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Maximum Exposure

Program offers undergrads a chance to meet academics and practitioners

On a late-winter afternoon, a group of dedicated students braved the bitter cold and made their way into a conference room at the Watson Institute. Members of the Institute’s prestigious Watson Undergraduate Fellows (WUF) Program, the students listened as Noelle Brigden, a postdoctoral fellow in international studies, detailed her research on immigration and asylum for Central Americans. After the brief presentation, the students broke into groups, carefully deconstructing actual asylum cases and engaging in thoughtful debate.

This interactive workshop is just one of many available to the Watson Undergraduate Fellows. The Program consists of a series of workshops and other events that foster a robust intellectual community driven by a common interest in international affairs. It presents an opportunity for undergraduates to get involved in the life and workings of the Institute by meeting world leaders and interacting with Watson-affiliated faculty.

Brigden’s research is precisely the sort of work that Watson wants to expose to the undergraduate fellows. Her research takes her from the classroom, to local Central American communities, to asylum hearings at US Immigration Courts, where she frequently provides expert testimony. 

“It’s a great program,” she says, because “it’s helping undergraduates engage with faculty and their research.” The WUF Program shows that the faculty-student relationship is not a one-way street. Brigden enjoys working with undergraduates and learning about their projects. “I like to build bridges between my research and intellectual passions,” she explains, “and students are the ones who are going to go out into the world and do something about this in the long run.”

In the past the WUF Program was only available to select students from international relations or development studies. However, for 2014-2015, the Program is open to rising seniors from any concentration, reflecting Watson’s continuing efforts to be an integral part of Brown’s undergraduate community. The Program began in 2012 as one of a series of measures to enhance Watson’s engagement with undergraduates, and has since expanded under the leadership of Watson’s current director, Richard M. Locke. In its effort to be fully aligned with the community, the Program is even seeking Green Event Certification by adopting eco-conscious practices. 

From the students’ perspective, explains Galen Hunt (international relations, ’14), one of the 27 current fellows, the Program is vital because it allows undergraduates to meet in small focused groups with important people and communicate with them in a collegial way. “It connects us with the Institute and we get to learn about what’s going on around us.” Hunt, whose current research focuses on migrant smuggling networks on the US-Mexico border, plans to enter the Foreign Service after he graduates. Of the many events and workshops he has attended through the Program, meeting India’s former ambassador to the US was one of his most rewarding experiences.

Hunt especially appreciates the feedback fellows are encouraged to provide. Earlier in the year they met with Locke, who sought their input on how to strengthen Watson. “That was the top level connecting with the undergraduates,” he says, impressed that the Institute is “hearing our voice.”

Another of the Program’s goals is to expose fellows to non-traditional academics like Stephen Kinzer, visiting fellow in international studies and an award-winning former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Kinzer notes that it is a change for students to meet “not just traditional academics but people who have had all kinds of experience in the outside world.” Undergraduates are his favorites audience, he says, and faculty members are enthusiastic about being involved with the Program. They are excited to “see what younger people are thinking and how they are approaching the world. It refreshes our own perspective to be in touch with them.”

This collegial intellectualism and openness is something both the faculty and the fellows appreciate. “Undergraduates are looking at all kinds of options for their futures,” says Kinzer, and studying international affairs “doesn’t put you on a narrow path.”

 Hunt agrees: “It’s laying the groundwork for several future paths and seeing what pans out.” Whether pursuing careers in academia, the Foreign Service, or elsewhere, Hunt says the WUF Program is always applicable. “I think it is a great thing,” he stresses, and “the benefits we can get out of it are pretty significant.”

-- Matthew Gannon

The Watson Undergraduate Fellows program will not be offered after May 2015.