Like most seniors, Rasha Younes ‘16 is almost ready to leave Bryn Mawr. She’s said her tearful May Day good-byes, she’s getting ready for graduation, and she’s packing up her bags for move out. But while her fellow seniors are getting ready for jobs and grad schools across the country, Rasha has a one-way ticket out of the country, and she’s not sure when she’ll be back.
That’s because for the next year, Rasha will be traveling the world as a Watson Fellow.
Each year, approximately 40 graduating seniors from liberal arts colleges throughout the United States receive this coveted grant. The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is given to students of “unusual promise” who wish to travel the world for 12 months of independent international travel, shaped and driven by the passions of the individual fellow.
Rasha sat down with us to share her plans for the next year. Along the way, we talked about spoken word poetry, empowerment, activism, meeting our heroes, and learning to expect the unexpected in college and beyond.
Congratulations on the Watson Fellowship. Do you know where you’ll be traveling yet?
My project is spoken word poetry and oral traditions, and I’m traveling to countries that reflect a part of my identity in some way. I'm looking at Black youth in South Africa. I'm looking at students in Ireland. I'm looking at women in India. I'm going to Berlin, to look at the Arab diaspora, and I'm going to Prague, to look at queer communities. At each place, I’ll be looking at the performance poetry scene, how people express themselves, how they empower themselves.
How did you plan your itinerary?
When you apply, you come up with the idea, you come up with the country, and then you get contacts from the country. There's a lot of word of mouth. Fortunately, if you contact one person who's in a spoken word organization, they probably know everyone else who's in that local spoken word community. I don't really know where I’m going to be living yet, but I do have contacts in each country.
If you're exploring spoken word poetry in other countries, is there going to be a language barrier that you're going to have to overcome?
Yeah! I've gotten that question so many times, it's amazing. There’s definitely a language barrier because of the speaking element. So I picked most of the countries and target groups strategically, and most of them have an English component. It’s not always the first language, but it's generally spoken. In South Africa and Ireland, for example, people generally speak English.
But in Berlin, where people expect you to speak German, I chose the Arab diaspora because I speak Arabic. There's a huge Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Syrian refugee movement in Berlin, with a lot of Arabic performance poetry. And I'm definitely planning on taking at least Hindi lessons before I get to India. Czech lessons. Some German. Just so I can navigate my everyday life.
But there's a performance element to spoken word that’s very powerful, so even if you don't understand the language you can read the emotions and the energy in the poet's feelings. I think that's very powerful.
I don't know much about spoken word communities outside the United States. How does spoken word differ across the world?
I didn't either, so that was a big fear of mine. "What if it's just an American thing?" But then over winter break, I went home to Lebanon, and they had a spoken word event. I didn't even know this existed back home. And I performed there, and I learned from all these poets, and I thought, Oh my god, I'd love to go back home and do poetry with these people.
Performance poetry has been around for centuries. It's an ancient art: storytelling and oral tradition, rhyming through music, rhyming through just spitting something out on stage. People would gather to just listen to a person tell a story on stage. In India, for example, a lot of women, older women even, just sit in front of a crowd and tell a story. They tell their own story. And it's amazing. It doesn't even have to be rhyme-y, or this breathless kind of art. It's just telling a story on a stage in front of an audience who are there to listen to you speak. So anything that follows that form, I am down for it.
Me too! How did you get into spoken word poetry in the first place? And how did you decide to focus on that for your proposal?
I got introduced to spoken word in the United States, and I was just fascinated. People got on stage and they spilled their guts on stage, and there's a trust that forms with the audience, there's a vulnerability. It's very therapeutic.
In the beginning, my project was completely different. Over the summer, I was in Morocco for an internship with the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship at Haverford. And I wasn't immersed in the culture, and I didn’t know what to do with my time. The only thing that kept popping up, the only thing I really wanted to do, was poetry. So I would listen to poetry and write my own poetry and go to all these spoken word events.
So when I started thinking about my Watson again, I transformed it; I made it more personal, and I made it something that if I’m in a new place, that's what I want to do. Spoken word’s always been like a hobby for me; you don't really think of these things when you think of a huge fellowship. But then I realized that that's the best thing that I could do with my time. I could actually take myself seriously as a writer.
What do you have planned for after your travels?
After the Watson? Funny story. I wanted to be a lawyer, since I was six. And I stuck through it, even in college. I took an LSAT class, I got into a Penn law outreach program for minority students, and it was okay. But then this year, at the end of my fall semester senior year, I realized, I really don't want to be a lawyer. I can't see myself doing it. Every lawyer I meet is so unhappy. Then I took this class at Haverford, called Colonial Law and Human Rights, and we talked so much about law, about the rhetoric of the law, and this imaginary rhetoric of equality. And I decided I don’t want to be part of that system.
As we've seen, a lot of marginalized populations, especially in this country, get in trouble with the law for no reason, and a lot of people get away from the law, because of their privileges. So it's not really that equal, and I don't want to be part of that system. I think it would drive me crazy. Or I would become a corrupt person, which I don't want to do. I don't want to try something from within, when I can educate minds to find alternatives to this corrupt system.
So I decided that I don't want to be a lawyer anymore. I want to get my Ph.D. and become a professor. I realized that the most rewarding thing I've done at Bryn Mawr and in jobs that I've had in the past is one-on-one mentoring, helping someone navigate something and learning from another person just in speaking to them. Maybe I have an idealistic version of being a professor, but that's what I want to do.
Do you have any advice for future Bryn Mawr students applying for this Fellowship?
Mainly, just pick a project that actually matters to you. Don't try to think about what they want to hear, or being new or original or different, or how it's going to change the world. It's really about how the project matches with the person, because the Watson invests in people, not in their projects.