Bates student receives prestigious Watson Fellowship

Khoa Pham, a Bates College senior from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, has received one of 50 prestigious research fellowships awarded by the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program.

Pham, a double major in economics and politics, won the $25,000 Watson Fellowship for a research proposal titled “Exploring Global Vietnamese Youth in Search of Identity.”

Pham’s Watson year, which will begin in August, will allow him to spend approximately two months each in France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia, Japan and Australia, where he will live and interact with Vietnamese youth. Interested in similarities and differences between the Vietnamese students in different countries, he hopes to answer the questions, “What creates these differences and commonalities? Was it because of the Vietnam-U.S. war; the culture, society and politics of the host countries; or simply the way we were raised and educated?”

The Watson Fellowship is designed to identify potential leaders and challenge them in ways that foster independence, a global perspective and adaptability to new cultures. It funds research, conducted outside the formal academic environment and the recipient’s home culture, into a topic deeply important to the recipient.

Pham intends to gain a more informed sense of how the global community of Vietnamese youth relates to Vietnam, and, more importantly, develops creative ways in which its members can contribute to Vietnam’s future growth. “In the end,” he says, “all this will help me understand my own identity better and become more ‘globally conscious.’”

Pham emphasizes that Bates has offered him extraordinary support for ideas and projects, as well as ample opportunities in terms of networking and funding to explore his passion. “Whenever I came up with an idea,” he says, “no matter how ‘weird’ it may have sounded, the response from the people at Bates I sought support from has always been, ‘Let’s make it happen.’”

Though hard to quantify exactly, he says, a large part of the inspiration for the Watson project stems from the nourishment provided by Bates. Pham places this experience in cultural context: “I was mostly educated in Vietnam, where rote memorization and finding answers, though certainly deserving some merit, are disproportionately more important than analytical thinking and asking questions.”

At Bates, he says, “I learned to think creatively, question assumptions and take advantage of all available resources to ‘make it happen.’ While all of these qualities might be taken for granted in the United States, they are indeed a privilege for someone like me. ”

Joined by Trang Nguyen ’07 of Hanoi, Vietnam, and with financial support from Bates, Pham established a forum called VietAbroader in 2005. The program supports Vietnamese students studying in the United States and helps other Vietnamese students who want to study here. Linking students at home and abroad, VietAbroader has organized seminars in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The program has attracted support from other U.S. colleges and Vietnamese businesses.

A program of the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, of Providence, R.I., the Watson Fellowship was established in 1968 by the wife and children of Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of IBM. The 50 Watson recipients this year were selected from 179 finalists nominated by the colleges and universities they attend.

At least one Bates senior received a Watson Fellowship every year from 1985 through 2000, and in 2002, 2003 and 2006.

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