When people opt to communicate without words, what possibilities open up? And how do communities recover and reconnect to their land after extractive industries, such as mining operations, shut down? Two Amherst College seniors will spend a year traveling abroad to explore these questions, as recipients of fellowships from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation.

Eniola Ajao ’21: Non-Verbal Expression in Global Communities      

Eniola Ajao poses with chin in hand and smiling“What is so important about speaking that I have to participate in it?” Eniola Ajao ’21 used to ask. As a child in Nigeria, she was often encouraged to be more outgoing and talkative. Once she immigrated to the United States to attend boarding school, “I was required to take English as a Second Language courses, despite the fact that I am a native English speaker,” she wrote in her application for the Watson Fellowship. “Because I did not speak very much, my teachers must have assumed that I was unable to communicate.”

But Ajao learned to use, and to love, various forms of communication that do not necessarily require speech, including writing, dance and computer programming. Beginning to study American Sign Language as a sophomore at Haverford College “was revelatory,” she wrote, “because when signing, I was not ‘quiet.’ I was expressive. I had rhythm and style. I was a confident communicator. I had found my ‘voice.’”

This sparked a broader interest in Deaf studies and disability issues. At Amherst, where she arrived as a transfer student in 2019 and is now a double major in English and computer science, Ajao has worked as an accessibility specialist in the Information Technology department. “I took Pooja Rangan’s ‘Disability Media’ course during the fall semester of my junior year and then followed it up with a research colloquium called ‘Hearing Difference: The Political Economy of Accent,’” she says. Her final project for the colloquium, a paper on the dialect known as Black American Sign Language, helped to shape her winning Watson project proposal.

Her Watson year will take Ajao to three places around the world where communities engage in distinctive forms of nonverbal communication. First, she will spend four months in Tamale, Ghana, learning from those who play the traditional “talking drum, whose pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone and prosody of human speech,” and which is “capable of reproducing proverbs, statements and instructions,” she wrote in her application.

After that, Ajao plans to travel to France to take lessons in corporeal dramatic mime and to interview mime students and street performers. “In the 1950s famous mimes enjoyed international acclaim, yet today, mimes are rare sightings in the streets of Paris,” she wrote. “I hope to make connections between theatricality and marginalization in French communities.”

And the final stage of her Watson project was inspired by a chance remark: “A comment someone made in passing about Quaker communities worshipping in silence led me to wonder about other religious practices involving silence, which eventually led me to the silent monks in Bhutan,” she says. In visiting some of Bhutan’s hundreds of Buddhist monasteries, she hopes “to explore how hospitality and insight are communicated nonverbally and to also understand how class differences have shaped the communication practices of the monastic community.”

“I am most looking forward to the chance encounters with strangers that branch into more encounters and open up unexpected opportunities,” Ajao says about the coming year. “I am also excited for the opportunity to be totally independent, and the growth that will inevitably follow.”

Margot Lurie ’21: After Extraction: Human and Environmental Recovery

Margot Lurie '21
“While every college student seems to be ‘passionate about the environment,’ Margot has credibility,” wrote the Amherst committee members who nominated Margot Lurie ’21 for the Watson Fellowship.

Lurie developed an appreciation for the natural world growing up in the Rocky Mountains. She also had a personal connection to an extractive industry, as she wrote in her Watson application: “Coal mining transported my grandfather from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Denver, Colorado, in the 1980s. My grandmother, uncles and mother soon followed. Coal made me a first-generation American.”

After arriving at Amherst, “I took a class called ‘Unequal Footprints on the Earth’ with Professor Hannah Holleman,” Lurie says. “That was my first exposure to the discipline of environmental studies, and I ended up falling in love with the major and deciding to pursue it from there.” She took lessons she learned in that class and put them into action on the Amherst campus, working with Facilities, Dining Services and the Office of Environmental Sustainability to strategize ways for the College to reduce landfill waste by using compostable and reusable materials instead.

Though it was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, Lurie’s time studying abroad in Ecuador further informed her understanding of the complexities of environmental justice. She met residents of the Galápagos Islands who objected to the fact that the national government and foreign scientists are “willing to evacuate a tortoise when there’s a volcanic eruption, but they won’t even provide health care to children,” she says. In the capital city of Quito, she witnessed the conflict between “people who live next to oil extraction and see it actively destroying their water and their lands and the animals around them, and then people in other parts of the country who still need oil to keep their lights on and to get to work and to eat.”

Now Lurie is working on a senior thesis about the connections between environmental movements and Indigenous resistance movements in the southwestern United States, with Holleman as her adviser.

And she’s planning a Watson year that will take her into as many as six different communities that are “post-extractive”—that is, sites where mines used to operate but have been shut down. “I was interested in exploring countries that have different relationships to mining, depending on their global power,” she says, and in “tracing their interrelationships—so, going from the UK, for example, to Spain, where it was a British-operated mine. Or going from Australia to the Philippines, where you have an Australian company operating a gold mine.”

 “I will end my Watson year in South Africa,” Lurie wrote in her project proposal, “coming full circle in my own relationship to extraction.”