Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Pressure Abroad

The Watson Fellowship. I hadn't thought I would apply for it, but with the encouragement of my friends and the subtle watson, watson! whispers in the back of my head-- I decided to go for it. The Watson has a long application process that begins in September and ends in... well, I'm not quite sure when it ends. I knew it would be difficult to do in Bhutan, and I'll show you exactly what I mean.

In this picture is ara, the local brewed wine (but more akin to vodka). “You can tell how strong it is by the flames,” says Colonel Kado, as he scoops the liquid with a ladle, flames everywhere. “Ohh!!” A massive smile spreads on his face and I feel myself shuddering, “it's very strong!”

We were in Bumthang, which is where Buddhism pretty much began in Bhutan. But more interestingly, Bumthang is the capital of Bhutan's wine, beer and cheese. We were being treated unbelievably well—like royalty—by Colonel Kado. That night we were sitting in the Swiss Restaurant, Bumthang's hotspot that provides all the incredible edibles (and drinkables) of Bumthang. Just as we sat down, Aaron got a call for his Watson interview. He rushed downstairs and I sat nervously, for 45 minutes, awaiting my turn. “You'll be fine, man! Don't worry about it!” Billy's words really did calm me (thanks Billy!), but I couldn't escape the pressure of this interview.

The core of the application is a personal statement and project proposal, basically to show the Watson Foundation that you're a worthy—exceptionally worthy—person to invest in. Wheaton advisers conduct interviews with applicants and choose up to four to nominate for the national selection round. After that, they work closely with nominees in an attempt to win the prestigious fellowship. Applying for this Fellowship challenges you in significant ways, demanding that you look at yourself and ask, 'who am I and why do I want to do this?'

The Watson application process is complicated as it is, without us being in Bhutan. I'm proposing to explore Buddhism as a vehicle for social transformation in conflict-afflicted communities, in a effort toward peace. Working on this application in Bhutan has been an interesting experience riddled with small challenges that have, I would argue, richly colored the Watson application process. It demands extensive research, communication with advisers, constant busy work and much editing. In other words, it demands good internet, quiet work space, and few distractions—all of which are difficult to come by in Bhutan, especially in combination. Aaron and I navigated through these challenges to earn an interview with the Wheaton Watson selection committee.

It was to occur on that night in Bumthang. My greatest concern with the Watson, in general, is portraying myself: not the matter of completely exposing myself (though that took adjustment), but trying to portray my true self. This is what made my interview with Wheaton so much more intimidating. How do I accomplish this, when the only connection with my interviewers is a distant voice in the telephone, barely audible? When I cannot look into their eyes to gauge if they think I'm crazy or if they understand me? I sat thousands of miles away, in a small restaurant in the countryside, surrounded by cannabis shrubs and wild dogs, while they sat in the warm Filene center (or so I imagine), looking over my application and a list of questions...

As I waited for Aaron to finish his interview, I sipped on freshly brewed beer and delighted in small cubes of Swiss cheese. Aaron came into the dining room and handed me the phone; it was my turn. I ran down the stairs to the small office we had requested—a quiet place to talk. There were two computers in the office, sitting among scattered papers. Against the back wall were a couple kegs. Focus! I heard a distant voice in the telephone, followed by an awkward pause, the “long-distance pause.” I centered myself for a moment, catching my breath and trying to gain composure. Pressing the phone hard against my ear, I tried to catch every word spoken. I could feel the phone getting moist from my sweat, and cursed my already bad hearing.

In the middle of the interview someone tried to open the door. It slammed several times against the lock. “One moment!!!” I stuttered, trying to hear one of the questions. At that moment I wished I could just speak telepathically to the intruder. I'm in the middle of something!

Having thanked my interviewers and hung up, I felt as if weights were lifted off my shoulders. I walked back upstairs into a lively room, greeted by mugs of beer, amazingly cheesy emadatse and good company. Looking back, it couldn't have been any better.

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