Next year, Teona Williams ’12 will travel to India, South Africa, Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, studying the connections between people and nature.
She has won a prestigious Watson Fellowship, which gives talented graduating seniors $25,000 and a mandate not to step foot in the United States for one year.
Williams is organizing her Watson year around an environmental theme — partly for intellectual reasons and partly from personal ones. She already has an academic grounding in these areas: She’s majoring in environmental studies and history and minoring in Africana studies. Her senior-year independent study consists of looking at the history of access to national parks in America, asking why the federal government maintained segregation in these areas through the 1940s. In her sophomore year, Williams received a two-year Mellon Mays undergraduate fellowship, which supports promising future scholars who can broaden the intellectual and cultural diversity of university and college faculties.
Personally, nature plays a therapeutic role for her. She says being in nature helps her process her life, make decisions and build confidence and security in those decisions. “Nature has been a significant part of the person I am today,” she explains.
Because of her own attachment to nature, Williams says she has become curious how other people in other cultures interact with the natural world for pleasure. “For my Watson, I want to understand who has access to playing in nature, and how socioeconomics, ethnicity, and gender impact this access,” she writes in her grant proposal.
She says she first noticed a divide between the ways visitors and locals experience the outdoors during her semester abroad in Kenya last year. “I went snorkeling, the first time in my life,” she says. “And I saw a stark contrast. The local people were doing one thing, and the tourists another.”
Wanting to explore this contrast further, Williams planned her year of travel to visit developing countries with a mixture of social classes that also had “breathtaking landscapes.” The nations she will visit have also all experienced colonialism, and so have been exposed to Western values, including, perhaps, the Western perception of nature.
She says she will conduct many interviews, asking people questions such as, “Do you play in nature? If not, why not? If so why? Do you have a tradition that is based on being outside? How often do you get outside? What are your experiences in beautiful spaces? Can you share a story about an enjoyable experience you had while outside?”
Williams has already contacted ecotourism organizations and national parks to connect with them while she’s traveling through the countries she visits. The organizations are ones “trying to encourage more local people to engage in environmental issues,” she says, and by visiting the parks, she’ll be able to determine who’s visiting them.
Because $25,000 is not an enormous sum to cover 12 months of travel, Williams says she has to budget carefully, and is hoping to plan homestays to live with local families. “I won’t be staying at five-star hotels!” she points out.
After spending the summer in Washington D.C. with her father, who, Williams says, is a bit nervous about her long trip, she’ll take off for India in August. These days she’s busy planning the details of her year of travel, but when she first heard she had won the Watson Fellowship, she says she was flabbergasted.
“I didn’t think I was going to win. There were a lot of amazing proposals,” she says. “I was so shocked. When I heard, I dropped to my knees and started crying. It’s so amazing.”