Grinnell’s Watson fellows reminisce, inspire during 50th anniversary celebration

Apr. 24, 2018 — It wasn’t in her application materials, but Lane Atmore ’16 had a secret motivation when she took her Watson Fellowship trip in 2016-2017.

Lane Atmore ’16
    Lane Atmore '16

“I wanted to find a reason to be optimistic about humanity and where we were going,” she says. “I set out to find people living passionately who find creative ways to combat problems.”

During a whirlwind year that took her to eight countries, she encountered plenty of unforeseen circumstances and witnessed the hardship of a refugee camp. Shortly after considering giving up, she found a group of people who renewed her humanistic perspective aboard a shipping boat exporting coffee and vodka from Honduras. She had found a fully committed group who was breaking barriers of how things were supposed to be done.

“It was the happiest I’ve been in my entire life,” she says about her time as a crew member. “My whole Watson was a very nonlinear unexpected journey.”

Atmore’s voyage was one of many stories shared by 14 Grinnell College Watson fellows during a 50th anniversary celebration April 19-20.

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the U.S. awarded to graduating seniors nominated by one of 40 partner colleges. Grinnell College has nominated students for the Watson program since its inception in 1969. With the selection last month of Artis Curiskis ’18 and Nomalanga Shields ’18 for postgraduate fellowships in 2018-2019, a total of 79 Grinnell College students have been selected to traverse the globe on topics of personal significance and passion.

The 50th anniversary celebration theme was Imagine Your Watson! Students attending did just that during a Watson Fellow Decades Panel, and the Watson Slam, where alumni gave 10-minute presentations modeled after a poetry slam.

“I came to see what the Watson experience was all about,” said Imany Noel ’20, a Chicago native who is studying biological chemistry and French. “One thing I didn’t think about was the reality of finding something to do every day and finding people to talk with,” she says. “How do you drop into a country and find a way to make it happen? I feel like it takes a lot of creativity, and you have to be ready for anything.”

Forty five years ago Robert Eckardt ’73 dropped into Spain for the start of his Watson without the benefit of social media, cell phones, and other connection technologies that are commonplace today. His project was about how Europeans approached caring for older populations.

“It’s such a solo event,” he says. “What do I do now? How do I find housing and get it started? My passion about the issue is what sustained me. I wanted to learn about aging, and doing so set me on a career path and helped overcome barriers.”

Eckardt went on to earn advanced degrees in public health, spent four decades working in the public health field, and to this day serves on boards that focus on the issues of aging. He’s not sure any of it would have happened without the fellowship.

Conversely, sometimes the Watson journey brings to light what not to do. Linn Davis ’08 spent his Watson investigating journalists in South Africa and India. Rather than become a journalist himself, Davis works for a nonprofit called Health Democracy, which creates innovative public engagement programs.

“I learned that I really like people, but journalism requires a level of both extraversion and introversion that I don’t have,” Davis says. “Personal self-motivation was the biggest thing I learned. I was surprised at my own weakness. I got involved in everything at Grinnell, but when I went away, I discovered I was a more complex person. Sometimes that passion wanes.”

Whales are a longtime passion for Rachel Stamm ’94 who set out to find them and the complexities of ecotourism during her Watson year. She discovered the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of the industry. While lonely at times, she forced herself to go with the flow, including serving as government monitor while sick during a humpback whale expedition in the Dominican Republic.

David Gaines ’74, left, Rachel Stamm ’94, and Todd Oberman ’83
David Gaines ’74, left, Rachel Stamm ’94, and Todd Oberman ’83 talk about their Watson Fellowship experiences before a Watson-themed poetry slam event April 20 in the Spencer Grill.

After the Watson panel session, Bryce Lew ’19 said it was interesting to hear how fluid the projects were and how they changed over time, such as Stamm and Atmore’s sailing adventures.

“I didn’t expect the transitions the alums had to make,” he says. “Overall, I didn’t realize how awesome the Watson fellowship was until I came to this event and heard what so many alums did. By gaging what other people have done, I got a better picture of what is possible.”

Other fellows returning for the celebration were Mary Brooner ’71, Doug Russell ’71, David Gaines ’74, Susan Hyatt ’76, Kathleen Kurz ’79, Donna Olds White ’81, Todd Oberman ’83, Adam Stam ’93, Hai-Dang Phan ’03, and Alexander Reich ’11.

For more information about Watson Fellowships, visit or contact Ann Landstrom, Grinnell College director of global fellowships and awards in the Center for Careers, Life, and Service, at 641-269-4940 or

— by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

The Watson celebration will continue at Reunion 2018. A conversation and reception with Watson fellows is scheduled for 9:30 to 11 a.m. on Friday, June 1. Reunion registration is open until May 4 without a late fee.