Scripps seniors Lina Mihret ’18 and Madeline Sy ’18 have been named Thomas J. Watson Fellows for 2018. The Watson Fellowship is a one-year grant that funds independent research and exploration outside of the United States; it is awarded to graduating seniors nominated by one of 40 partner colleges. Mihret and Sy were chosen from a pool of 149 applicants, with only 40 students awarded grants.
Anthropology major Mihret was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and grew up in Franconia, Virginia. She will visit communities in the United Kingdom, India, and Kosovo for her project, “Enduring Grief: Narrations of Violent Losses of Home,” as a way to explore the transmission of nationalism in communities that have experienced violence motivated by narratives of nationalism. Ultimately, Mihret is interested in earning a PhD in anthropology.
Sy, an English major from Glendale, California, and an intern for the Los Angeles Opera, will travel to South Africa, Spain, and Australia to survey the efforts of opera companies to make the immersive and transformative experience of live opera accessible to people with disabilities. Sy’s project, “Opera and Disability,” developed from an interest in exploring the topics since sharing Puccini’s Madame Butterfly with their older sister, who has autism and other developmental disabilities.
The Office of Marketing and Communications recently talked to Mihret and Sy about their projects and their time at Scripps.
Scripps College: How did you choose the locations you will travel for your project?
Lina Mihret ’18: I was looking for communities that have experienced sectarian violence caused by separatist movements over the last 20 years. There are actually a lot of countries that would fit this criterion. However, many of them are on the State Department’s Travel Warning list. And while the Watson does not have many rules about what you can do and where you can go, the one rule they have is that the country cannot be on that list. This narrowed my list considerably. Language is another restriction that narrowed my list of places. For my project, I need to be embedded in these communities and will be spending at least two months in each place. In order to stay in a place for that long and communicate with people there, I need to speak the language. Since I can only speak Amharic and English, these are the places where I knew I wouldn’t need to rely on an interpreter to communicate with people. Finally, it was a matter of the accessibility of the organizations and people dealing with the themes I’m interested in. When I began to search the Internet to see who was available, people from Northern Ireland, the Tibetan community in Dharamsala, and Kosovo were the most helpful.
SC: Can you describe the work you will be doing in each place?
LM: This is not as clear as other aspects of my project; my work will not result in a tangible end product. I am going to meet with people who have had life experiences similar to mine and to those of my community in order to see how they have come to understand and use their history and stories about who they are and who they should be. I am hoping to build relationships and understanding with those I encounter. This can be done in many different ways, but it is going to involve a lot of listening, asking questions, and spending time with people.
SC: How has your time at Scripps contributed to this project?
LM: [For multiple reasons,] my time at Scripps has been the most difficult in my life, and I was able to develop this project and get the fellowship despite and because of that. The Watson is daunting, in that I am going to be alone and encountering many new things. Without the struggles I have been forced to overcome at Scripps, I don’t think I would have the confidence to embark on this journey. Also, without the help of the people I was able to meet at Scripps, my project would not be what it is, and I would not have been able to get the fellowship. The time they took helping me edit my proposal and talk about my ideas was invaluable.
Scripps College: How did you become interested in opera and disability access?
Madeline Sy ’18: I’ve always been enamored by opera and its unique capacity to tell emotional stories that speak to the universality of the human experience. I discovered opera by accident when I was younger, through a cassette tape of famous arias I found, and was completely mesmerized by the power and vulnerability emphasized through the human voice. This moment of discovery was one I shared with my older sister, who has autism, and the act of experiencing opera with her allowed me to connect with her in a way I hadn’t before. Since then, I’ve been involved with the community engagement efforts of the Los Angeles Opera through my role as a member of their College Advisory Committee and have witnessed the tremendous capacity of live opera to connect both the audiences to the story being told on stage as well as connect the audience members to each other through that shared experience.
SC: Why did you decide to go to South Africa, Spain, and Australia for this project?
MS: I decided to explore the disability access initiatives at the opera houses in these specific countries because each of them has a unique approach to disability access. Not only do each of the nations’ disability access initiatives cater to different members of the disabled community, but each program is a product of a specific partnership with another organization also invested in disability access. For example, in South Africa, the Cape Town Opera formed a partnership with a local group, Jazz Hands, to provide free interpreting services and touch tours to groups of deaf and deaf-blind audience members, allowing them to feel the singer’s faces and costumes, the set, and also some of the musical instruments in the orchestra, providing a fully immersive experience of opera in an adapted way. In a similar sense, the disability access programs at the opera houses in Spain and Australia provide adaptive opera experiences for audiences with a range of both developmental and physical disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities.
SC: How has your time at Scripps contributed to this project?
MS: A lot of the work I’ve been involved in throughout my time in college has been invested in creating opportunities towards access and inclusion for different communities. Through my work with Scripps Communities of Resource and Empowerment, I’ve focused on different forms of outreach and ways I can use my skills and abilities to serve the communities I care about, from transfer students to students from marginalized backgrounds and identities. My work has also focused on making both community and academic spaces more inclusive and welcoming to students from all backgrounds. As I look forward to my Watson year, I am excited about the many ways the curiosity that drives my Watson project will be fueled. And I’m quite excited for all the challenges and insights the year will bring.