Submitted on Monday, 4/9/2012, at 10:06 AM

By William Sweet

Amherst College seniors Ellen Richmond and Lilia Kilburn, this year’s Thomas J. Watson Fellows, will be spending the next year traversing much of the globe, learning world perspectives on two very American pastimes: raising cattle and raising argument.

Ellen Richmond '12

Richmond, who will graduate in May with a triple major in English, French and interdisciplinary studies and who plans to go on to medical school, will live in pastoral communities in Ethiopia, Argentina and Australia, assisting with the care of sheep, goats, cattle and camels. Having experienced some rootlessness as the child of a parent in the U.S. Army, Richmond has become interested in the role landscape plays in shaping identity across cultures. Time spent on ranches in Texas, Kentucky and Arizona gave her a better sense of what it means to depend on the land, but it also instilled in her the kind of nostalgia found in the pastoral writing tradition. Richmond plans to challenge that kind of nostalgia in her own writing and in the tradition of pastoral writing in general. "The pastoral impulse betrays a fundamental desire to return to nature, without a full understanding of what that return, if possible, would entail. I too am vulnerable to this impulse,” she wrote in her Watson application.

By writing, during her fellowship year, about how real pastoral communities view their relationship to extreme environments, she hopes to gain a better sense of her own place in the world, she said. “My goal is to capture the realities of the lives of true herdsmen, rather than the romanticized ideals typical of the pastoral mode in literature,” she wrote. “I will express what I learn about their unique relationships to landscape and livestock through poems and nonfiction essays.”

“I am here to tell you that this quiet young woman has what used to be called fire in her belly,” David Sofield, the Samuel Williston Professor of English, wrote in his recommendation of Richmond to the Watson Foundation. “She will be one of the best Watson recipients ever, given how well she has thought through her project, and given the work she has already done in making significant contacts in her chosen locations.”

Amherst's other new Watson fellow also sees her upcoming voyage as the continuation of a life journey. Kilburn, who has competed for the past two years at the World Debating Championships in Botswana and the Philippines, didn't start out a master of disputation. In her Watson proposal, she wrote, “I was the quintessential shy child, reaching unspoken compromises with teachers each year so that I could read under my desk to my heart’s content, and showing up, like clockwork, in the nurse’s office at the exact moment I was to give a book report.”

Lilia Kilburn '12

Kilburn sought to quell her shyness by joining Amherst's debate team, and she was successful. In that time, she also grew fascinated with global interpretations of parliamentary debate. For her Watson year, she will meet and observe students, politicians and ordinary people debating in Ghana, Cameroon, Singapore, Qatar and New Zealand.

"Bolstered by the status of English as a lingua franca, new organizations join the existing alphabet soup of English-language debating leagues each year," she wrote. "The seemingly homogenous global activity of parliamentary debate encounters a kaleidoscopic array of local speech traditions."

"By posting my own and others' words and images online,” she proposed, “I will produce a collaborative compilation of debate's subtleties and surprises across the world."

Kilburn’s interest in speech and expression has led her to collaborate with young entrepreneurs in Uganda, to make films with Israeli and Palestinian students and to help others craft their writing as editor-in-chief of the student publication The Indicator and director of the Council of Amherst Publications. For her anthropology thesis project this year, she interviewed and observed transgender women who have modified their voices through speech therapy and surgery, to study the role of the human voice in their lives and in American culture.

 "Debater, writer, artist, anthropologist, she is perfectly positioned to carry out what promises to be a fascinating comparative study," wrote Deborah Gewertz, the G. Henry Whitcomb 1874 Professor of Anthropology, in recommending Kilburn for the fellowship.

The Thomas J. Watson Foundation was created in 1961 as a charitable trust by Mrs. Thomas J. Watson, Sr., in honor of her late husband, the founder of International Business Machines (IBM). In 1968, in recognition of Mr. and Mrs. Watson's long-standing interest in education and world affairs, their children decided that the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program should constitute a major activity of the foundation.

More than 2,700 Watson Fellowships have been awarded in the program’s history. A Watson year provides each fellow an opportunity to test his or her aspirations, abilities and perseverance, while developing a more informed sense of international concern. Each fellow receives $25,000 for 12 months of travel, college loan assistance as needed and an insurance allowance.

Over 700 candidates at select private liberal arts colleges and universities across the United States submitted proposals this year. Of that number, 147 finalists were nominated to compete on the national level, and 40 fellows were selected.

Amherst has had 83 Watson Fellows during the program’s history. “Amherst is one of the strongest schools in our program,” said Jennifer Ludovici, assistant director of the Watson Fellowship. “Amherst is exceptional at fostering an interest among the student body in pursuing such an unusual postgraduate experience.”