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A year of living differently

Wheaton seniors to explore theater, nature around the world during Watson year

Two soon-to-be Wheaton graduates will spend their first year after college traveling around the world as Watson fellows.

Tianna Lall ’14 and Carolyn "Carrie" Decker ’14 recently learned that they each have received a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. The $28,000 stipend is awarded to graduating college seniors “of unusual promise,” enabling them to spending a year pursuing unique studies in various locations outside the United States.

While their travels will take them in different directions, both Lall and Decker will be focusing on the various interpretations of art across the world. Decker's project will look at poetry and nature writing; Lall will explore provocative theater in a variety of cultures and contexts.

In the past 30 years, more than a dozen Wheaton seniors have won the Watson Fellowship. Lisa Gavigan ’83, director of career services for The Filene Center for Academic Advising and Career Services and a former Watson fellow herself, currently oversees the application process and advises nominees.

The experience of traveling the world for a year as a Watson Fellow is life-changing, Gavigan said.

“Looking back at my year as a Watson Fellow, I think it made me brave,” Gavigan said. “When I first heard the news, 30 years ago, I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ Today, I try to approach almost every situation the way I did my Watson—with optimistic anticipation. I am excited that Tianna and Carrie will have the opportunity to redefine their comfort zones, discover their own strengths and become intrepid explorers. I have no doubt that, like those who preceded them, their lives will be changed in countless ways.”

The theater of discomfort

Lall, a creative writing and literature major from Brooklyn, N.Y., will begin her Watson experience in mid-July by attending the world famous Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her Watson year project will involve an up-close look at what she refers to as “Theater of Discomfort”—artistic performances that stretch the definition of theater and often focus on disturbing and controversial themes.

“My playwriting is centered around the type of performance that invokes an emotion from its audience, so I am looking to explore how this type of emotion and reaction differs between cultures,” Lall said. “I will be cultivating relationships between directors, actors, and ultimately playwrights to learn about their intentions in said role.”

Lall will visit six different countries during her Watson year, studying and experiencing a variety of performances at each location: passion plays in Germany and Thailand, Butoh dance theater in Japan and India and “Theatre of Cruelty” in Norway and the United Kingdom.

“Playwriting is the perfect medium for storytelling,” Lall said. “The intricate use of dialogue and stage direction allows for me as a playwright to play around with setting and tone. The harshness of the language within the dialogue, the scarcity of direction, the openness of the plot—it's really raw and vulnerable and full of humanity.”

Already accepted to a Teach for America position after graduation, Lall has received approval to defer that opportunity until after her Watson year. She also plans to pursue a Master’s in Fine Arts in Playwriting and eventually to teach in higher education.

On campus, Lall has produced plays for Wheaton’s Ten-Minute Play and New Plays festivals and helped form the Playwrights’ Club, a student group for creative writers. She also spent a semester studying at Wheaton’s partner school in Bhutan, Royal Thimphu College.

A Posse Scholar at Wheaton, Lall said she has already benefitted from the Watson application process, becoming more aware of herself and her writing, and that she is looking forward to the challenges of the coming year.

“This was something I worried about at the beginning of my Watson process: can I handle watching really uncomfortable, depressing theatre? The answer is: Yes. And yes, there will be times where I feel anger, terror or frustration when I am working and watching these productions, but this is only an indication to me that I am living my project. To pursue a project of discomfort, I have to feel it at times. And that is absolutely OK,” she said.

The nature of poetry

Decker, an environmental science major from South Deerfield, Mass., will spend her Watson year exploring the connections between people, poetry and the natural world as she travels to Dominica, Botswana, Australia and China.

“Unraveling the complexities of our world is a fundamental element of both science and poetry, and I want to learn how the interrelatedness of nature, humanity, and poetry translates across ecosystems and cultures,” Decker wrote in her project proposal. “I want to explore whether or how nature prompts writing, and whether or how writing about nature prompts environmental advocacy. I want to meet and learn from professional writers, spare-time writers and those who feel creatively compelled by nature but who have not channeled that inspiration through writing before.”

She will begin by visiting the small Caribbean nation of Dominica to explore the island’s rich biodiversity and examine its growing field of nature writing. In Botswana, Decker will study the relationship between economic development and conservation; in Australia, she will explore the walkabout tradition of the Aborigines; and in China, she will examine the traditional art of gardening and work with nature poets.

“By traveling to four very different regions of the world during my Watson year, I will open myself to the incredible vastness of life and poetic expression on our planet. I can hardly contain my excitement to witness and become involved with the locations and work of each person, animal, plant and landscape I meet,” Decker wrote.

Her goals during the Watson year are relatively simple: "Make new friends. See more of the marvels of nature. Write (a lot). Learn new words, new customs, new skills. Share in other writers' work."

"I'm going in search of chills down my spine and stories that will make me and my friends laugh. I hope to become stronger, braver, more intrepid, more kind, more generous, more observant. I want to explore and ask questions and get surprising answers," she said.

Decker recently returned from a spring break trip to Death Valley, Calif., part of a field geology seminar. It was her first time visiting a desert.

"I loved the bareness of the landscape and the feeling that the desert held all kinds of secrets about its past. Because of that, I am especially excited to spend time in the deserts of Botswana and Australia," she said.

As part of her Wheaton experience, Decker spent time studying coral reefs in Belize and the rainforest in Costa Rica and experienced a semester abroad at Royal Thimphu College in Bhutan. On campus, she is involved with the Outdoors Club, the Wheaton Woods Conservation Society and Rushlight.

After her Watson year, Decker is planning to study ecology in graduate school and to pursue a career as an environmental scientist, conducting biological research and doing fieldwork geared toward species and ecosystem conservation. She also hopes to continue writing and to link her passion for the environment with her passion for poetry.