Passion Projects Lead Two Students to Earn Watson Fellowships

Mark Diaz and Xiao Fang Jiang

Xiao Jiang ’22 and Mark Diaz ’22 have been awarded prestigious Watson Fellowships to pursue research projects during one year of international travel. The two Pomona College seniors are part of the 54th Class of Thomas J. Watson Fellows, which is comprised of 42 students this year. Each will receive a $40,000 grant for 12 months of travel.

Watson Fellows are nominated by 41 private colleges and university partners across the United States. Since the inaugural class was named in 1969, over 3,000 Watson Fellows have been selected.

“The Watson Fellowship gives the Fellow the opportunity to pursue their passion and connect with people across the world. Former Watson Fellows often say that their Watson year was a life-changing experience.,” says Professor Clarissa Cheney, Pomona College’s Watson advisor for 2021-22.

Diasporic Chinese Community: Identity and Belonging Through Space

Jiang found care and acceptance in New York City’s Chinatown at the age of five when she and her mother first came to the U.S. from China. Although they didn’t have a home to call their own for 10 years, instead of moving around various homeless shelters in the Big Apple, Jiang says Chinatown was a welcoming space that became home.

After arriving at Pomona College as a Questbridge Match Recipient with a full four-year scholarship, Jiang was scared to return to her Chinatown for fear of seeing it changed – gentrified – into a place she would no longer recognize as home. As a sophomore, she took an anthropology course and studied the effects of gentrification on Los Angeles’ Chinatown. As an anthropology major, for her senior project she took her work further to create a short documentary on how COVID-19 has affected New York City and Los Angeles’ Chinatowns.

“Whether it was my home in New York, or the Chinatown in Los Angeles or San Francisco, they all evoke a sense of cultural appreciation and safety because every Chinatown exists as a safe haven for the migrant or American-born Chinese,” says Jiang, a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellow, a program that supports students of color to pursue doctorate degrees.

Inspired by her love for Chinatowns and her ongoing research, Jiang will spend her Watson year traveling to seven countries to learn how immigrants and Chinese residents engage with Chinatowns to develop a sense of self within a community of like-minded people. She will travel to China, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, France and Belgium. Jiang will utilize her skills beyond anthropological field methods and employ filmmaking, writing and photography to create an archive that preserves the past and present.

For Jiang, a successful Watson year would include maintaining contact with the people she’s met and hearing that community members are engaging in creative outlets. Once the Watson year is over, she is considering graduate school, a Fulbright, teaching or pursuing a feature-length documentary: “Nothing is set, and that’s part of the fun.”

Total Theatre: Global Discoveries of Diverse Drama

Diaz was a junior in high school when he was first introduced to kabuki, a traditional form of Japanese theatre that incorporates dance, music and mime. By the time he arrived at Pomona College, he was already deeply interested in researching global theatre, so much so that he pulled Professor Leonard Pronko out of retirement to study under him and to have Pronko teach a masterclass on kabuki. They staged “Narukami Thunder God” at Pomona College’s Alumni Weekend in 2019. Planned performances for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and others were put on indefinite hold when Professor Pronko passed away in November 2019.

Back home under COVID-19’s lockdown, Diaz began a journey of self-introspection about his interest in kabuki. “The words ‘Total Theatre’ kept playing in my head, a phrase Professor Pronko was very fond of. The idea of Total Theatre was a unified theatre, where vocalizations, movement and acting skill were all incorporated to a seamless design,” says Diaz.

Thinking about his own ancestors, the Maya and the Basque, Diaz wondered what type of Total Theatre they developed and how they are also under-staged or recognized in the U.S. “How could I bring more attention to them? Watson was a word that came up in everyday conversations with many of my professors, especially Professors Thomas Leabhart, Giovanni Ortega and Zhiru Ng, as the opportunity of a lifetime to independently study my passions on a global scale.”

Diaz will travel to Japan, Spain, Belize and Guatemala to explore traditional dramatic forms: kabuki in Japan, religious dance ceremony in Guatemala and Belize, and pastorale in Spain, in order to explore a new pedagogy of Total Theatre. According to Diaz, each of these styles encapsulates the full range of the human body and spirit in performance. During his Watson year, he plans to work with master teachers, find new mentors and continue to expand the idea of Total Theatre.

Deeply inspired by Pronko, Diaz plans to one day become a professor of theatre. He has been applying to MFA and Ph.D. programs in theatre to begin his coursework after his Watson year is over. Diaz’s passion is to share the traditions he’s learned with the students of tomorrow and continue Pronko’s legacy of sharing diverse theatre. In honor of Pronko, Diaz is co-organizing an international Japanese Kabuki Theatre Conference, featuring a kabuki performance “Gohiiki Kanjincho” on April 1-3 at Seaver Theatre.