APPLETON, WIS. — Growing up in Lima, Peru, Lawrence University senior Valeria Rojas experienced the sting of discrimination firsthand. Even though she was born and raised there, she was a “mestiza” — a person of mixed ethnicity — and her darker skin made her a target of childhood taunts.
“I grew up in a society where open discrimination against the indigenous people or anyone without European features was more the rule than the exception,” says Rojas.
Her childhood experiences have motivated her as an adult to combat stereotypes and discrimination. As one of the 50 national recipients of a $25,000 fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation announced March 14 by the Rhode Island-based foundation, Rojas will have an opportunity to pursue her passion. She will embark on a year-long examination of ethnic discrimination and social exclusion throughout South America.
Rojas was one of 50 seniors from 23 states and five foreign countries awarded a Watson Fellowship, which supports a year of independent travel and exploration outside the United States on a topic of the student’s choosing. Nearly 1,000 students from up to 50 selective private liberal arts colleges and universities apply for the Watson Fellowship each year. This year’s award-winners were selected from among 175 finalists.
“The awards are long-term investments in people, not research,” said Rosemary Macedo, the executive 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.”
Beginning in August, Rojas’ project will take her to Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador to study the historically prominent indigenous communities of the Mapuches, Aymaras and Quechuas, spending approximately four months living in each community. She intends to explore the issue of discrimination and social exclusion from three perspectives: the indigenous people themselves, the government and civil society.
“I want to learn more about these native communities by immersing myself in them and experiencing their cultures every day,” said Rojas, 22, who is majoring in economics and government with a minor in anthropology at Lawrence. “I want to learn more about their rich, cultural past, the current social situation and their future aspirations. I want to know what they think about the ethnic discrimination and social exclusion they face. By living with them, I will be able to observe how discrimination affects their self-esteem and attitude toward the rest of society.”
Part of her stay in each community also will involve working as a volunteer with local and regional non-governmental organizations and government institutions dedicated to promoting the development of the indigenous communities. She already has made arrangements to work with the Chilean National Commission for Indigenous Development (CONADI) and the Bilingual Intercultural Education Training for the Andean Countries Program (PROEIB) in Bolivia.
At the end of her “wanderjahr,” Rojas hopes to share her experiences with as many people as possible, especially other mestizos like herself.
“The ethnic discrimination and social exclusion experienced daily in Latin America is something I cannot tolerate and I feel like it has become my duty to help in a struggle that divides entire populations,” said Rojas, who intends to pursue graduate studies in international development following her fellowship. “I want to promote a change in attitude among Latin Americans. I’m not trying to be a savior, but someone has to start breaking down the stereotypes and make people stop to think about their opinions and what those opinions are based on. The Watson fellowship offers me the unique opportunity to help make that happen.”
“Vale’s project grows out of her academic work at Lawrence, her personal experiences and her passionate devotion to social justice,” said Tim Spurgin, associate professor and Bonnie Glidden Buchanan Professor of English, who serves as Lawrence’s campus liaison to the Watson program. “Her project will definitely be challenging, but there’s no doubt of her ability to succeed with it.”
Rojas is the 66th 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.
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 2,500 fellowships have been awarded.