Winning a Watson Fellowship is both a creative passport and generous provision to wander the world and do independent research. However, just as it did the rest of the planet, COVID-19 interrupted students’ best-laid plans.

For this year’s winners Adin Becker ’20 and Zed Hopkins ’20, the disruption is a delay, not a dead-end. The Watson Foundation has granted winners a two-year deferral period. And while Becker and Hopkins are dismayed, they are not defeated.

Adin Becker ’20

Becker, a politics and Middle Eastern studies major from Portland, Oregon, received the news of his big win amid the frenzy of packing up to go home due to the pandemic. He had been so distracted that he had nearly forgotten about his Watson application altogether, he says. It was welcome news.

“The news of my acceptance allowed me to take a step back from the stress of the current moment and concentrate on the passion that had led to me apply in the first place. In times of crisis, it is wonderful to have something extraordinary to look forward to; especially if it happens to be a project you have dreamed of doing for over a decade,” says Becker.

His dream is to explore small, isolated international Jewish settlements in Peru, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tunisia and Poland to gain insight into their persistence and survival despite perpetual threats to their existence, he says. Becker’s eventual plan is to embed himself in small communities and create an oral and visual history, conduct interviews and develop a soundscape reflecting the diversity of Jewish languages and rituals.

Becker, who transferred to Pomona his sophomore year, says his experience here has uniquely prepared him for the Watson Fellowship. He came here uncertain about what he wanted to study but he did know his passions: social justice, Judaism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, foreign languages — and a love for interdisciplinary learning.

He notes that in three short years he “took coursework in 10 disciplines, studied abroad in the Middle East, had the honor of running with the best cross-country team in ‘DIII’ and developed relationships with peers and faculty that will last a lifetime.” (Pomona-Pitzer won the national title in men’s cross country at the 2019 NCAA Division III championships.)

“Pomona gave me the liberty to be myself, and for that I will forever be thankful. Furthermore, the cultural knowledge and academic skills I acquired leave me confident that I can traverse the world and carry out a project that melds my interests. … Just like my Pomona education, [my Watson project] is multifaceted and represents an opportunity to express myself organically.”

Arash Khazeni, an associate professor of history at Pomona, gave him a greater understanding of what it means to conduct meaningful research and pursue one’s passions without hesitation, Becker says.

“Endlessly supportive of my academic and personal endeavors, I would certainly be less confident in the classroom and more hesitant to explore my most profound interests absent [Khazeni’s] guidance and prompting.”

While his Watson journey is on hold, in the meantime Becker has accepted a Teach for America position in Denver as a Spanish instructor. He says he feels fortunate to have the opportunity to teach as well as pursue the Watson when international travel is practical again.

Zed Hopkins ’20

When Hopkins, a theatre major from Brisbane, Australia, got the news that he was awarded the Watson, he found it hard to believe, he says. Having just left campus, it felt unreal.

His plan is to travel and do research in South Africa, Uganda, Greece, India, Indonesia, Switzerland, Austria and Italy, and he is grateful for the award, but “Traveling the world seems like the last thing you want to be doing right now,” Hopkins says. But as soon as it becomes feasible, he will, hopefully by the beginning of 2021, he says.

Hopkins’ proposal is to analyze the six pillars of theatre performance and how they connect the imaginative and physical worlds of diverse cultures. His aim is “to uncover how and why theatre continues to unify humanity.” The specifics of his project may evolve depending on the economic and social repercussions of the pandemic, so he is busy brainstorming alternatives.

For now, Hopkins is trying to get work in Australia while he works on several creative projects, including a collaborative virtual art space and his thesis show, after a planned campus exhibit was canceled because of the pandemic.

The Watson had long been in his sights. The late Professor Art Horowitz directed Hopkins in his role in the College’s production of “The Cherry Orchard” during Hopkins’ first year on campus. After the show closed, Horowitz — who was on the Pomona Watson committee — took Hopkins out to lunch and recommended he apply for the fellowship during his senior year.

Another Pomona theatre professor who lent his support was Giovanni Ortega. Hopkins says Ortega helped him find his footing at Pomona and worked with him through his Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) project in Japan, Singapore and Australia and his continued collaborations with creators in the U.S. and abroad.

From Pomona, Hopkins says he carries with him core lessons that include the importance of collaboration, flexibility, adaptability and an awareness “to enjoy the process and embrace the people and places along the way.”

A delay to the opportunity the Watson Fellowship brings to travel and study the world is nothing he could have anticipated.

“But if Pomona has taught me anything, it’s that you have to lean into that discomfort and embrace and enjoy the challenge.”

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the United States, awarded to graduating seniors nominated by one of 41  partner institutions .