Watson Fellows recount life-changing experiences around the world.Resourcefulness, resilience, infinite possibilities — a gap year to wander the world between college and career is a dream come true for Thomas J. Watson Fellows. They receive $30,000 for up to 12 months of inquiry and travel outside the United States. The only strings: no work and no school allowed. The Watson Foundation is named for Thomas J. Watson, the first CEO of IBM — also, by the way, the namesake of IBM’s famed Watson supercomputer.
Davidson College has produced at least one Watson Fellow in 49 of the award’s 50-year existence. In two of those years, there were four winners. This year’s winner, Sierra Ponthier ’18 will travel to Morocco, Brazil and Ireland to explore her winning project entry, “Yes, Chef!’: Female Leadership in the Restaurant Industry.”
Ponthier joined Davidson Watson Fellows from years past who gathered on campus for a reunion, including keynote speakers Chris Clunie ’06, the NBA’s director of international basketball operations who last month was named Davidson’s new athletic director, and Beth Maczka ’85, the CEO of YWCA Asheville who has devoted her life’s work to social justice causes.
We asked returning Watson Fellows two questions. What was a most unexpected moment in your Watson Wanderjahr? How did your Watson year play into your career? Read on to find out.
Kate Joss ’17, currently in Ghana in her Watson Fellowship year
“Female Empowerment Through Sports”: Bolivia, South Africa, India, New Zealand, Ghana
“… mostly when I think of the word brave, I do not think of myself, but instead of the little girls I watched in the surfing clinic in South Africa. Even when the waves pummeled them back to shore, or their board slipped from underneath their feet, they kept persevering and trying again to get it right the next time….”
Xzavier Killings ’16, master of science student, Mercer University School of Medicine
“Ultimate Healing: Empowering Patients Through Service, Education and Athletics”: Jamaica, Zambia, India, Belize
“The most unexpected moment during my year happened when I experienced great vulnerability but found strength in being vulnerable. I was distributing antiretroviral medicine to young kids and had to step away from the clinic because of the emotional grief it caused, and when I went outside to collect my thoughts and reflect on what I was doing and why I was doing it, I found strength in their resiliency to live and in the optimism of the medical staff volunteering to help.
“My Watson year provided me with the opportunity to observe healthcare and healing from a global perspective and reaffirmed my passion to help people feel better and live their best life.”
Alec Rotunda ’16, educator
“Uncovering the World’s Game: A Study of Personal Growth and Character Development in International Youth Soccer”: Germany, India, Ghana, South Africa
“Attending the Ghana Peace Concert was bonkers. To get in, my friends and I had to funnel our way through a dense mosh pit into the over-capacity national stadium. We were pushed, pulled by a wave-like force from the airtight bodies. The show, featuring national stars like Shatte Walle, would never have passed U.S. regulations — the music lasted well after sunrise, the stadium was over capacity, and the fans showed their admiration for artists and songs by shooting off fireworks from the stands.
“Many of the organizations I worked with focused on using sport as a form of inspiration, education, development, and giving back. This past year, I served as Davidson College Advising Corps adviser at Mooresville High School, helping students research, apply to, and enroll in college. Regardless of where my professional journey leads, I want to keep a frame of mind that strives to have a positive impact on the community.”
Annie Temmink ’11, artist
“Women, Sewing, and the Globalization of Fashion”: Ghana, India, Indonesia
“I considered being a math researcher. Maybe a sculptor? But the spark left in the wake of the well-bedazzled, bejeweled, and spectacularly adorned people I met on my Watson, brought me to costume. Now I make fire-proof Donald Trump wigs for theaters in California and elaborate sci-fi headpieces for the “Olympics of costume” in New Zealand.
“The Watson offered me a glimpse of the infinite possibilities we each have for our lives, and gave me the confidence to explore this uncommon creative path.”
Sara Bates King ’11, midwife
“Delivering Hope: A Comparative Study of Midwifery Programs and Practices”: New Zealand, Indonesia, Chile, Ethiopia
“While checking into my flight for Cambodia I was told I couldn’t bring checked luggage without paying hundreds of extra dollars. I unpacked my bag, put on all of the clothing I could manage, made the manager laugh and got out of the extra fees!
“My Watson still impacts every aspect of my life: as a woman, new mother, advocate and midwife. I am starting my first job as a certified nurse-midwife this week in Tacoma, Washington!”
Chris Clunie ’06, newly-appointed athletic director, Davidson College (July 1)
“More Than Just a Game: Basketball as a Force for Change in the World”: South Africa, Argentina, Japan, and Italy
“My Watson essentially became a job! It made me realize that I not only wanted to work in sports but specifically basketball, and I now have the opportunity every day to grow the game overseas.
“I’m currently Director of International Basketball Operations for the National Basketball Association (NBA). I am based in New York but travel internationally all year, including all of my Watson countries and more.
“An unexpected moment occurred while in South Africa. I went to volunteer for PeacePlayers International, a nonprofit that uses basketball to address social issues including racism and HIV awareness. During my time there, I also ended up playing professional basketball for the Kwazulu Marlins in South Africa’s Professional Basketball League (PBL). I did not expect that at all but it was an awesome experience.”
Gray R. Lyons, M.D., Ph.D. ’04, interventional radiologist
“Staff of Life: Bread and the Baker”: France, Hungary, India, Vietnam, Trinidad
“China was a side trip during my Watson year. I had never traveled internationally before college, but I had the opportunity at Davidson to study abroad twice… China was on my list after an Asian art class with Job Thomas my sophomore year. While on the Watson I took as much opportunity as I could afford to travel widely. I remember wearing my Davidson shirt that day on purpose. I thought there might be a few good photos that could get me on the website. Turns out I was mostly correct, just 14 years off.”
Kristine Grayson Dattelbaum ’03, professor of biology
“Extreme Turtles”: Seychelles, Australia, Hong Kong, Vietnam, South Africa
“Living off of oatmeal and breadfruit in a tin shack without electricity on Silhouette Island in the Seychelles (4 degrees south of the equator) with only 6 other residents for a month….
“My Watson year cemented my love of field work and passion for the conservation of amphibians and reptiles. I continue to conduct this kind of research as a professor of biology at University of Richmond and seek field adventures near and far!”
Ben Carter ’01, lawyer
Ahimsic Krishi: Culture and Agriculture: Ghana, Peru, Thailand, China
“I didn’t expect to get food poisoning on a bus ride in northern Ghana. I ended up barfing in a cornfield while asking for directions and one of the onlookers said, ‘Oh! Oh! You have taken something which does not agree with you!’ That was unexpected.
“Career: Going into the Watson, I thought I was going to be an English professor. I remember very clearly emerging from a covered market in Peru into the sunlight and realizing that academia was not going to be a satisfying career for me. Basically, I wanted something where there was less distance between my effort and the resulting change in the world. So, now I’m a lawyer. Not sure I shortened the distance much (and I’m certain the briefs I write are less interesting than the academic papers I would have written!) but that’s what happened on my Watson trip.”
Amanda Curtis Mattingly ’96, political risk consultant
Women Journalists in Latin America: Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Nicaragua
“One of the more crazy and unexpected moments of my Watson year was being temporarily detained on the border between Costa Rica and Panama as an undocumented immigrant traveling illegally on what border guards believed to be a fake U.S. passport!
“After traveling the year in Latin America, I went to graduate school at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service focused on Latin American Studies, started my career at the National Security Council and U.S. Department of State working on Western Hemisphere Affairs, and then landed at a political risk consultancy firm where I am the director for Latin America.”
Reid French ’93, software company CEO
Theater Financing: Netherlands, Great Britain
“My most unexpected moment came when I woke up on a train pulling into a station in France, when I had planned to go to Italy. The train had split overnight while I was sleeping, with half going to Rome, Italy, and the other half going to Modane, France.
“My Watson Fellowship, which focused on European theater, has helped me to produce large user conferences for my current software company, Applied Systems. Apple has mastered the marketing value of large scale product release events — my Watson year has helped me to emulate those events.”
Doug Jobe ’91, vice president, strategy, planning & analytics, Performance Food Group
Comparative Management Theory & Practice: France, Germany, Belgium, USSR
“At the beginning, it delayed my career plans as I had to turn down a job but got lucky that they rolled it over until next year. Haven’t spoken French at work or done international business since; however, the learnings on different cultures and management styles in the business world that I studied and lived has helped me tremendously in maneuvering in the business world and managing different folks.”
David Etheridge ’88, IPO services leader, Pricewaterhouse Coopers
“Effects of Drought in Less-Developed Countries”: India, Sudan, Indonesia
“Moment: crawling to a cab because it was hard to walk out of my $5/night hotel. I needed to make a flight out of Indonesia, where I had contracted a bad cerebral spinal virus, to Hong Kong where a doctor who cured me said, ‘You’re a lucky guy, that was close.’
“Career: I asked a mentor from Indonesia if I should stay and just go all in. Craig said, ‘Nah, trade your sandals in for wingtips and take that bank job. You can always come back here if it’s calling you.’”
Anne Lambert ’86, development officer; producer, director, actor
“Gender Roles in Contemporary and Kabuki Theatre”: Japan
“The most unexpected moment came in Bangkok, Thailand, with Craig Detweiler ’85, who was spending that same year as a missionary in Japan…. Craig and I decided to take a vacation to visit Norman and Victoria in Thailand, who were on their own mission trips. So, it was me — a lapsed Catholic — and three Davidson-educated missionaries bumping around Thailand. After a week of traveling the country… the four of us returned to Bangkok… it was New Year’s Eve, so we decided to take ourselves down one of the world’s most famous red-light districts, Patpong, where… we encountered some tipsy Brits, who spontaneously invited us back to the British Embassy’s formal New Year’s Eve party….
“I have spent my professional career as a development officer, writing grants and raising millions of charitable dollars for theater and dance companies, arts centers and museums, and at present, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas. I am also a theater producer, director and actor. Under the banner Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, my artistic collaborators and I produce projects that portray authentic female experiences…”
Beth Maczka ’85, CEO of YWCA Asheville
“Economic Development through Women’s Religious Communities in India”: India, Nepal, Thailand and China
“The time I had to pivot fast and trust strangers: In preparation for a two-day train ride from Kerala to New Delhi, I booked a seat in a women’s car in advance, arrived at the station early and eagerly waited at the right train platform. At the right time a train pulled in and I settled myself into the women’s compartment. I opened my book to relax and after a while I started hearing the other women talk about going to Madras. I interrupted them and said, ‘No this train is going to New Delhi.’ They replied that my train was behind their train and that I must get off at the next station to get on the Delhi train. And sure enough the conductor dropped me off at a station in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere and about 20 minutes later the New Delhi train arrived. Unfortunately, my seat in the women’s compartment was taken and I sat on the floor of a 2nd class train for the better part of two days. I should have known not to trust a train that arrived on time in India!
“My Watson experience re-enforced my commitment to social justice, but with the understanding that I needed to do the work in my own community. Thirty-six years later I am working at the YWCA Asheville where our mission is Eliminating Racism, Empowering Women….
“Having a chance to reflect on my Watson experience and my nonprofit career as a keynote speaker for the reunion inspired me to plan a mid-career Watson. Next month I am taking a three-month sabbatical to travel and visit the Black Madonnas that are scattered throughout Europe. Black Madonnas are symbols of liberation and empowerment and I am excited and intrigued to learn more about them and their role in various countries….”
Stephanie Moffett-Hynds ’84, actor
“The Craft and Traditions of Storytelling”: Senegal, Indonesia
“One of the biggest unexpected moments surely has to be my first night arriving in The Gambia. I got off the ferry boat as it was getting dark and was guided by some dock workers to what was supposed to be a hotel. I found out after a bit that it was really a brothel. I guess the red lights should have tipped me off. It was way too late to venture out by myself, so I spent the night with my bed pushed up against the door, trying to keep people from entering my room. Every so often, the bed would jolt a few times, but I made it through the night without incident. In the morning, everyone in the ‘hotel’ acted as if nothing had happened.
“As I was studying the roles of the traditional storytellers, I have often thought about the intersections between that tradition and my profession as an actor. More importantly, the whole experience broadened my perspective on the world and on my own country. It was humbling. I encountered the most generous people. Countless times, those who had very little were ready to offer me everything they had. I certainly don’t have a ‘We’re #1!’ attitude, as a result. I am guided instead by ‘We’re all in this together.’ As a result, I value humility and any effort, especially on the part of the United States, to think globally to try to make the world a better, safer, greener place for all. Okay, sorry, this is more than a sentence or two, but, shoot, you’re asking about our wanderjahrs, after all!”
Malcolm Campbell ’84, professor of biology, director of genomics, chair of fellowships committee, Davidson College
“Studying the Australian Lungfish”: Australia
“I learned to ask more questions. For example, while hiking in Australia with a family I met on the train, they all took their clothes off because they were nudists but I had not asked this important question when I asked if I could join them on the hike! I only stayed with them for one day, but I could not help but wonder if the backpacks chafed.
“My Wanderjahr gave me the courage to fail because I had survived many such failures during my year. Because of this lesson, I have pursued bigger goals in my career than I would have otherwise.”
Marvin Overby ’83, professor of political science, University of Missouri
“The Role of the EEC in Cross-Border Irish Relations”: Ireland, France, Belgium, Northern Ireland
“When recently watching the movie The Journey, I was reminded that as a Watson fellow I’d met and interviewed both Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley. Not bad for a 22-year-old. (BTW, I think the movie captured them pretty well.)
“As for career plans, the Watson was hugely influential. I went to Europe in the fall of 1983 thinking I’d return after the year and get on with my plans to go to law school. I didn’t. Instead, over the course of my travels between Dublin, Belfast, Brussels, and Strasbourg, I realized both that I didn’t want to be an attorney, and that a life spent researching and thinking about various political issues would be more personally rewarding. I initially thought those issues would be more international or comparative in nature (along the lines of the Watson year), not the domestic political matters that have been the focus of my research and teaching. But I have never regretted the career shift and credit it to the personal growth I experienced as a Watson fellow.”
Hugh Crenshaw ’81, Biology professor; CEO of Physcient
“Coral Reef Ecology”: Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Australia
“I met my future wife and finagled my way to stay in Australia for six months beyond my visa to spend more time with her. (I ultimately returned to Australia for another 1.5 years to seal the deal!) The thinking on my feet part came up when I had to convince her parents to let her marry me!
“I went to Australia to start my studies for becoming a ‘blue water’ oceanographer, someone who goes out to sea for long periods. Unfortunately, I learned that I get chronically sea sick. I don’t have sea legs — I stayed sick for weeks. On one unfortunate trip in 12 foot seas in a 35-foot boat, I decided I would become a physician in Kansas. Fortunately, I stuck with biology.”
Carol Robinson ’80, special education teacher/tutor
“Research and Rehabilitation”: Germany, England, France
“Most unexpected moment: Germany, on a train through absolutely gorgeous countryside, train traveling to the end of the line, past sunset into dusk. Got off the train one stop early — stranded in the countryside, no more trains, alone, getting dark. Solution: walk, walk, walk, walk, darker, darker, darker until I came to this great B&B in a barn. Farmer and his wife. I was the only one there. All was well.”
“Absolutely set my career. I have been in special education for 35 years as a result of my Watson year. Fascinated with abnormal neurophysiology and its manifestations. Watson exploration of both research labs and clinics for children. Deciding between the two career-wise. The children won my heart, in all countries and all languages. I came back and the trajectory was set. Perfect. No regrets. Grateful for my Watson year in many, many ways, perhaps in this way most of all.”
David Barnard ’79, retired portfolio manager, Japanese equities
“Land Reform”: Taiwan, Pakistan
“During my Watson year, I fell in love with East Asia and spent the next 35 years devoting my career to this region.”
Laura Bingaman Lackey ’79, international zoo and aquarium adviser
“Zoos in Educational Conservation”: Great Britain, West Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium
“Spent a year-and-a-half in the zoos of Europe, working as a keeper, observing, doing education with kids… Probably when the bear got loose …
“My career has been one long continuation of what I did whilst Watsoning. I’ve segued from working with the live animals to working with their populations via genetic and demographic analysis, collaborating with species managers world-wide — ‘computerised dating’ for zoo animals on a massive scale. And I managed the giraffe and cheetah populations in North America for nearly 30 years.”
Joe Craig ’78, senior resident superior court judge, Guilford County, NC
“Racial Tensions in Western Europe”: United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Netherlands
“In the Netherlands, I stumbled upon a yearly convention of Moluccan expatriates who celebrate their culture in remembrance of the ultimately tragic history of the Republic of South Molucca after WWII. I was able to interview their president-in-exile, a delightful and fascinating man named Johan Manusama.
“At the American Church in Paris, a Protestant-denomination church where American expats gathered every Sunday, I met a member of the old French aristocracy, Baron Jean-Pierre Schweitzer. He offered to rent a room to me in his elegant apartment on the Right Bank, in the chic 9th Arrondissement, which enabled me to move out of my fleabag hotel on the Left Bank. He was the Parisian expert on les clochards, the chronically homeless persons of Paris. He had many interesting theories on homelessness and how to deal with their problems.”
Peter Celentano ’74, asylum officer, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service
“Influence of Irish Monks on the Culture of Early Medieval Europe”: Ireland, England, Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland
“In Venice, as I was wandering about the city I met a down-and-out Tunisian who had interesting stories of his travels. Unfortunately, he had a short fuse when it came to real or imagined insults, and in the course of an afternoon I had to extricate him from a fight and drag him away from a group of American high school students after he lewdly propositioned one of the young women, causing them to call police. I took him to a quiet corner and told him to avoid the Carabinieri. This was a lesson in moral ambiguity, as I saved a person who clearly deserved whatever he was going to experience due to his clearly warped personality.
“While my Watson year did not directly play into my career, it provided a rich cultural and historical experience that has served me well, and I have passed this love of knowledge and thirst for experience to my four children.”
James Trussell ’71, professor emeritus of economics and public affairs, Princeton University
“Estimation of Demographic Parameters from Inaccurate and Incomplete Data”: England, Bangladesh
“Had planned on studying abortion in Europe, but then I was awarded a Marshall Scholarship for two years at Oxford. Postponed Watson but did something entirely different: demography at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.”
Tom Baker ’69, psychologist
“Medical Care Provision”: Western Europe, Israel, Greece, West Africa, Mali, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan
“Of the many influential experiences of my Watson Wanderjahr (and Wunderjahr), the most impactful events were situations leading to learning about the individuals and groups I encountered and about the myriad influences affecting how they lived. Being challenged and excited to think through and to understand the differences presented by people certainly enhanced my path to becoming a psychologist.”
About the Watson Foundation
In 1961, the Watson Foundation was created as a charitable trust in the name Thomas J. Watson Sr., best known for building IBM. Through one-of-a-kind programs, and over 100 global partnerships, the Foundation provides students with personal, professional and cultural opportunities that expand their vision, test and develop their potential, and build their confidence and perspective do so for others.
About the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship
Nearly 3000 Watson Fellows have been named since the inaugural class went abroad in 1969. A Watson Year provides fellows with an opportunity to test their aspirations, abilities and perseverance through a personal project that is cultivated on an international scale. Watson Fellows have gone on to become global leaders in their fields including CEOs of major corporations, college presidents, Emmy, Grammy and Oscar Award winners, Pulitzer Prize awardees, artists, diplomats, doctors, faculty, journalists, lawyers, politicians, researchers and inspiring influencers around the world.