- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2003

It’s a warm afternoon, but Arthur Middleton’s blue Oxford shirt and khaki pants still look ironed. Though no uniform is required for his summer job in New York City’s Bryant Park, he likes to appear as professional as possible.

The only thing throwing off his look is a giant brown hawk that occasionally lands on his gloved left hand when it’s not flying through the trees scaring pigeons.

Mr. Middleton, 23, a recent Bowdoin College graduate, works as a falconer as part of program to humanely control the pigeon population in the park.

“People don’t realize I’m working, and they just think I’m another city freak with a bird,” he says with a shrug.

Mr. Middleton picked up falconry while visiting England during a year off between high school and college. Now, while many of his fellow college graduates across the country are looking at bleak job prospects in a bleak economy, Mr. Middleton’s avian interests will take him as far away from Bryant Park as Ireland, South Africa and Mongolia.

He, along with 48 other recent college graduates, will leave the country this summer to pursue a yearlong independent-study project on a grant from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation.

This is the 35th year the foundation has given out awards, and this year’s recipients will receive $22,000 each ($31,000 if they are accompanied by a spouse or dependent child).

Funded by a charitable trust from the family of IBM founder Thomas J. Watson Sr., the foundation has sent over 2,000 college graduates abroad since 1968.

Unlike the federally funded Fulbright study-abroad program, the Watson Fellowship is not conducted in conjunction with any formal host-country institution. What really makes the Watson different from other postgraduate programs is the nature of the studies it funds.

From projects on wildfire suppression to guitar crafting to turtle ecology, a Watson fellow is more likely to worry about where to get a good internal-frame backpack than a good suit.

“The independent nature of the study is at the core of the program,” says Executive Director Beverly Larson. “I think each project really reflects the individual who proposed it.”

Fellows must not return to the United States during the fellowship year except under rare circumstances and with program approval. But most of all, a project must be imaginative, feasible and of extreme personal significance.

And to carry it out, Mrs. Larson says, the foundation is looking for “people with a track record of success and tenacity and the ability to follow through.”

While that sounds like it could be many of the talented graduates who come from the consortium of 50 small liberal arts colleges that can nominate their students, the foundation asks for a fair amount of determination and fortitude as well.

“You must want to do this so badly that when it is cold and rainy, and you have lost your passport, and your camera has been stolen, and you’re sick, and your best friend is getting married back home, you will still want to stay abroad and pursue your project,” reads a section from the fellowship’s application criteria.

Which is why, instead of teaching English abroad or trying to make it in the entertainment industry in New York, Nori Lupfer will be using her Watson award to photograph small circus companies in Brazil, Europe and Russia.

“I love to travel and I love to create art,” she says. Miss Lupfer, 22, spent summer breaks during college as a ski jumper in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. She started that summer job after taking a photography class her sophomore year at Union College, and the circus was a perfect place to keep practicing.

After working in a huge corporate-owned circus, she says, “I wanted to see a family circus. I’m searching for the roots of the circus.”

Searching for roots and tradition is a common theme in many Watson projects. Hollis Easter, a 22-year-old Swarthmore College graduate, will study bagpiping in Scotland. “Traditional music of Scotland is taught orally. It doesn’t really lend itself to writing down,” he says. “What excites me is to go there and tap into that oral tradition.”

Mr. Easter has already demonstrated a willingness to travel in support of his love of the bagpipes. As a child growing up in Potsdam, N.Y., he always wanted to play the bagpipes, but there were no teachers in the city. So he started crossing the border into nearby Ontario for instruction.

“The ability to spend time learning in another culture is really a luxury,” he says. That sentiment led him to apply for the Watson Fellowship in particular. “It was the sort of project the Watson Foundation was intended to fund — projects that increase your knowledge and allow you to bring a deeper understanding of the world back to the U.S. and pass it on.”

Promoting a greater understanding of the world is a crucial part of the Watson program, which the foundation considers to be an investment in future leaders. “What we need are more leaders who are self-reflective, well-informed, and mindful world citizens,” says the program literature.

Some students live up to that goal in particularly creative ways.

David LaFevor’s project is a different take on the notion of pugilistic international relations. It will take him to boxing rings in Russia, Turkey, Peru, Spain and Great Britain.

Mr. LaFevor, 22, will study the culture of boxing, a sport he believes will help him get to know people, as opposed to simply traveling through their country. “If you travel, you have to have some reason to interact with people,” he says.

The idea for his project came after he fell in with the Cuban Olympic boxing team while spending a college semester on the island. “I’d been in gyms with $600 punching bags and $100 gloves, and they were turning out mediocre fighters. In Cuba, they were punching car seats, and the fighters were far superior.”

Some Watson projects are looking for hints from abroad to make projects better back home. Irene Keliher, 21, is examining the production of “fair trade” coffee by living in coffee cooperatives in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and Bolivia.

As a head manager in the Motley Coffee House on the campus of Scripps University, she tried to make socially responsible decisions about what products the coffee house supported. Running a business inspired the project she eventually proposed to the Watson Foundation.

“I’m interested in the politics of coffee,” says the Latin American Studies major. “I thought it would be really interesting to see this from the farmers’ perspective. I’m looking at all aspects of fair trade to see how sustainable and alternative it is.”

And while the chance to jet around the world playing the bagpipes or going to the circus may sound like a lucky break to recent grads headed for Kinko’s to photocopy resumes, Beverly Larson says a Watson Fellowship is more than just a free trip.

“It’s really a massive test. There’s no structure, there’s no office to go to every day,” she says. “I think the Watson Fellowship is an extraordinary gift, but it’s no vacation.”

The author traveled to South America on a Watson Fellowship in 1996, and wrote a cookbook of street food.

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