Pomona College senior Ruiyi "Vera" Zhu, from Wenzhou, China, has been awarded one of only 44 Thomas J. Watson Fellowships, which provide $28,000 for a year of independent study outside the United States. A history major, Zhu will travel to Hungary, Mongolia and Ethiopia in 2014-15 to study memories of communism in post-communist countries.

For her project, titled "Chasing Shadows," Zhu will try to answer the questions "have the post-communist transitions been successful and how can we measure the success? By interacting with young patrons at communist-ruins-converted-bars in Hungary, living with nomadic families in Mongolia, and working at organic farms in Ethiopia, [she] will explore how memories of communism in post-communist countries are woven into the shifting social fabric." She will also explore traditional memory sites, such as museums and memorials, by serving as a tour guide.

For Zhu, the project has both personal and social dimensions. "I grew up in China and communism had a considerable impact on my upbringing and education," she explains. "Since I came to Pomona, I have been constantly challenged to learn and unlearn about my past and my identity. I want to compare individuals' agency in shaping collective memories in Hungary, Mongolia and Ethiopia, with my own experience in China. I would also like to learn about the role of memory in political and social transitions."

While Zhu reports that she didn't travel much with her family, she has made up for that since arriving at Pomona. The summer after her sophomore year, she received a grant from the College's Pacific Basin Institute to travel to New Zealand and make a documentary about Chinese food businesses in Auckland. The following summer, she was awarded a Summer Undergraduate Research Program grant to conduct independent research on Chinese restaurants in Paris, France, "after a fabulous exchange semester." She's also managed to visit a few other European countries. Of the countries on next year's itinerary, she's only been to Hungary, which she says "is fascinating and much more complex than the flat former Eastern bloc country [she] imagined." 

At Pomona, Zhu has minored in French, served as an Asian Studies Liaison and as a peer mentor in the International Student Mentor Program, and has been a member of the Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dance Company.

Following her Watson year, her plans include attending graduate school and becoming a professor and/or working for non-profit organizations and making documentary films on the side. She admits those plans could change based on her experiences on the Watson Fellowship.

Among those who have inspired her at Pomona College are Prof. Samuel Yamashita, in Asian studies and history, who she calls "the guiding light of [her] college career"; Prof. Pierre Englebert, in politics and international relations, "who showed [her] how fun and charismatic an academic can be"; and the "supportive and curious fellow students at Pomona and across the 5Cs."

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship offers college graduates of "unusual promise" a year of independent, purposeful exploration and travel – in international settings new to them ­– to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness and leadership, and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community.

Among Pomona's most recent Watson Fellows are Efe Kabba '13, who travelled to Montreal, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Berlin and Singapore to study "Musical Swings and Other Digital Landscapes and Experiences"; Samuel Gold '11, who travelled to in the Czech Republic, Poland, Japan and Singapore to explore "Performing ‘Model' Humans – What Puppets Can Teach Us About Empathy"; and Afshin Kahn '11, who traveled to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Syria, Morocco and South Africa, "In Search of Heroes in Girls' Education."