Three Wellesley students awarded Watson Fellowhips Seniors prepare to explore bricks, music and housing security around the world

By KRISTEN GREEN ’14

Features Editor

The Watson Fellowship is awarded each year to approximately 40 graduating college seniors of “unusual promise.” The fellowship sponsors a year of independent international travel for students who wish to thoroughly explore a particular interest outside of the classroom environment. This year, three Wellesley students, Mayrah Udvardi ’14, Audrey Wozniak ’14 and Beatrice Denham ’14, have been awarded the Watson Fellowship.

Udvardi will spend her fellowship year exploring housing insecurity among indigenous populations through drawing. Udavardi will explore the communities of the Penan people in Sarawak, Malaysia, the Mastes of the Peruvian Amazon, the Omo Valley tribes of southern Ethiopia and the Khanty people of the Siberian taiga. 

“As an architecture and environmental studies double major, I’ve really come to question the paradigm of development whereby the needs and priorities of ‘fringe’ communities are not fully understood or engaged with,” Udvardi said.  “Globalization and development are really complex issues, and giving voice to the people facing the environmental, economic and cultural externalities of these processes is critical.”

Udvardi will use drawing to observe and communicate her learning and exploration of these various communities, and she sees drawing as a powerful study tool. 

Udvardi comments that drawing will likely be especially helpful in places where outside technology is largely shunned or where she does not speak the local language.

“Drawing uses an entirely different part of the brain and it will also open me up to learn about traditional drawing methods these tribes use as vehicles for storytelling and map-making,” she said.

Wozniak will spend her yearlong Watson Fellowship exploring different music cultures in Indonesia, China, Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Specifically, she’ll focus on Gamelan musical ensembles in Indonesia, Muqam music in China and Azerbaijan and Cimbalom music in Hungary and the Czech Republic to improve her understanding of how different cultures relate to each other through music.

“There’s not a universal music, but music is universal to all cultures,” Wozniak said. “I’m particularly interested in how different music cultures interact with ‘western high art music’ or classical music and how people regard the world through the way they’ve been raised through music.”

Wozniak, a music and East Asian studies double major, said that the idea for her Watson project stemmed from the topic of her senior thesis, which centers around playing an Indonesian Gamelan piece.

“About a year ago my friend sent me this piece I mentioned for violin cello in Javenese Gamelan, and it was really unlike anything I’d ever heard before,” she said. “I was really struck by how you can have these seemingly disparate musical elements combine to create something that actually really, really works.”

Wozniak’s idea for her Watson fellowship evolved from there, and she’s already formed various contacts in the countries she’ll be visiting during her Watson year.

Denham will spend her fellowship year exploring the intersection of her interests in clay and architecture. She plans to travel to Peru, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Uzbekistan, Morocco and India to study traditional construction methods that use unfired earth and brick. She then plans to work as an apprentice in an effort to learn techniques of construction and brick-making while also exploring the cultures of craft of the specific communities.

Although Denham, an architecture major, has been interested in clay and ceramics since before she came to Wellesley, it was during her semester abroad in Denmark that she developed a specific interest in brick as a building material.

“I was actually abroad in Denmark at the time, and there’s tons of brick architecture there, and I was sort of falling in love with the really intricate brickwork on a lot of the buildings,” she said. “Then as I was developing my project I realized what I was really interested in was not that fired brick, but places where it’s unfired, so people who build with mud brick and people who build with adobe and then newer more sustainable technologies like compressed earth.”

Denham said that the shift in interest from fired to unfired brick had a lot to do with her desire to explore construction and craft processes typically done by hand.

“I didn’t want to go to a very modern brick factory and observe there. I realized I wanted to think about the historical processes in making brick,” she said.

Shortly after she won the Watson Fellowship, Denham received an email from her grandfather. “It all started with playing in the mud,” he wrote of her accomplishment. Denham readily acknowledges this.

“Yep, pretty much,” she said. “This project is an excuse for me to go play in the mud.”

Through her project, Denham also hopes to move from a potential romanticization of the craft laborer to a deeper understanding of the processes and cultures of construction in each community she visits.

“There’s a spectrum within, I think, of how much creative control you have when you’re working in construction in these countries, and [I’ll be] learning how people who do that work for a living think about it, how sort of fulfilling or not it is for them,” she said.

All three students forged networks within each country that will be part of their Watson year.

While Denham has formed contacts with some architects and academics, she’s also been in contact with various non-governmental  organizations.

“In Burkina Faso, there’s this organization that’s trying to teach people how to built mud brick vaults instead of flat roofs because that’s a way to save money in construction,” she said. “My hope is that I’ll go there, work with them soon, and then once I’m settled, I’ll be able to branch out some and see if there’s other ways to learn.”

In preparation for her project, Wozniak has made contact with various musicians and ethnomusicologists, including a  Cimbolumn figure in the Czech Republic whose wife is a professional violinist. 

“I found him and then he said, ‘I know all these musicians I can introduce you to, not only in the Czech Republic, but in Hungary as well. Here’s five other people you can contact. Three of them speak English,’” Wozniak recounts.

Although Wellesley’s 2014 Watson fellows admit that the process of forging contacts in preparation to submit the application at first seemed daunting, they also say that it was exciting to forge these networks of people around the world.

“You know, it’s sort of like a ladder, and you just have to find that first rung,” said Wozniak.

All three fellows credit various members of Wellesley’s faculty and staff as playing instrumental roles in getting them through the Watson application process and claim that their Wellesley education also made them feel ready to embark upon their respective  year-long journeys around the world.

“Maybe it sounds like a cop-out to say it’s the interdisciplinary approach, but I really do believe that it’s the critical thinking of a liberal arts education,” Wozniak said of how her Wellesley experience has prepared her for her Watson Fellowship. “I really do find that there’s validity and truth to that and that that’s really prepared me well for this.”

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