Lawrence University Senior Awarded $28,000 Watson Fellowship to Find the Two “I”s in Indian

APPLETON, WIS. — Madhuri Vijay wants to violate the first rule of writing: write what you know.

Having spent the past four years as a student at Lawrence University, Vijay knows what it’s like to be an Indian living in the United States. But the senior from Bangalore, India, wants to explore what life is like for her countrymen living in other countries.

“I want to turn that rule on its head, travel the world and get to know the things I want to write about,” said Vijay. “I want to tell the stories of people like myself, people displaced from their native country, living in a vastly different one who are forging an identity that must inevitably come to terms with a double-history, a double life.”

Beginning in August, Vijay will embark on a year-long search for those stories as one of 40 national recipients of a $28,000 fellowship from the Rhode Island-based Thomas J. Watson Foundation. Vijay was selected for the fellowship, which supports a year of independent travel and exploration outside the United States on a topic of the student’s choosing, from among 177 finalists. Her fellowship proposal was entitled “The Two ‘I’s in ‘Indian’: Writing the Stories of the Indian Diaspora.”

Nearly 1,000 students from 47 selective private liberal arts colleges and universities annually apply for the Watson Fellowship.

Vijay will use her fellowship to travel to Fiji, often referred to “Little India” because of its large Indian population, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which has had contact with India since the 15th century, Durban, South Africa, where Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi established the Phoenix Settlement for Indians who wanted to peacefully resist oppression, and finally Tanzania, which boasts two distinct Indian populations: one that was born and raised there and one that has recently arrived.

“In this ever-flattening world, Indians are found all over the world, but their stories have largely gone untold,” said Vijay, who will graduate in June with a degree in English and psychology. “As a writer and a social scientist, I have a fascination with people, cultures and identity. I would like to combine my two passions to produce a book of short stories about the lives of Indians around the world.”

Tim Spurgin, associate professor and Bonnie Glidden Buchanan Professor of English, who serves as Lawrence’s campus liaison to the Watson program, calls Vijay “a perfect choice” for a Watson Fellowship.

“Madhuri is bright, talented and basically fearless,” said Spurgin. “Not many college grads would attempt a project as ambitious as hers — and only a handful would be capable of pulling it off.”

During her travels abroad, Vijay will explore what Indian customs and traditions these people still cling to, what aspects of their new country they’ve embraced and how they balance the cultural line of being native Indian with being Tanzanian, Fijian or Malaysian.

“I realize that shared skin color and features are no longer enough to claim a kinship with Indians around the world,” said Vijay. “Writing stories of the people I’ll meet will allow me to understand the unique and multifaceted identities of the Indian diaspora. It will help me develop my own transcontinental identity as a woman from India, a student in America and a citizen of the world.”

In addition to helping define her own personal identity, Vijay sees her fellowship opportunity as a litmus test for her passionate, but largely unspoken, ambition of being a writer.

“I share the seed of self-doubt that plagues all aspiring writers: do I have stories worth telling? And do I have the words with which to tell them?,” said Vijay. “I believe that I do and I want to prove it. My fellowship will be nothing short of a journey of self-discovery, because at the end of it, I’ll know what my next step in life should be.”

If she wasn’t previously a believer in the axiom “first impressions are lasting impressions,” Vijay surely is now. The Watson selection committee started their interview process this year at Lawrence last November and Vijay was the very first of the 177 finalists to be screened.

Vijay is the 67th Lawrence student awarded a Watson Fellowship since the program’s inception in 1969. It was established by the children of Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the founder of International Business Machines Corp., and his wife, Jeannette, to honor their parents’ long-standing interest in education and world affairs.

“The awards are long-term investments in people, not research,” said Cleveland Johnson, director of the Watson Fellowship Program. “We look for people likely to lead or innovate in the future and give them extraordinary independence in pursuing their interests. They must have passion, creativity and a feasible plan. The Watson Fellowship affords an unequalled opportunity for global experiential learning.”

Watson Fellows are selected on the basis of the nominee’s character, academic record, leadership potential, willingness to delve into another culture and the personal significance of the project proposal. Since its founding, nearly 2,600 fellowships have been awarded.

The New York Times, starring Lawrence University (again)

On December 17, the New York Times online ran a piece called Q&A College Admissions, an insider’s perspective on the difficult-to-decipher world of college admissions. To get the perspective, the Times put together a panel of admissions deans from Yale University, Pomona College, the University of Texas at Austin and Lawrence University, starring our very own Steve Syverson.

Paying for College: What the Media Fail to Point Out

It’s a truism to say that the current financial upheavals in the world have prompted many of us to feel insecure about the future. Predictably, the media have begun to run stories about students who are changing their college choices because (according to the media), “they can no longer afford to attend the higher-priced private colleges they originally were interested in.” It’s easy to find these students and to report their stories–there’s dramatic tension in them, so they lend themselves well to storytelling. But, as is so often the case with media stories about higher education, they are also dangerously simplistic.

The most unfortunate part of these stories is that they encourage other students (and their families) to alter their college choices inappropriately. These stories focus on the cost of college–or, more accurately, on the perceived cost of college–as the primary factor on which to base a college choice. In doing so, they distract attention from what should be the primary factor–that of how good a match a particular college is for a particular student. Students who follow the path the media has set out for them are encouraged to “settle” for colleges that are not perhaps the best match for them.

The scenario typically offered by the media makes the assumption that a student’s family would pay the entire cost of college and, confronted by a decline in its financial resources, the family (and the student) is relegated to choosing a lower-priced college. At most high-priced private colleges, many (if not the majority of the) families cannot afford the full cost of education, so they receive financial aid to allow them to do so. If a family in this group has suffered a financial downturn, it will now be eligible for more financial aid than it might have been previously. Similarly, if a family that previously could have afforded the entire cost of education suffers such a downturn and no longer can afford the entire cost, it will now join the ranks of those who qualify for need-based aid.

Certainly, there is a small number of families who, like those featured in the media, have suffered a substantial downturn, but still will not qualify for need-based aid even at a private college. Those families are probably among the top 3 to 5 percent of the nation’s wealthiest families. So even though the cost of college is now higher in relation to their financial circumstances, the argument that they “must” choose a lower-priced college really is not accurate. They may “decide” to choose a less expensive college–but it is a choice, not a financial necessity.

College should be viewed as a long-term investment, as it will pay dividends over a lifetime. Students should not abandon their college dreams because of short-term financial challenges. If a student has a great experience at a college that is a great match for him or her, twenty years from now that experience will still be paying great dividends.

Stay tuned… there is more to come.

Steve Syverson

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid

Changing the game of standardized tests

It has been said that you’re judged by the company you keep. If that’s the case, then Harvard should feel pretty good about itself after being mentioned alongside Lawrence University in two New York Times articles that have appeared in the past week, both about the importance–or overimportance–of standardized tests in the college admission process. The first one, “College Panel Calls for Less Focus on SATs,” ran Monday, September 22:

A commission convened by some of the country’s most influential college admission officials is recommending that colleges and universities move away from their reliance on SAT and ACT scores and shift toward admissions exams more closely tied to the high school curriculum and achievement… Read more.

Lawrence University’s dean of admissions and financial aid, Steve Syverson, served along with Harvard’s dean of admissions and financial aid, William Fitzsimmons, who chaired the commission. The commission has concluded something that Lawrence has known for years: standardized tests are not the best predictor of academic performance in college. (That’s why Lawrence gives students the option to choose whether they wish to have the university consider their test results in its admission review.)

Apparently there are a lot of people that feel the same way Lawrence does. At a session in Seattle at last week’s national conference for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (that’s a mouthful), Steve Syverson and the rest of the testing commission presented their findings to an enthusiastic (and fire-marshal-maddening) crowd. The New York Times followed up their September 22 article with another one that ran September 29, this time covering the conference.

For the 5,500 college admissions officials and high school guidance counselors who gathered here over the weekend, there were discussions, debates and analyses of things like the ethics of tracking student applicants on Facebook and “Why Good Students Write Bad College Essays — and How to Stop It… But for this crowd, at the Seattle convention center for the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the main event was William R. Fitzsimmons’s first public presentation of the findings of the Study of the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission… The line formed early for Mr. Fitzsimmons’s panel, and with more than 1,000 people jockeying for a limited number of seats — a scene that brought to mind the college admissions process — the event was moved to the ballroom. Read more.

Whether students choose to submit their tests to Lawrence or not, the admissions office knows that there is far more to students than standardized test performance. Student achievements and aspirations are far more important–and are the things should be spending their energy on.

Lawrence featured in NY Times Article for Test Optional stance

Lawrence Vice President for Enrollment Steve Syverson served on a commission convened by the National Association for College Admission Counseling that is releasing its recommendations Wednesday (9/24) at a national meeting in Seattle that call for colleges and universities to be less reliant on standardized test scores in the admissions process. Syverson spoke recently to the New York Times about the commission’s report.