Toni Tsvetanova ’11 of Harmanli, Bulgaria, is one of 40 college and university seniors awarded a prestigious Thomas J. Watson Foundation fellowship for 2011-12. The fellowship provides $25,000 for a year of international travel and exploration.

Tsvetanova plans to visit France, South Africa, Brazil, and Bangladesh to pursue her project, Redefining Homelessness: A Promise for Change Through Social Enterprise. She is one of just four international students to win a Watson fellowship this year.

Her goal is to use social entrepreneurship to change the lives of homeless people. She hopes to identify successful social enterprise strategies and methods that can help her connect with homeless people and provide them with the means and motivation to make a difference in their lives.

“Since maybe I was in first or second grade, I’ve always wanted to do something about homelessness,” she said after learning she had won the fellowship. She said she grew up in a small town in Bulgaria close by a neighborhood of Roma people (also known as gypsies). As a child she visited their shelters and saw people sleeping in the streets. Since coming to the United States for college she has encountered homeless people in New York, the Boston area, and while studying in China in 2009. “It’s a universal problem, and something I want to help solve,” she said.

As a summer research assistant in the Government Department at Colby, she learned about social entrepreneurship while doing research for Professor Ariel Armony\’s book on social innovation. She latched onto the concept as a tool that might help fulfill her lifelong promise to combat homelessness. She became the founder and first president of Colby’s Social Entrepreneurs club and is working this spring to turn over responsibilities to the next generation of leaders on campus. The club raised funds this year for the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter and the Good Shepherd Food Bank.

Watson Fellows come from select private liberal arts colleges and universities. The 40 winners were chosen from 148 finalists nominated to compete on the national level. The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program was established in 1968 by the children of Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the founder of International Business Machines Corp., and his wife, Jeannette K. Watson. The Watson Foundation regards its investment in people as an effective long-term contribution to the global community.

Since the program’s inception, 2,600 Watson Fellows have taken this challenging journey and developed a more informed sense of international concern, the foundation’s materials report. Dozens of them have been Colby alumni, most recently Jeronimo Maradiaga ’09.

A complete list of this year’s Watson Fellowship winners and their project descriptions is online.