Campus News

Two Bowdoin Students Win Watson Fellowships

Story posted April 15, 1999

April 14, 1999, BRUNSWICK, Maine -- Two Bowdoin College seniors, Amit Shah and Benjamin Schonthal, were among only 60 students nationwide to be awarded Thomas J. Watson Fellowships to pursue independent study abroad.

A year studying in Sri Lanka and New Zealand convinced Schonthal, of Glencoe, Ill., that he would like to return overseas after graduating from Bowdoin.

"Living abroad and living especially in Asia, there is a certain difficulty about it," he said. "It gives you an opportunity to really be honest with yourself."

He wanted to find a research project that would combine his work in religion and Asian studies. He expanded an honors project concerning the moon's influence on certain Sri Lankan religious rituals into his Watson Fellowship research. He will study how the moon helps to structure rituals and spirituality in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Israel, and Sri Lanka.

Schonthal is majoring in religion with a minor in Asian studies. He is a Dean's List student and a Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholar and has been a part of the Bowdoin Writing Project since his sophomore year. He has played intramural ice hockey and soccer and spends much of his spare time snowboarding and surfing. Schonthal has completed a large amount of pre-med study and has considered graduate school, but he has not made a final decision on a career choice.

Shah came to Bowdoin from his home in Calcutta, India, without ever having been in the United States. His Watson project originated in his experience tutoring orphans with Mother Teresas Missionaries of Charity. Shah began to wonder what it meant to be an orphan. Years later his experiences as an immigrant rekindled his curiosity about the shaping of personal identity in orphans and the ways in which they deal with their isolation and sense of estrangement. He will explore the experiences and creative expression of orphans in Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland, where ethnic and religious strife have left many children without families.

"I hope to write a book from my travels which would hopefully remind us that the expressions of orphans in the face of deep personal tragedy is a lesson in the power of human creativity and courage," he said. He is majoring in Sociology with a minor in Economics. He too is a Dean's List student and has been a Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholar. He has taken advantage of Bowdoin's independent study program and created five independent study courses during his four years at the College. He was a co-founder of both the Bowdoin College Cricket Club and the East-West Religion club. He has also participated in the International Club and the Young Alumni Leadership Program.

Schonthal and Shah will each receive $22,000 to support their study. More than 1000 students applied for the first round of the Watson Fellowship selection process. From that group, 185 students were nominated by their colleges to compete for the awards. Schonthal and Shah's selection brings to 53 the number of Watson Fellows from Bowdoin.

The Watson Fellowship Program was begun by the children of Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of IBM, and his wife, Jeannette K. Watson, to honor their parents' longstanding interest in education and world affairs. The foundation selects Watson Fellows based on each nominee's character, academic record, leadership potential, willingness to delve into another culture and the personal significance of the proposed project. Since its inception 30 years ago more than 2000 students have been honored as Watson Fellows.

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