Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Award
Parwana Mohammad ’16 (Environmental Studies Major)

Parwana Mohammad ’16 was awarded a $30,000 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for independent study outside the United States during the year following her graduation this May. Her project, titled “The Experience of Childbirth and the Role of Midwives within Historically Marginalized Communities,” will take her to Brazil, New Zealand, Guatemala, and the Czech Republic.

There is a personal element in Mohammad’s interest in public health and specifically that role midwives play in marginalized communities. Midwifery is part of the Afghan immigrant’s family trajectory. “My personal history influenced my academic interests,” she said.

That history includes a grandmother who was a respected midwife in her rural village in Afghanistan; in Kabul, where Mohammad was born; and in Pakistan, where the family moved to escape instability in their home country. Mohammad’s mother gleaned some skills from her own mother. “In the neighborhood, people would call on her if there was a birth happening,” Mohammad said of her mother. “She would help out.”

That practice fell away as the family gained more access to so-called modern healthcare in Pakistan and later in California, where they moved when Mohammad was 10. But midwifery remained in the back of her mind, and it resurfaced after she was captivated by the subject of public health in a Jan Plan course sophomore year.

“My personal history influenced my academic interests.”

Mohammad ’16

“It was the first time where I was introduced to a field that combined all of these interests that I had into one,” the environmental policy major said of the course taught by Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Gail Carlson. “It was an ‘Aha!’ moment.”

More study followed, including a semester abroad last year studying public health issues in India, South Africa, and Brazil—with an advisor who, serendipitously, turned out to be a midwife. It all pointed to the project proposal that has Mohammad studying childbirth experiences in marginalized communities on four continents.

Her particular interest is communities that are “in movement,” as hers was for much of her life. “I think it’s interesting,” Mohammad said, “how communities that are at a crossroad between these kinds of shifts and changes are constantly shaping identities.”

Mohammad’s research project was one of 40 selected in this year’s round of Watson awards, which offer “a one-year grant for purposeful, independent study outside the United States,” according to the Watson Fellowship website. Graduating seniors are nominated only by the fellowship’s 40 partner colleges, including Colby. The fellowships, now in their 48th years, consider nominees’ leadership, imagination, independence, emotional maturity, courage, integrity, resourcefulness, and responsibility.


Davis Peace Prize Award
Kumba Seddu ’17 (Environmental Studies Minor)
Seddu plans to use her grant to renovate the Mahanain Orphanage Home, a refuge in Freetown, Sierra Leone, founded by a disabled woman who opened her three-bedroom apartment to 31 disabled orphans. A Davis United World College Scholar at Colby, the biology-neuroscience major and environmental studies minor notes that there were an estimated 320,000 orphans in the country before the Ebola outbreak last year added some 12,000 more.

Seddu grew up in the Grafton neighborhood, where the home is located. “This orphanage was on my way to school, and I would see it every day,” she said. “My family contributed what we could to help, but I always wanted to do more.” With her grant she will fix the orphanage’s roof and ceiling, repair cracked floors, and add nine bunks in hopes of welcoming Ebola orphans to the home. In addition she plans to establish a peer-to-peer mentoring program, connecting university students with younger orphans for tutoring under the supervision of an experienced, certified teacher.

Katherine W. Davis initiated Projects for Peace to celebrate her 100th birthday in 2007 with 100 $10,000 grants. She maintained the program until her death, at 106 in 2013, when her family continued and expanded the program. Kibet’s and Seddu’s proposals are the 17th and 18th Colby projects to win $10,000 awards since the inaugural year.