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鈥檝e done at Amherst: namely, to challenge themselves and indulge their curiosity.

In the words of a more recent fellow, Sonali Duggal 鈥00, 鈥淵ou are kind of out there, doing your own thing, figuring things out for yourself.鈥

In the half century of the program鈥檚 existence, the  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.

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

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鈥攕ome who spoke at the anniversary event, and others who talked with us later.

In Hitchcock鈥檚 Steps: Dan Keller 鈥69 (Amherst Major: Independent)

鈥淚t was a huge change of life and an eye-opening experience,鈥 said filmmaker Dan Keller 鈥69, one of two inaugural Amherst Watson Fellows. Edward Clarke 鈥69, Amherst鈥檚 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.

鈥淚 ended up traveling to the stomping grounds of some of the film directors that I most admired: Fran莽ois Truffaut, [Ingmar] Bergman, [Alfred] Hitchcock and a couple of others,鈥 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 鈥淟ovejoy鈥檚 Nuclear War,鈥 which tells the story of his Amherst classmate Sam Lovejoy鈥檚 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 鈥72 (Amherst Major: American Studies)

鈥淲hat a genius idea it was to say, 鈥榊ou can take this money, but you can鈥檛 go to school,鈥欌 said S. Mark Heim 鈥72 of the Watson, which鈥攗nlike many other fellowships鈥攃annot be used to fund graduate school enrollment. 鈥淔or people who invested all their lives in going to school, this was the most important lesson you could possibly learn.鈥

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

鈥淚 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,鈥 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 鈥80 (Amherst Major: English)

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

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.

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

鈥淚 still speak Swahili to this day,鈥 he adds.

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

Carolyn Sufrin 鈥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.

鈥淚 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,鈥 Sufrin says. Her Watson experiences taught her that she could combine 鈥渢he practice of medicine and the practice of thinking of anthropology.鈥 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鈥檚 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. 鈥 鈥淚t instilled in me that sense of confidence to explore and to take a chance,鈥 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 鈥00 (Amherst Majors: Economics, Political Science)

鈥淚 was alone, a lot,鈥 says Sonali Duggal 鈥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.

鈥淭his was, of course, in the era before social media, before cell phones. I didn鈥檛 have a computer with me. I was finding internet caf茅s,鈥 she says.

Duggal, now senior vice president for business development at par8o, a physician referral service in Boston, says,鈥淚 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.鈥

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

For Keri Lambert 鈥13, her Watson year鈥攕pent with people harvesting rubber, Nile perch and palm oil in Ghana, Tanzania and Malaysia鈥攈as had continuing effects.

Keri Lamber poses with host and friend Ruth in Takodai, Ghana
鈥淚n Ghana 鈥 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,鈥 she says. 鈥淎 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.鈥

It鈥檚 had more profound effects, too. Lambert, now a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale, says the simple kindness of these farmers鈥攊ncluding the host mother in Ghana who put food in front of her every day with the exhortation, 鈥淓at all鈥濃攖aught her lasting lessons in helping.

鈥淚 feel that I always have the ability within me to help the next person behind me,鈥 she says. 鈥淚 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.鈥

But, she says, it was the Watson that taught her, 鈥淵ou don鈥檛 need to be a person in a position of power to be able to open those doors.鈥