Tag: Watson Fellows

Two Lawrence seniors named Watson Fellows, set for year of global learning

Ricardo Jimenez ’21 and Ben Portzen ’21 are part of the 53rd class of Watson Fellows.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Two Lawrence University seniors have been named national recipients of prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowships, setting them up for a year of global travel and immersive learning.

Ricardo Jimenez ’21, a biology and music performance (trumpet) double major from Barrington, Illinois, and Ben Portzen ’21, a music composition major from Rosemount, Minnesota, were announced as part of the 53rd class of Watson Fellows, making them the 67th and 68th Lawrentians to be awarded a Watson since 1969.

This marks the first time Lawrence has had two Watson recipients in the same year since 2005.

“The Watson is all about chasing one’s dreams,” said Brian Pertl, dean of the Lawrence Conservatory and lead advisor for the school’s Watson applications. “This year, perhaps more than any other, it feels good to know that two Lawrentians will travel around the globe to do just that.”

The Watson provides $36,000 in funding for a year-long wanderjahr of independent travel and exploration following college graduation.

Jimenez will travel to China, India, Mongolia, and Brazil, exploring the ways voice can help people rediscover their roots: “How do we communicate beyond language?” he said in his proposal. “How do the ways we express ourselves inform who we are and where we belong? I will explore these questions through the voice, singing around the world to engage with the life and culture of the voice, as well as my own roots.”

Portzen will travel to Japan, Nepal, France, Germany, and Iceland to explore how art can help inform our journey: “What role can art play in imagining and building a more equitable, sustainable, and compassionate future?” he said in his proposal. “I will explore how — across a variety of traditions, locales, and media — art makes space for the unknown to be embraced, and transformed from feared into fascinating.”

Jimenez: “I was humbled”

Ricardo Jimenez ’21

Jimenez has excelled in the Conservatory as a trumpet player, but he also found his voice in jazz and Latin-influenced music with encouragement and guidance from Director of Jazz Studies José Encarnación and lecturer of music Janet Planet.

The Chicago-born Jimenez has family roots in Puerto Rico and he said his journey to understand how singing can express who we are and where we are started for him as far back as pre-school. When he sang a song in class in Spanish, a teacher scolded him, telling him he could only sing in English.

“That was a very humiliating moment and it’s just stayed with me,” Jimenez said. “It was so powerful to me that I actually stopped speaking Spanish for a number of years. I wanted to fit in. In a way, some of my cultural identity died that day.”

By the time he got to high school, he was singing, but only privately, only with his family as an audience. But when he arrived at Lawrence as a trumpet player, he was encouraged to sing as well, to embrace salsa and the other Latin music he adored.

Two years ago, Encarnación redirected the Lawrence University Jazz Band into a Latin Jazz/Afro-Cuban ensemble. The group went on to earn a coveted Downbeat award in the Latin Group category, and Jimenez was inspired.

“He allowed me to sing and play percussion and that was like the most alive and the most myself that I had ever felt on a stage,” Jimenez said. “That’s how I knew there is something really powerful to this and I have to figure out if this is just me or if this is something that perhaps is innately human, that all cultures and people share.”

That led him to the highly competitive Watson application. The news came earlier this week that he had been accepted.

“It was such a surreal experience,” he said of getting the message from the Watson Foundation. “It was something I was not expecting just because I know it’s so competitive and I know the kind of applications they get are from some of the brightest young minds around the country. I was humbled, to say the least.”

Portzen: “I’m still riding high”

Ben Portzen ’21

Portzen’s Watson journey will be all about discovery. He said he’s fascinated by the unknowns in our lives and the ways art can help define and inform our journeys.

“My project takes as its departure point the intersection of art and the unknown,” he said. “In my four years at Lawrence, studying composition, improvisation, art history, and dance, I’ve found this relationship increasingly compelling both intellectually and personally.”

Gaining insights through the arts can lessen the fear that often accompanies the unknown, Portzen said. He hopes his exploration of different cultures and locales will shed light on that concept.

“While I am deeply passionate about exploring this in my own art-making, what drove me to channel this passion into a Watson Fellowship is the recognition that in our world of globalized unknowns – from environmental degradation to racial injustice to global pandemics – expansive creativity is not a luxury but a necessity as we imagine a more sustainable, equitable, and compassionate future for our world,” he said.

“As I immerse myself in the unique artistic cultures of Japan, Nepal, France, Germany, and Iceland, studying everything from the relationship between light and shade in traditional Japanese architecture to artificially intelligent music making in France, my aim is to experience art’s role in this process; its power to keep us in touch with our humanity, to inspire and challenge, to heal – to take us into the unknown with arms open ready to embrace it.”

Portzen said he was a bit late getting word that he had been named a Watson Fellow. For two weeks he had been checking his phone constantly, awaiting a yes or a no. When the announcement was made on Monday, he didn’t see the message immediately, instead finding out in a congratulations Facebook message from Meghan Murphy ’19, Lawrence’s most recent Watson winner.

“Twenty-four hours later, I’m still riding high on the news but have already gotten to work solidifying plans with my contacts in each country,” Portzen said.

The journey begins

Jimenez and Portzen are among 42 graduating seniors selected for Watson Fellowships out of 158 finalists. The recipients come from 22 states and eight countries.

The announcement of the 2021 Watson class comes even as the COVID-19 pandemic persists. If international travel conditions are deemed safe, all of the fellows are expected to depart Aug. 1. If conditions do not allow that, the fellows will be granted a deferral period.

Watson Fellows are selected from 41 private colleges and universities across the United States that partner with the Watson Foundation. More than 3,000 Watson Fellows have been named since the inaugural class in 1969.

The Watson Foundation dates back to 1961, created as a charitable trust in the name of Thomas J. Watson Sr., best known for building IBM. It works with students to develop personal, professional, and cultural opportunities that build their confidence and perspective to be more humane and effective leaders with a world view.

Being a Watson Fellow is a special life-changing opportunity, said Pertl, himself a Watson Fellow in 1986.

“Ricardo has a special knack for building community through his music,” he said. “This will serve him well as he explores the world, and himself, through song. And Ben, he is part philosopher and part composer with a wildly playful approach to the creative process.  When he told me he wanted to explore how art-makers could explore the vast unknown, hold space for the vast unknown, I knew he had found his perfect Watson.” 

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Two Lawrence University Seniors Awarded $22,000 Fellowships for Year-Long Study Abroad Projects

With the help of kitchen cupboards and china cabinets, Janie Ondracek and Rachel Hoerman cultivated intellectual curiosities as youngsters that have since blossomed into adult passions. Those passions will soon be fed — both literally and figuratively — with a year-long study abroad adventure as newly anointed Watson Fellows.

Ondracek, a senior neuroscience major from Neenah, and Rachel Hoerman, a senior majoring in history and studio art from Bryant, were two of this year’s 50 recipients of a $22,000 fellowship announced Monday (3/15) by the Providence, R.I. based Thomas J. Watson Foundation. The fellowship supports a “wanderjahr” — a year of independent travel and exploration outside the United States — on a topic of the student’s choosing.

Ondracek grew up watching her parents create mouth-watering magic in the family kitchen through wholly different methods. While her mother, the owner of a catering business, paid close attention to her collection of cookbooks, Ondracek’s Czech Republic-born father whipped up eastern European favorites with the flair of a culinary conductor, improvising freely from his spice rack with a pinch here and a dash there.

“Learning through observation, I couldn’t help but love to cook,” said Ondracek.

Her fondness for food, including its preparation, will soon take Ondracek to France, India and Japan to examine the pedagogical methods chefs use to instruct culinary arts students, the technical and visual preparation of meals and the habits, customs and etiquette found in the social consumption of a meal.

“These countries represent three very distinct customs of food preparation, from the seasonings and ingredients used, to the manner in which each course is prepared,” said Ondracek. “I want to explore these countries as an apprentice cook and as a true devotee of the rigor, care and pleasure that goes into making, arranging and consuming a meal.”

During her year abroad, Ondracek will visit a variety of restaurants and culinary schools in Lyon and Paris in France, interview chefs and individual residents in both southern India, where the Hindu influence favors a largely vegetarian cuisine, and northern India, where the kitchens of Bengali women play a role and conclude her wanderjahr in Japan speaking with culinary instructors in Tokyo and Kyoto.

“Social situations fascinate me,” said Ondracek, who plans to pursue a medical degree when she finishes her fellowship. “Each country undoubtedly has a very specific code of etiquette. I’m curious to learn how these rules developed and the history behind them.

“I hope to experience not only the pleasures of savoring foreign delicacies, but the satisfaction of learning about fascinating cultures in such a revealing and personally significant way,” she added. “The Watson offers me a chance to meet people who are as enthusiastic about food as I am despite our cultural differences. And it offers me an opportunity, unlike any other, to be able to say that I have honestly and unreservedly pursued one of my most treasured interests in life.”

Hoerman’s fascination with non-Western art grew out of the living room of her grandmother’s 100-year old farm house. Stories told by her grandfathers and great uncles recounted their experiences in World War II and the Korean War. Objects from those faraway lands kept in the family china cabinet — beautifully decorated black lacquer shelves, photographs of Japanese temples and ink-brushed bamboo — sparked a strong sense of wonder. A well-traveled aunt’s collection of oriental scrolls, silk screens and carvings further fueled Hoerman’s young imagination and artistic drive.

Beginning in August, Hoerman will embark on a comparative study of printmaking in Japan and painting and printmaking in Bhutan, Tibet and Australia. Her project will focus on the artistic traditions that have survived to the present day and how geographic isolation, cultural factors and various modern institutions have altered or aided the development of traditional art and artists.

“As a student of history and art, I’m constantly reminded of the long and often strange transitions both ideas and images make as they move through the years,” said Hoerman, who, as a freshman, was named a Wriston Scholar, allowing her to travel extensively throughout Europe the past three summers. “By the same token, I’m struck by how many things seem to remain the same. Painting in Bhutan and Australia and printmaking in Japan are art forms that have been preserved and practiced for centuries.

“I want to find answers to questions about how traditional arts have survived and how they are passed down and preserved, who creates traditional art and what role art and artists play in society,” Hoerman added.

Hoerman will start her project in the tiny east Asian country of Bhutan, the world’s only Buddhist kingdom, where she will visit the National Painting School in the capital of Thiumphu, as well as temples and monasteries throughout the country.

The second phase of her project will take her to Kyoto, Japan to study woodblock printing, which dates to the 7th century. In addition to working at the Kyoto Handicraft Center, which specializes in the preservation of traditional Japanese handicrafts, Hoerman will visit galleries, museums and temples in Tokyo.

The final four months will be spent in Australia, where she hopes to work with artists in Aboriginal communities, observing their work and learning their traditional designs and processes.

“My fellowship ties together the interests that have sustained me from childhood through college,” said Hoerman, who hopes to pursue graduate studies in creative writing and museum studies or possibly painting. “This project will challenge my skills as an artist and as an observer in cultural environments very different from my own and to reassess my world view. It’s going to allow me to pursue what I love to do and to test my determination and ability to do it on a global scale.”

Ondracek and Hoerman were selected from nearly 1,000 students representing 50 of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges and universities who applied for the fellowship. Since the program’s inception in 1969, Lawrence has had 60 students awarded a Watson Fellowship.

The Watson Fellowship Program was established by the children of Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of IBM Corporation, 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.