Two Grinnell College seniors earn esteemed Watson Fellowships

Each student will receive $30,000 for postgraduate travel and exploration

Grinnell College seniors Oleksandr "Sasha" Kuzura and Alejandra "Ale" Rodriguez Wheelock have been awarded the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for one year of independent study and travel abroad.

The seniors are two of 40 students selected nationwide from 149 finalists to receive the $30,000 fellowship for postgraduate exploration from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation

The recipients' projects will take them around the world during their Watson year. 

Kuzura, a physics major from Long Grove, Illinois, will travel to Thailand, Peru, India and Bosnia to explore "Shoestring Engineering."

He plans to analyze the differences between Western engineering, which often nurtures a culture of over-improvement that relies on financial investment and return to solve problems, and folk engineering. Folk engineers from areas of scarcity rely on ingenuity and shared cultural wisdom to design simple, robust, energy- and resource-efficient technologies.

Kuzura will work closely with folk engineers to understand the push-pull of modernity and factors that influence community engineering practices. "I think Sasha's inquisitive nature, his upbeat personality, and his love of being challenged make the perfect mix of characteristics for a successful and transformative Watson Fellowship experience," says Jacob Willig-Onwuachi, associate professor of physics at Grinnell College.

"Sasha’s unwavering passion for folk engineering is difficult to resist. He seems ready to hijack his whole life to do his Watson project," adds Steve Gump, assistant dean and director of global fellowships and awards in Grinnell College’s Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS). A student in the 3–2 engineering program with Dartmouth College, Kuzura will complete a bachelor of arts from Grinnell this spring and a bachelor’s in engineering from the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth the year following his Watson Fellowship.

Rodriguez Wheelock, a philosophy and psychology major with a concentration in neuroscience, will travel to the United Kingdom, Rwanda, India and the Dominican Republic to explore "Counseling Interventions for Pediatric Cancer Patients."

The resident of Guatemala City, Guatemala, will examine how counseling interventions provided in cancer centers are shaped by local cultural, historical and religious perceptions of death. "The answers will inform my own views while helping me understand how children and caregivers face the psychological struggles associated with cancer and its treatment," she says.

"It is unusual to find a young person like Ale who is as mature as she is in her attitude toward death, dying and grief," says Susan Sanning, assistant dean and director of service and social innovation in Grinnell College's CLS. "More often than not if a young person shows an interest in the field, he or she does not yet have the maturity to interact with people with dignity and respect, let alone do so in a culture vastly different than their own."

"Ale's unusual promise lies in her combination of independence, leadership and sensitivity," adds Joseph Neisser, assistant professor of philosophy at Grinnell College. "She is very attuned to the concerns of others and always engages in a serious way — but she is no pushover."

Both recipients are active participants in the campus community, involved in diverse student organizations.

Kuzura has grown to become a leader among philosophy students and the Philosophy Student Educational Policy Committee. In fall 2014, Grinnell's Associate Chaplain and Rabbi Rob Cabelli helped Kuzura organize a meditation group on campus. Says Cabelli: "Sasha exhibits tremendous respect for all the applications of the human mind and spirit — and a contagious striving for equanimity."

Rodriguez Wheelock also is a leader, serving on the Philosophy Student Educational Policy Committee and being an active member of the Student Organization of Latinxs and the International Student Organization. 

"It was Ale's initiative to spearhead an outreach drive promoting dialogue and diversity between the various factions of campus culture," Neisser adds. "Therein lies Ale's lasting legacy at Grinnell — she will leave this campus and this departmental culture better than when she found it." 

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program offers college graduates of unusual promise a year of independent exploration and travel outside of the U.S. to foster effective participation in the world community.

Grinnell has been a partner with the Watson Fellowship Program since its establishment in 1968. With the announcement of this year's Watson Fellows, 77 Grinnell students have received this prestigious award. 

About Grinnell College 

Since its founding in 1846, Grinnell has become one of the nation's premier liberal arts colleges, enrolling 1,600 students from all 50 states and from as many countries. Grinnell's rigorous academic program emphasizes excellence in education for students in the liberal arts; the college offers the B.A. degree in a range of departments across the humanities, arts and sciences. Grinnell has a strong tradition of social responsibility and action, and self-governance and personal responsibility are key components of campus life. More information about Grinnell College is available at

Oleksandr Sasha Kuzura

Alejandra Ale Rodriguez Wheelock

Cutlines for attached photos:

Oleksandr "Sasha" Kuzura

Alejandra "Ale" Rodriguez Wheelock