“Amherst is exceptional at fostering an interest among the student body in pursuing such an unusual post-graduate experience,” says the Watson Foundation, which grants a year-long fellowship for independent study and travel outside the United States to graduating college seniors.
One of the strongest schools in this program, Amherst College qualified two seniors this year for the $25,000 scholarship. Both Lilia Kilburn and Ellen Richmond imagined a dream-year that would integrate their experiences, skills and passion towards a unique independent study abroad. They are two of only 40 winners selected from over 700 candidates this year, soon to embark on a journey meant to both test and further their ambitions and abilities.
“I was drawn to the Watson because I am both an artist and an anthropology student, and I wanted the space to explore what it might mean to combine artistic and anthropological approaches to the world,” Kilburn, an anthropology major, said.
Kilburn, who joined Amherst’s debate team to defeat the shyness that dominated her youth, will be combining her interest in debate with her academic studies of speech and the voice. She will be traveling to Ghana, Cameroon, Singapore, Qatar and New Zealand to study students and politicians as they debate, observing their varied interactions, speaking styles, gestures and perspectives on politics.
“Armed with a sketchbook, a video camera and a pocketful of brightly-colored pens, I will travel to countries where the activity has flourished in recent years so as to document indigenous interpretations of parliamentary debate and the wider political landscapes to which they belong,” she declared in her proposal.
Her goal is to capture the individual moments of debate — the heat of argument, the triumph of victory and the devastation of loss — in artistic and ethnographic form. She wishes to provide debaters with insight into the diversity of their global community and to do so in a way that is collaborative, by actively soliciting their input as to what they would like to know about and share with each other. Kilburn will use debate as a jumping-off point for thinking about speech in these contexts more broadly.
“No speech occurs in a vacuum,” wrote Kilburn.
The debate arenas she will study include the family at the dinner table, the sidewalk café, the public square and the auditorium, as well as site-specific events like the Doha Debates. She has decided to totally immerse herself by staying with local families throughout the year. Ultimately, she hopes to better understand the role of the voice and its expression in human culture throughout the world, and to heighten the power and flexibility of her own voice.
“I learned to ride on an old half-blind horse name Quasar in the scrub outside of Killeen, Texas. To this day when twilight spreads across the sky like a bruise, I am transported in a sort of Proustian reminiscence to the dusty paddock where I would end each lesson,” said Richmond, a triple major in English, French and interdisciplinary studies who plans to continue to medical school.
Her childhood spanned Texas, Italy and Kentucky as she continued her love of riding, learning different styles in each culture, in an unconscious exploration of the connection between land and culture. However, it was Richmond’s sophomore year in southern Arizona, as she stayed with cats and dogs in a rundown RV while working in Cold Creek Ranch, that truly inspired what would become the topic of her study.
“A lifestyle pared down to necessity had reawakened in me something visceral and real. The daily conjunctions of life and death in this unforgiving land, viewed through the eyes of people who managed to subsist off it, provided me with something that for the first time seemed to matter, that I wanted to write about,” wrote Richmond.
In her project, she will challenge the typical pastoral literature on the idyllic rural life by instead studying the unidealized landscape and actual successes and failures of a true pastoral community. She plans to live and work to integrate with communities in Ethiopia, Argentina and possibly Australia. By observing this life simultaneously as an outsider and a person living in their midst, she wishes to capture the true human experience and the entirety of a people, bringing their life to an even wider audience. To Richmond, the culture and lifestyle specific to the land forms the basis of identity.
“To observe with the eyes of an outsider, so that I can engage the understanding of my readers, while at the same time imparting the experience with the sensibilities of one who belongs-this is my goal as a writer,” wrote Richmond in her proposal.
The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is one of the many project funds students here are eligible to apply to because they attend Amherst College. This foundation in particular provides an unparalleled exploration for independent study to its winners. For Amherst students, advisers and professors can be paramount to the application process.
Important to both Kilburn and Richmond in the navigation of their application process were Denise Gagnon and Suzanne Spencer from the Fellowships Office. The office works with Amherst students as they apply to programs like the Watson. Kilburn and Richmond bring the college’s total number of Watson fellows to 83, a number that the C ollege only hopes to increase in the future.