Here's $22,000. Now go explore the world

Instead of fretting about the job market or flipping through graduate-school catalogs, Wellesley College senior Diane Morgan has been lining up sailboats to take her on a year-long tour.

Senior Michael Abel at Grinnell College, meanwhile, has been pondering where he will stay during his five-country study of the cultural differences in Little League.

The adventurous duo are among 60 recent recipients of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. The little-known but prestigious program entrusts new college graduates with $22,000, and sends them off into the world for a year to pursue their passions.

"My parents and friends can't believe I'm doing this; I can't believe it," says Ms. Morgan, a New Jersey native with an unabashed fondness for traditional sailing vessels.

Starting in August, she'll be sailing aboard replicas of ancient tall ships in Scandinavia, Holland, Polynesia, and a region known as Phoenicia in the eastern Mediterranean. The plan is to "immerse myself in shipboard life ... and explore the navigational tools of different vessels," says the international-studies major.

"The program was basically like, here, have some money and go follow your dreams," Morgan says.

It's truly almost that easy. The catches are few: fellows can't return to the United States during the year, nor can they affiliate with formal institutions.

The latter provision is to make sure students are free to follow up on serendipitous possibilities, and also learn a bit about self-reliance and gumption. Says executive director Norv Brasch, "Diane's project to me is classical Watson, where the going is the doing."

Mr. Brasch admits the projects are not all academic, but they certainly demand much analysis. The Watson year, he says, is neither a time of goofing off nor a next step on a specific career track per se, but rather a time for "disciplined diversion." The Providence-based foundation, established in 1968 by the children of IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, prides itself on its hands-off approach, which allows students to take stock of themselves and develop a more informed sense of international concern.

And while the fellowship may be decidedly eccentric, some consider it as desirable as the prestigious Rhodes scholarship. Eligibility is limited to graduating seniors from a group of 50 liberal-arts colleges that are top-ranking but small enough to allow for professors to know students personally.

Even then it's competitive. Last fall about 1,000 students applied. The participating schools first select about three applicants to nominate; the foundation then interviews students and winnows the list to 60. Fellows are chosen based on character, potential leadership, curiosity about the world, and most important, an insatiable desire to learn about the topic they propose.

The research topics for this year's fellows are a wild mix, including blacksmithing, blind organists, martial arts, and poetry in women's prisons.

For Mr. Abel, it's the intrigue of Little League.

When he was 11, the baseball fanatic says he was watching as a Taiwanese team celebrated its Little League World Series title, and was struck by the players' modesty Â- a mere tip of the cap and a bow to fans.

"I compared that reaction to the rowdy pig pile of the US winners the previous year, and realized then that these kids came with a different set of values and priorities," Abel says.

In August, the former Seattle Mariners batboy will travel to Japan, Southeast Asia, and Latin America to observe cultural differences in the way the game is taught, played, and woven into the national fabric.

Abel is majoring in political science and minoring in Chinese studies, and eventually hopes to go into the US Foreign Service. The Watson will directly help him, he says, "because I'll be able to practice my Chinese and gain valuable experiences from living abroad."

The beauty of these experiences, though, is often the serendipity. "It doesn't matter what passions fellows may have, but in pursuing them, they will begin to see the world in a new way," Brasch says.

That's something Amy Higgs learned early as a Watson fellow in 1998-99. The graduate from Colby College brought along her new husband for a year of teaching about the environment in South and Central America (the fellowship provides $9,000 for dependents).

The first few weeks were, in effect, their honeymoon. They weathered being robbed of all their possessions, minus a tent, while camping in Belize Â- not to mention Hurricane Mitch, which soon after created havoc in the region. "We had the trip all planned out in the beginning, but ended up making up things as we went," Mrs. Higgs says.

With newfound perspicacity, they went on to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica, where they developed an environmental curriculum for teachers.

At the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, they established an educational program to mitigate tensions that had arisen when the sanctuary appropriated land.

"One of the major things I realized is that you can just go somewhere with a goal and an idea and convince people that you can do it," Higgs says. Now she's earning a master's degree in environmental science and education at the University of Michigan, and her long-term goal of creating an international high school centered around environmental education "is no longer a fuzzy dream."

Other fellows credit the program with opening their eyes to new career directions.

John Mauro, a 1999 Middlebury College graduate, thought he was set on environmental science. But after spending a year in Ghana, Bhutan, Australia, and Bolivia learning about different creation stories, he wasn't sure. "The Watson was good in that it didn't let me get fixated on a specific sector. Now I've been considering journalism or teaching," Mr. Mauro says.

• E-mail sara@csmonitor.com

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