most admired: François Truffaut, [Ingmar] Bergman, [Alfred] Hitchcock and a couple of others,” he says. Keller, who had never been to Europe before, kept a diary as he roamed the continent, visiting places where beloved films had been shot.

In 1975 he co-founded Green Mountain Post Films, a Montague, Mass.-based film production company primarily devoted to making documentaries. The company has produced films such as “Lovejoy’s Nuclear War,” which tells the story of his Amherst classmate Sam Lovejoy’s successful campaign against the effort to build a nuclear power plant in Montague, which climaxed in Lovejoy toppling a 500-foot weather tower built for the proposed plant. In 1990 Keller co-founded Footage Farm USA, a video archive of more than 4,000 hours of old newsreels and documentaries dating from 1890 to the present.

Mark Heim
Peace in Turbulent Times: S. Mark Heim ’72 (Amherst Major: American Studies)

“What a genius idea it was to say, ‘You can take this money, but you can’t go to school,’” said S. Mark Heim ’72 of the Watson, which—unlike many other fellowships—cannot be used to fund graduate school enrollment. “For people who invested all their lives in going to school, this was the most important lesson you could possibly learn.”

Heim, now the Samuel Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Yale Divinity School’s Andover Newton Seminary, set out to study intentional communities in Europe.

“I ended up getting an education in Christian Humanism because we were always in different kinds of places: nonviolent communities, worker priest communities, Greek Orthodox monasteries,” he says. These experiences eventually steered him toward an unexpected career in interfaith relations.

Rand Cooper poses with two unidentified men in Kenya
From Kenya to Cameroon: Rand Cooper ’80 (Amherst Major: English)

“I feel like I grew up in the last generation of Americans who never went anywhere when they were growing up,” says Rand Cooper ’80, a fiction writer, critic and essayist. “For me, the Watson, which was my first chance to actually get out and see something in the world, was an astonishment.”

With his Watson funding, Cooper first worked in development projects in Kenya, and next picked up his backpack and hitchhiked across equatorial Africa to Cameroon.

“When you were out there, you were completely isolated. I had no contact with my family for many months,” he says. “It was an amazing adventure, far from home and family, every single day living among people whose culture, whose language was different.”

“I still speak Swahili to this day,” he adds.

Anthropology and Medicine: Carolyn Sufrin ’97 (Amherst Majors: Anthropology, Chemistry)

Carolyn Sufrin ’97, now a medical anthropologist and ob-gyn at Johns Hopkins, spent her Watson year in Australia, where she studied Aboriginal activists who created networks of health clinics.

“I wasn't 100 percent sure that I actually wanted to go to medical school. I was intrigued by anthropology, and it was during my Watson year that I realized I did want to go to medical school,” Sufrin says. Her Watson experiences taught her that she could combine “the practice of medicine and the practice of thinking of anthropology.” Between her last two years in medical school, she squeezed in an M.A. in cultural anthropology, writing up the Watson project as her master’s thesis.

She went on to earn a Ph.D. in medical anthropology and adapted her dissertation findings into a 2017 book, Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women Behind Bars.

She credits the Watson for giving her the courage to venture into jails and to get her Ph.D. while already practicing medicine. “ “It instilled in me that sense of confidence to explore and to take a chance,” she says.

photo taken from the back of a motorcycle in the Congolese Blue Mountains
The Congolese Blue Mountains as seen from the back of a boda boda; photo by David Beron Echavarria, a 2015 Watson Fellowship recipient.

Solitude and Generosity: Sonali Duggal ’00 (Amherst Majors: Economics, Political Science)

“I was alone, a lot,” says Sonali Duggal ’00, who traveled to South Africa, Thailand and Ecuador on her Watson Fellowship. She studied the labor conditions of home-based workers and how they organized to better their lives.

“This was, of course, in the era before social media, before cell phones. I didn’t have a computer with me. I was finding internet cafés,” she says.

Duggal, now senior vice president for business development at par8o, a physician referral service in Boston, says,“I was blown away by the generosity people showed this utterly random 21-year-old American who would email them out of nowhere to let me stay with them in their homes, for months, to become a part of their families.”

With My Left Hand Behind My Back: Keri Lambert ’13 (Amherst Major: History)

For Keri Lambert ’13, her Watson year—spent with people harvesting rubber, Nile perch and palm oil in Ghana, Tanzania and Malaysia—has had continuing effects.

Keri Lamber poses with host and friend Ruth in Takodai, Ghana
“In Ghana … you are not supposed to eat with your left hand, and I to this day feel dirty after I have touched something that somebody else might eat or even that I might eat with my left hand,” she says. “A lot of farmers stand with their left hand behind their back, and to this day I continue to stand with my left hand behind my back.”

It’s had more profound effects, too. Lambert, now a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale, says the simple kindness of these farmers—including the host mother in Ghana who put food in front of her every day with the exhortation, “Eat all”—taught her lasting lessons in helping.

“I feel that I always have the ability within me to help the next person behind me,” she says. “I was a student on a lot of financial aid, and Amherst made that possible; professors every semester opened doors for me; people in the Fellowship Office opened doors for me.”

But, she says, it was the Watson that taught her, “You don’t need to be a person in a position of power to be able to open those doors.”