By: Matthew Singleton ’21
Davidson College asserts that its primary purpose is to “assist students in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service.” The college’s continued sponsorship and support of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is one of the many ways it works to fulfill this promise.
Having recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, the Watson Fellowship is a bold opportunity for graduated seniors to spend a year outside of the US, exploring opportunities to research and cultivate their own deep interests. The fellowship was founded in 1968 by the Thomas J. Watson Foundation to provide exceptional college graduates with the opportunity to travel across the world and focus on a particular interest through a $30,000 grant. In fact, Watson fellows must pledge to remain outside of the continental United States for a full year.
To apply for the fellowship, students who have been nominated by one of 40 sponsor schools submit a personal statement and a project statement. In the project statement, students must outline their general plan of a year abroad, citing where they will work or volunteer, what challenges they will encounter, how those challenges will help them grow, and what they hope to learn about themselves and the world through this opportunity. To come up with this plan, applicants must reach out to influential organizations and individuals around the world to find places and people to work with.
Presently, Davidson has two fellows abroad: Kate Joss ‘17 and Rachel McKay ‘17. Joss is traveling through Bolivia, South Africa, India, and New Zealand to explore the ways that sports programs improve the lives of women. Through the fellowship, she is working with coaches, officials, and players to find the models that will promote the most positive development in a community. McKay is traveling in Rwanda, South Africa, and New Zealand to study the different ways that communities across the world enact justice and interact with the criminals in their societies.
This year’s graduating class has only one Watson Fellow: Sierra Ponthier ‘18. Although she had “only started applying because I knew I would regret not doing it later,” Ponthier is now preparing to embark on a year-long voyage to Ireland, Brazil, and Morocco, where she hopes to study the ways that restaurants can improve the lives and status of women in communities around the world.
Ponthier was inspired by the ironic conundrum that, as she put it, “despite the common image of women as home cooks, women are far less prevalent in professional kitchens. In these hyper-masculine spaces, women face discrimination, harassment, and skepticism.” This problem gave Ponthier the idea of exploring ways women have succeeded in restaurants, as well as restaurants and initiatives that try and give back to their communities in ways beyond the kitchen.
Ponthier’s interest in restaurants began at an early age. When asked about these beginnings, she laughed and talked about a podcast focusing on ingredients and flavors that she hosted with a favorite teacher and some friends in high school. Through an interview for this podcast, Ponthier found a job as a line cook at Mar’sel, a restaurant in Los Angeles. Since then, she has served as a cook in Davidson’s own Much Ado Catering and served as a management intern for restaurants in New York.
By the time she reached her senior year, Ponthier had the experience and the interest in the restaurant business needed to begin exploring further opportunities, such as the Watson. She began her application for the school’s nomination at the last minute, as she had not found out about it until late and submitted what she had deemed a “stream of consciousness proposal,” based on research such as a Google search of “best chefs in Latin America.”
However, even in the frantic nature of the application, Ponthier had a constant theme in mind; she wanted to work with people and restaurants who were doing more than just operating a successful shop. Instead she looked for those restaurants run by women who “not only push culinary boundaries, but also challenge preconceptions of women in the workplace, and society at large.”
She found chefs such as Teresa Corcao, owner and operator of El Navagador in Brazil, a restaurant and nonprofit that works on using the Manioc root in high-end dining, a plant traditionally seen as a poor-man’s food. Ponthier talked about wanting to see how Corcao used the Manioc root without also driving up its price so that common folk cannot afford it, reflecting the types of important questions Watson Fellows are supposed to ask.
When asked about which part of her trip she might be most excited for, Ponthier spoke about the relationship between tradition and food in Morocco, where a food like couscous, seen as an instant grain in the US, takes hours to prepare and can only be done on Fridays.
Ultimately, Ponthier is hoping to explore the ways that she can use her love and expertise of cooking to make the world a better place for women in her communities. As the Watson Fellowship continues into its next 50 years, Ponthier looks ahead to join the 85 other Davidson alumni who have been awarded the fellowship. These alumni were welcomed back to campus on March 16th and 17th for Davidson’s Watson Fellows Reunion to share their stories and experiences.
Said recent alumna McKay of her ongoing fellowship in Africa: “I am so thankful for the positions I’ve been put in and had access to. I’m feeling emboldened by it […] emboldened on a personal level in seeing how I move forward in situations I can’t plan for, just keep looking forward.”