Watson winner will seek lessons from trauma

Agathe MwehuAgathe Mwehu ’23 will travel to Rwanda, Kenya, Colombia, the UK and Sri Lanka to connect with survivors

People all over the world suffer unimaginable trauma every day. How do they not only overcome horrific acts that would break the most resilient spirit, but also thrive?

Agathe Mwehu ’23 has been awarded a 2023 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to spend a year traveling to explore this question and many others, seeking to harness the power of sharing experiences.

Mwehu’s project, “Finding Hope: The Stories of Survivors,” was one of 42 winning proposals submitted for the Watson Fellowship. Her journey will take her to Rwanda, Kenya, Colombia, the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka to meet with people and organizations to gain an understanding of how survivors of trauma heal and recover their sense of hope.

“In each country I will travel to, I will explore a different type of trauma. I am thrilled to have a chance to travel to all these countries and meet people who have had similar experiences as me, and learn about their journeys and the ways they survived and thrived despite all the setbacks,” said Mwehu, a business and management major.

“This is a very vulnerable topic for many people, including myself,” she said. “Having the opportunity to share my story, hear about other people’s stories and try to give each other hope by sharing is very important.”

Mwehu, who is originally from Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, experienced the traumatic impact of a tribal war and its aftermath at an early age. Her sister was murdered and her family had to flee and live in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe. Yet, she has held onto an unbreakable resolve that has taken her through Wheaton College, back to the refugee camp to help others as a 2020 Projects for Peace winner and now is sending her out into the world with big dreams to heal some of life’s deepest wounds.

This year, there were 155 Watson finalists—graduating seniors nominated to the national level by one of 41 partner institutions. Fellows receive a $40,000 one-year grant for pur­pose­ful, inde­pen­dent explo­ration out­side of the Unit­ed States. Winning proposals will take the fellows to 54 countries to pursue a range of topics, including pediatric cancer, modern opera, disability care innovation and entrepreneurial inclusion.

In her quest to hear from survivors, Mwehu plans to connect with and volunteer with organizations that help those who have suffered trauma, including gender-based violence, climate disasters and politically motivated atrocities. Among the organizations on her list are the Center for Victims of Torture in Kenya; Conciliation Resources and Heartland Alliance in Colombia; Interpeace and the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Rwanda, and Shantiham, a non-governmental organization in Sri Lanka.

“Trauma is a response to intense and disturbing events that overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope, causing feelings of helplessness and diminishing one’s sense of self and ability to feel a range of emotions. I believe that sharing can help people deal with trauma,” she wrote in her Watson proposal.

“Sharing trauma can be overwhelming, causing anxiety and discomfort. However, that sharing provides an opportunity for one to find relief and leads to some measure of resolution. It took me a decade to learn this lesson. … Coming to the U.S., I finally found healing through sharing my story,” she said.

Mwehu said Wheaton faculty and staff played a crucial role in successfully guiding her through the competitive Watson application and interview process—especially Associate Professor of English Winter Werner, coordinator of national fellowships and scholarships, and Lisa Gavigan ’83, former director of the Filene Center for Academic Advising and Career Services.

“All the professors I talked to about applying for the fellowship encouraged me and rooted for me during the whole process,” Mwehu said. “I am confident about going ahead with my Watson travels knowing that I have gained the necessary tools here at Wheaton.”

Mwehu said she is looking forward to documenting her entire journey as she works with and learns from a variety of organizations and individuals starting in July.

“This will be a great opportunity for me to gain many transferable skills. Also, each country has so much to offer,” she said. “I am excited about exploring different parts of each country, trying different foods [since I am a foodie], and learning from all these cultures, making new connections and friendships, as well as many new memories.”

Mwehu said she hopes to start her own nonprofit organization one day. “I am also really passionate about social work and that’s something I am thinking of pursuing for my master’s degree after the Watson.”