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Watson Fellow Afshin Khan

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Pomona chapter.

This year, two Pomona students were awarded the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship, which allows students to travel for one year doing an independent study of their choice with the financial help of $25,000. Afshin Khan ’11 is one of the awarded fellows. She is originally from Pakistan (and is still a citizen) and is a Biology major.

Explain your proposal for the Watson fellowship.

My Watson year takes me me in pursuit of heroes to 5 different countries: Bangladesh, Indonesia, Morocco, Syria and South Africa. These countries have very low female literacy rates and each country has its own set of hurdles for a girl to get education. These range from political, cultural, religious, socioeconomic and the list goes on. Thus, heroes are those people who have facilitated the education for a girl/girls and these heroes could either be individuals, male or female, an organization or a community. I am looking for unsung heroes, those who haven’t made it to the news…those who are quietly contributing to this world in their own little ways.

What inspired your idea?

I am the child of an amazing hero. I belong to a remote part of Pakistan where education is strictly forbidden for girls. Expressing desire to attend school can get you in deep trouble. While my mother couldn’t ask for her right to get education, she begged for mine. Our own relatives and community boycotted us and my mother was basically on her own to take care of me and my siblings. My father’s support dwindled along the way but my mother’s perseverance didn’t buckle. She has had to struggle on her own, got us educated from the best institutions in Pakistan and encouraged me to pursue education outside Pakistan. Her unflinching support is worthy of admiration. It is a big reason why I want to find people like her and try to understand what motivates them to be so resilient.

What are you most excited about?

As much as the uncertainty of the year scares me, it is also reason enough to get me excited as well. I am going to be delving into different cultures and would be learning a lot in a short period of time. Unlike the classroom learning, this would be REAL life learning. Be it the food, culture, religion, language, thought processes or the way of life itself, I would have a lot to learn and I look forward to all that and more.

What challenges do you expect to come across?

Language would be a big hurdle. In the bigger cities, I will be able to get by with English and other languages I know but perhaps, in smaller towns, I might have to resort to sign language or rely on interpreters. I would also be amongst complete strangers and would have to keep communications to a bare minimum with my family and friends, as per the Watson rules.

Any idea what you will be doing after completion of the fellowship?

Possibly pursuing a masters in public health or applying for Med Schools after that. There is also a possibility that my career interests may change while doing Watson.
What are some of your other interests?

I have been involved in documentary making for a while and the topics I choose to cover are normally taboo ones. My interests, thus are interdisciplinary as I believe in utilizing different disciplines to convey messages. Documentary making has thus been a source through which I aim at sparking those much needed discussions that are otherwise muffled in Pakistani society. I have been able to share the documentaries with my friends and Claremont community in general to broaden their understanding of remote societies like Pakistan. A few years down the road, I might use documentary making in the field of public health.  

Nina is a senior at Pomona College, majoring in Politics. She was born in Bujumbura, Burundi, which is located in central Africa. She moved to Chicago, IL, where she grew up, when she was two years old. She loves languages, international politics, writing, and traveling.