Two Students Awarded “Dream” Fellowships by Watson Foundation
Two Middlebury seniors have been awarded the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to pursue a year of travel and study outside the U.S. Austin Davis, of Gates Mills, Ohio and Sarafina Midzik, of Brookline, Mass., were among 40 students nationally to receive the highly competitive award.
Both Middlebury Watson fellows will travel to the Middle East and North Africa. In his ambitious project proposal, Davis, a political science major, says his goal is “to spend time with people, listen to their stories, immerse myself in their everyday lives, and learn what ‘disability’ means throughout five strikingly different Arab societies – Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and immigrant Arab communities in Greater London.”
For Davis, learning about life with disabilities in Islamic cultures is deeply personal. In 2009, his year studying abroad in Egypt ended abruptly when he fell while running to catch a street car and lost both of his legs above the knee. Davis says he hopes to meet people intimately familiar with disability and, from them, gain a better personal understanding of the lived experience of disability in different Arab contexts.
“In traveling to this slew of Arab countries and communities, I’m spending time in a culture from which I can learn so much, making up for the year abroad that I missed,” said Davis. “By focusing on disability in these communities, I get to understand the gap between me and the kid in the other operating room who doesn’t get to flee to America as soon as he stabilizes.”
Davis has made connections with international and regional disability advocates in each area who can introduce him to disabled citizens. He is realistic about the challenges ahead, but also optimistic. “My two months in Egypt taught me that living abroad becomes much less difficult with an open mind and a good attitude, and managing my disability from day to day has required both patience and unceasing drive,” wrote Davis. “I’ve learned to adapt happily to my disability; the prospect of actually embarking on this project excites me regardless of its difficulty.”
Also in the Middle East and North Africa, Sarafina Midzik, a joint biology and political science major, will explore how individuals of different religious traditions grapple with Darwinian evolution. Her year of travel will include stops in Jordan, Turkey, and Tunisia.
Midzik says she chose the region both for its religious character and scientific legacy, as well as her own linguistic and life experience. “The Middle East and North Africa is a corner of our world deeply rooted in both theological and empirical discovery; its countries are home to many faiths and many scientific traditions,” she wrote.
“I hope to spend my Watson year asking if an issue as contentious as evolution can in fact be common ground, and if as we share together in our search, we can build upon and strengthen that which unites us across religions, continents, and traditions,” Midzik said.
The Watson Foundation refers to the fellowships as “dream grants,” enabling students to pursue their unique passion or dream for a year of independent exploration and travel outside the United States. “As interesting as these projects are, these awards are long-term investments in people, not research,” said Cleveland Johnson, director of the fellowship program in a news announcement. “We look for persons likely to lead or innovate in the future and give them extraordinary independence to pursue their interests outside of traditional academic structures.”
For more information about the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship program, visit www.watsonfellowship.org.