My Experience Applying for the Watson Fellowship, A $30,000 Year Abroad Personal Project Grant

Disclaimer: I'm a current senior at Amherst College who made it to national selection for this fellowship, but was not ultimately selected. This is purely informative for any future hopefuls.


The Watson Fellowship is a $30,000 grant that allows you to pursue a personal project abroad for a year, open to graduating seniors at any of the 40 partner schools. Some strings come with this dreamlike opportunity, however:

  1. You're literally kicked out of your home country for 12 months; the fellowship guidelines state that you may not return at all during your project. 
  2. You may not travel anywhere where you have more than 1 month experience. There are some exceptions--you could travel to a French overseas department even if you've spent more than 1 month total in metropolitan France, for example. You could also go to a very different and new region of a large country/continent you might know, such as South America (though not the different parts of the UK).
  3. You may not take time off from your project to do grad school or job interviews.
  4. The fellowship is taxable, but may be taken in 2 installments to spread taxes out over 2 years.
  5. The application is VERY involved, including a 3000-word personal statement and 3000-word grant proposal (3 single-spaced pages each). For the grant proposal, you have to reach out to people in the countries you want to go to and ask for their help BEFORE you know if you'll win the scholarship. The process also is two-fold; you first must be selected as a nominee by your school, undergoing an often-competitive process, before going to national selection, undergoing another competitive process (each of 40 possible schools that can nominate has 4 spots each. There are only 40 grants, so you have about a 25% chance once you make it to the national selection. 25% might not sound that bad, but keep in mind that this is 25% of a group that has already been whittled down). 

I began entertaining the idea of applying in early spring 2017. In late June, when I returned from study abroad, I met with my campus fellowships director. Despite the Watson's restrictions, I was in love with the idea of such freedom. I was ready to do whatever it took to prepare my best application.

The application process was LONG--nearly 7 months, actually:
Over this time, I reached out to 30+ people and organizations. I was constantly drafting and responding to messages and emails. Some people never responded. Some were lukewarm, only helpful when chased. Others were critical. Many were enthusiastic.

After months of pondering and weeks of furious typing, I finished the massive application. This was my project summary:

My Watson project will explore the interactions between language, identity, and displacement. For three months each, I will travel to La Réunion, Vietnam, Morocco, and Belgium to interview their multilingual francophone populations. I wonder: Can a foreign language eventually become one’s mother tongue? How does a multiplicity of languages fragment one’s identity? What role does displacement—whether physical such as immigration, or institutional such as colonization—play in these questions? As a French language learner, I am especially intrigued by the concept of the foreign accent. I hope to speak with locals who adopted French as a foreign language to investigate the following: How does speaking with a foreign accent impact one’s sense of belonging or otherness? Why would foreign speakers try to erase their accents, or not? What factors influence one’s ability to attain native pronunciation?

Once I submitted, my campus fellowships committee selected 10 candidates to interview. I was told that they wouldn't be able to interview all who applied, so this was the first round of cuts. At the interview, I was asked questions around a table of 5 professors. The next day, I was notified that I had been selected as one of four campus nominees.

I went through another wave of reaching out and strengthening my app for national submission. After official submission, there was a period of nearly 3 months before the next step: the interview.

My interview was hard. The Watson representative who visited campus was a Princeton English professor, a previous fellow himself. He wasn't afraid to ask uncomfortable and intellectual questions--the interview began with him asking my opinion on how the French language is fetishized. He also often challenged my answers and sometimes cut me off if he wanted me to address something from a different angle. For instance, he wanted to hear about a time I "blew it," and when I began telling him about my difficult journey to run a marathon, he interrupted me and clarified that he wanted to hear about a failure that remained a failure, not a time I failed and eventually succeeded. That was quite unnerving, since I assumed "the failure question" was a way to understand our response to disappointing outcomes and what we garnered from the experience, and not focused solely on our mistakes. I was also asked typical interview questions: What would your typical day be like? What are you most excited about? How do you define success in life and for this fellowship? 

Between the interview and final notification, we had another month and a half of waiting. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I ultimately wasn't selected. The news was pretty tough on me since this was such a long and demanding process. I felt that I had invested so much time "for nothing". Sure, I've learned how to put together a project from scratch, and to communicate with people all over the world, and to manage my time effectively--but that pales in comparison to the benefits and lessons I might have reaped from actually going on this project. It was even more devastating since I felt that I fit the profile of "what they were looking for"--someone who could explore independently, make rich connections around the world, and wrestle with unforeseen challenges, amongst other things. But as with any fellowship, hundreds of other people must've felt the same way.

For personal closure, I wanted to share my experience with any future applicants. This is an incredible opportunity requiring a lot of time and effort. Things might not go the way you wanted, but it's possible that they will. For reference, here are the major components of my application, plus some analysis at the end:

Professional interests:

I am still uncertain of my career plans, but I am hoping the Watson year will inform my next steps. Since high school, I have entertained a plethora of potential paths, from law to physical therapy to education. Until this past year, I was afraid of having no concrete trajectory. While studying abroad at Oxford, however, I learned the value of taking a step back—I temporarily stopped playing violin, a twelve-year passion, to allow new interests to incubate. During my five-month violin hiatus, a friend and I developed and launched Thank You for the Tragedy, an online collection of romantic tragedy memoirs, a space for authors to find closure and empowerment through prose. This project continues to be one of my greatest joys, and is a love I could not have found without breaking a long-held routine. So, while I am currently considering a career in math or French pedagogy, I am open to any new interests this year of reflection and exploration may unearth.

Bio:

Lily Fang is confused. As a French language enthusiast and American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, she wanders between many cultures, languages, and worlds. Her mother tongues are English and Mandarin, though she considers English her linguistic home. Since middle school, she has dreamt of calling the French language her own. As a foreigner, however, she wonders whether such a chase has an end, and if so, what it would mean to belong to the French language. She is currently exploring these language and identity questions in her French thesis, a personal reflection on her quest for French fluency.

Personal statement:

“I was taken aback when I first met you. I thought to myself: whoa, it’s kind of funny to see a Chinese woman speaking French with an American accent.

I chuckled at my French friend’s candid remark. “Don’t worry, it’s kind of funny to be a Chinese woman who speaks French with an American accent.”

Chinese woman speaking French with an American accent. It sounded complicated already, but to me, such a statement wasn’t nuanced enough. Could I be Chinese if I was born in America and my Mandarin skills were rudimentary? Could I be American I was raised in a Chinese household? Could I ever belong to the French language if I looked and sounded like a foreigner? These questions surfaced and resurfaced during my time abroad in France. They were questions without answers—questions that had long occupied my thoughts.

I’ve been a nomad of languages from birth. As immigrants from China, my parents hoped to instill in me their language, their homeland, while equipping me with the language of their new country. So when I was an infant, my mother spoke to me in Mandarin and English. One moment, she would recite traditional Chinese poems; the next, English nursery rhymes. I’ve forgotten the Chinese poems, but like most American children, I still remember the nursery rhymes. There was “London Bridge,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” “Humpty Dumpty.” As a Chinese-American, I felt like Humpty Dumpty. For most of my childhood, I sat on the wall between my two worlds and languages. For most of my childhood, I felt intact—by living in the space in-between, I thought I belonged to both cultures.  

Then, I fell.

“What do you want to eat?” My grandfather prompted me.

I felt panicky. We were at a neighborhood noodle bar in Hangzhou, my mother’s hometown. I was a high school sophomore, and it was my first trip to China in seven years. What do you want to eat? I would normally respond to such a question with unabashed eagerness, but deciding what to eat here meant reading the menu—a menu written uniquely in Chinese. The enigmatic characters danced dizzily across the pages. I frantically searched for familiar words, preferably “vegetable” and “vermicelli.” My grandfather couldn’t know that I was essentially illiterate in Mandarin. His shame would surely dwarf mine. Mandarin was one of my mother tongues, yet it felt so foreign.

I had fallen onto the American side, it seemed. America, after all, was my birthplace, and English was my primary language, the language I used most. Yet it wasn’t as simple as being more American than Chinese, or knowing English better than Mandarin. I had thought I belonged to both worlds. But after tumbling from my childhood perch, I realized I had never fully inhabited either culture. I was too American to be Chinese in China, and too Chinese to be American in America. In the States, I ate subs for lunch, and bok choy for dinner. I ran cross country in the afternoon, and tinkered around on the Chinese fiddle in the evening. I spoke English at school, and Mandarin at home. The two cultures were innately part of me, but the parts that anchored me in one sphere only rendered me foreign in the other.

I was a bunch of pieces that wouldn’t go together.

I only added to the fragments and confusion when I began chasing French fluency. Since middle school, I had dreamt of spontaneously forming eloquent sentences and speaking with an impeccable accent. I wanted to call the French language “mine.” Such a goal seemed so distant and lofty in the States, where there were few opportunities for French immersion. So in my junior year of college, I flew to Bordeaux for a four-month academic exchange.

For the first time, my primary language was not one of my mother tongues. I became frustrated and discouraged when I could no longer accurately express myself. Instead of animatedly recounting comical tales from my life, I grew timid during conversations, straining to understand while stumbling through my own words. I felt as if I switched personas while speaking French, almost as if I were a foreigner to myself.

Still I persisted, frequently attending linguistic exchanges and meeting weekly with a language tutor. After three months, my oral expression score on the TCF (test de connaissance du français) progressed from intermediate to superior. Yet I was still unsatisfied. I could now carry real conversations, but I nonetheless sounded American. I wanted to truly command the language—to master the pronunciation, colloquialisms, and mannerisms. I wanted to erase my linguistic foreignness.

But I had run out of time. I soon had to leave France for my second semester abroad at Oxford. Back in anglophone territory, I quickly became wistful for the French language. So mere weeks after departing France, I began plotting my return. Oxford’s six-week Easter break seemed like a prime opportunity for serious language learning. Instead of gallivanting across Europe with my friends, I flew back to France for a month of French immersion. During this time, I spoke only French, effectively foregoing contact with most of my friends and family in the States. I even deleted my English-dominated social media apps, instead dedicating my extra time to vocabulary study. I grew more and more confident speaking French—I began to adopt native expressions, sentence structures, and filler words. Near the end of my stay, I even comfortably carried a conversation in French for over three hours.

But there was always more progress to make. When the chance arose, I returned to France for a long weekend. At my request, my local host gave me informal pronunciation lessons. We focused on one word in particular—Bordeaux. Despite living in Bordeaux for four months, I still couldn’t pronounce the city’s name. My host and I laughed uncontrollably as I tried stumbling through tongue twisters, plugging my nose, mimicking the French GPS. Borr-dough. Bohr-doh. Bordeaux? I was using my larynx too much, he said. And speaking too loudly, like most Americans. I should instead raise the pitch of my voice, use a softer tone, and speak from the upper part of my throat. We practiced for three hours that weekend, but I still couldn’t pronounce Bordeaux; I simply struggled to produce the correct sound.

My host asked me why I wanted a native French accent. Most locals found foreign accents endearing, so why struggle and toil? But my American accent didn’t make me feel charming; it made me feel like an outsider. Upon hearing my accent, some locals would speak to me differently—they would speak more slowly and avoid more nuanced topics, either intentionally or subconsciously. Some of them would even respond to me in English.

But my accent wasn’t always a barrier. On the train in France, I once met an Italian woman who owned a restaurant in Burgundy. She had lived in France for twenty years, but still spoke with a thick accent. I felt at ease while speaking to her—we were both foreigners, so she would understand if I made a mistake. She would sympathize. For the first time, I realized that my accent could facilitate connections, instead of hindering them. We became friends quickly, and she offered to host me if I were ever in her region.

And so I wondered: If I were to erase my accent, would I lose my inherent link with other foreigners? Would my conversations with French locals be richer? Was it even physically possible for me to attain native pronunciation?

Most importantly: what role did French play in my fragmented identity? My French abilities had long since surpassed my Mandarin skills—could a foreign language eventually supplant one’s mother tongue(s)? French had begun to infiltrate my Mandarin conversations; sometimes, I would slip and use French filler words.

These questions followed me back to the U.S., where I continue to wrestle with these thoughts in my French thesis. I am studying the fragment as a literary form, and penning my own fragments on my pursuit of the French language. As inspiration for my creative writing, I am consulting the works of exiled French writers. Hearing others’ stories helps me understand my own, just as speaking with that woman on the train revealed to me the duality of these identity puzzles.

Sometimes, there is belonging in otherness. During my Watson year, I hope to speak with other multilingual francophones who wander between cultures, languages, and worlds. I hope to document their stories, and to continue my written personal reflections.

As our lives become increasingly global, as populations uproot themselves in search of better homes, these language and identity questions become all the more pressing. There are no answers to our questions and no glue for our pieces. But as we invite one another into our distinct worlds, we create collective resonance. By writing and storytelling, I find unity in discontinuity, weaving a space for these variegated cultural and linguistic fragments to coexist.


 Grant Proposal (Last names of contacts and identifying information have been removed to respect their privacy):

Language, Identity, and Displacement: Finding Belonging in Otherness.


“What is my mother tongue? I don’t know the answer. Is it the language I speak at home, the language of my first words, or the other language, the one spoken on the streets, in the schools, the language that I learned to read and write?” (D’une langue à l’autre [From one language to another], documentary by Nurith Aviv).

These questions, ones I have pondered since childhood, will be the focus of my Watson project. For three months each, I will travel to Réunion, Vietnam, Morocco, and Belgium to interview their multilingual francophone populations and explore the interactions between language, identity, and displacement. I wonder: Can “the other language” eventually become one’s mother tongue? How does a multiplicity of languages fragment one’s identity? What role does displacement—whether physical such as immigration, or institutional such as colonization—play in these questions? As a French language learner, I am especially intrigued by the concept of the foreign accent. I will speak with locals who adopted French as a foreign language to investigate the following: How does speaking with a foreign accent impact one’s sense of belonging or otherness? Why would foreign speakers try to erase their accents, or not? What factors influence one’s ability to attain native pronunciation?

I hope to document my interviews with the locals of these countries through film. Film, after all, will bring a depth and richness to my sociolinguistic study—it will capture the accents, people, and stories in a way that written words or photos cannot. I will aim to complete five in-depth interviews in each country. To promote a more natural flow of thought and a more intimate glimpse into the locals’ stories, I will film and speak with the interviewees as they go about their daily lives.

I will begin the project in Réunion, a French overseas department east of Madagascar. While 80% of the population are native Creole-speakers, French is the only official language of education, administration, and diplomacy. Just as the languages exist in separate spheres, so do their people; the French expats in Réunion interact little with the natives, keeping instead to their isolated communities. I hope to explore these tensions—how do the groups feel about one another and their respective languages? Since some locals may view French as the language of colonization, I will remain sensitive to any strong feelings that could arise during our discussions. I am also drawn to Réunion’s mingling of cultures—the island’s diverse inhabitants hail primarily from Africa, India, Europe and China. I am especially interested in speaking with the communities of Chinese descendants who have remained connected to their roots. How do these locals simultaneously preserve and synthesize their respective identities? Sylvie, a native Réunionnaise and local middle school teacher, has agreed to host me and help me find interviewees. She is also a distance runner, so I look forward to training with her for Réunion’s annual series of trail endurance races. Martin, a British expat and local English teacher, has equally agreed to connect me to his network for potential interviewees. I have also reached out to the organization Réunionnais du Monde, an international network of the Réunion diaspora. They will assist me in my search for organizations that could contribute to my project, such as Lofis la lang kréol, a group that advocates teaching Creole in schools.

My study will then take me to Vietnam, where I expect my stay to be most challenging. As a person of Asian descent, I will likely experience additional displacement in a foreign country where I may conform physically, yet whose culture and language is unfamiliar. While Vietnam is a former French colony, less than five percent of the population identify as French-speakers. French remains commonly taught in schools, however, providing ample opportunity to interview French language learners. I will begin my stay in Hanoi, where I have connected with locals Yen and Duy. Yen and Duy have graciously offered to facilitate my transition to a new country and to help me recruit interviewees. For more information on the francophone community, I have contacted the French Embassy in Hanoi. Etienne, the director of the [OFFICE], has agreed to field my questions. I hope to examine what the decline of French influence meant for the Vietnamese people, and how locals currently interact with the French language and culture. After six weeks, I will travel to Ho Chi Minh City, where the family of Amherst alumna Nhi will help me secure housing. Her brother, Minh, is a local student who can facilitate my adjustment to the new city and connect me with students learning French. I have also exchanged with Minh Ha, a local who will seek possible interviewees amongst his Catholic community, where there is likely a higher concentration of French speakers. Some of the older brothers and sisters may have even lived through French occupation, so hearing their stories would bring historical depth to my study.

I will spend the next few months in Morocco, also a former French colony. While Arabic and Berber are the two official languages, French remains prevalent, especially in larger cities. I hope to explore how the Moroccan postcolonial relationship with the French language differs from that in Vietnam, and why. Does perhaps proximity to France play a role? Since most of the population is at least bilingual, I will also examine the concept of the primary language versus the mother tongue. What does it mean when the two are in conflict? I will begin my stay in Fez, where the film club of [INSTITUTE] will be one of my primary contacts. Eleven of the club’s members have expressed interest in helping me with my project, from providing filming support to orienting me in Fez. In particular, Ghizlane, a local university student researching the French culture’s role in Moroccan society, has offered to provide historical context for my study and connect me with possible interviewees. After six weeks, I will continue to Casablanca. I have spoken with Dounia, co-founder of [ORGANIZATION], a Moroccan organization promoting cultural accessibility and diversity in African countries. She has agreed to help me acclimate to the city and assist me in coordinating interviews. I am also in contact with Sofiane, director of cultural programming at [ORGANIZATION], who will also help me find interviewees.

My final destination will be Belgium, a country boasting three official languages. I will stay in Brussels, a melting pot of languages and cultures. In fact, 70% of its residents were born outside of the country, 36% of which hail from non-European countries. The large percentage of immigrants suggests a plethora of foreign accents. Two Brussels natives, Nathalie and Muriel, have agreed to be my local guides. With their help, I will seek interviewees who can speak of their experiences of linguistic displacement. While immigration is a likely cause of such movement, there also exist long-held tensions between Belgium’s French-speaking and Dutch-speaking regions (Wallonia and Flanders, respectively). Their school systems, people, and loyalties remain divided—many Flemish consider their home Flanders, rather than Belgium as a whole. Brussels is at the foreground of this conflict; it is where the two worlds meet. Some locals may have thus experienced displacement within the country itself—Nathalie, for example, switched from a Dutch-speaking school to a French one as a child. Over time, she erased her Dutch accent in French. I want to hear from locals with similar experiences; with different accents, how did others’ perceptions of them change? Does speaking with a different accent result in an identity transformation, like the one we may undergo when speaking another language?

I anticipate many challenges during my Watson year. For one, I have never traveled to a country whose primary language I do not speak, such as Vietnam and Morocco. I plan to intensively self-study Vietnamese and Moroccan Arabic the summer before departure. I am quite familiar with the effort required for language acquisition, having dedicated four weeks in spring 2017 to total French immersion. I would bring similar devotion to my study of new languages.

Additionally, I am a novice at video production, so part of the “stretch” of this year will be to gain new skills in this milieu, and perhaps even to create a documentary. To this end, I will draw upon the advice of Sharon, creator of [FILM], a documentary on Chinese immigrant life in Paris. I will also consult with Benjamin, co-founder of [PROJECT], a global identity film initiative. Since identity is a delicate and nuanced topic, some locals may initially feel uncomfortable sharing their stories in front of the camera. It may also prove difficult to organize the many interviews I conduct into a cohesive film. I hope to learn from the experiences of these filmmakers so that I am well-equipped for challenges such as these.


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Analysis and Speculation

Where did this go wrong? I think immediately of the interview, which I found mostly-uncomfortable though overall okay. I had much better chemistry with my mock interviewers and with my campus fellowships committee, who seemed to enjoy my quips and were genuinely interested in understanding my project better. My official Watson interview felt more like a test with the touchy questions and challenges to my answers. My interview was also last of the day, meaning that my interviewer had already done 3 hours of questioning beforehand (scheduling was unfortunately not in my power). Still, the Watson committee was composed of 5 people, so I don't ultimately know how much weight the interview had.

I also wonder whether my honesty in my professional plans answer was concerning to the committee. I openly said that I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, though Amherst's fellowships director assured me that this was no problem for someone with a strong academic record and clear demonstrated discipline. But perhaps the committee felt I was simply looking for an excuse to do whatever I wanted for a year.

The committee might also have felt that my project was too tenuous--I proposed interviews with locals in hopes of making a documentary despite having little film experience. Still, I feel that I justified my decision to film--my topic was language, so what better way to document my interactions than through film? I'm a storyteller, and I wanted to tell their stories.

It is possible, however, that I was lacking a more grounded exchange with the local populations. Other projects proposed working in orphanages along with interviews, or working with refugees along with interviews. I only had interviews, which might've made it seem like I viewed the people of my proposed countries merely as film subjects.

Ultimately, I really can't say. It's also frustrating because the Watson guidelines emphasize how the selection process is about the person, not the project. They say that they sometimes fund incredible people with mediocre projects, though not incredible projects created my mediocre people. This makes rejection really personal and makes you question your value as an individual--what made those ultimately selected any more "exceptional" than those who weren't?

In any case, I wish all my best to anyone considering this fellowship--please let me know if you have any questions about what I've written, or anything I didn't address in this post! You can also consult the official Watson Foundation page.

Cheers,
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UPDATE: The Watson Committee actually does provide feedback on each finalist's candidacy. In a phone call to Amherst's fellowships director, they revealed that I was ultimately in the top 33% of finalists (they chose only the top 40, so about the top 27%). What brought me down was the attainability of my project--they said they were concerned about me getting and conducting the interviews. I don't know that I find this reason compelling--I'm able to get people to talk to me about their romantic tragedies and write essays on them, and language and identity seems much tamer (they knew this as well, since I had listed my romantic tragedy site in my application). I think it's important for applicants to know, however, that the committee does care a lot about a project's attainability. 

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