As Sanam Sheriff ’18 gets ready to walk at graduation alongside her peers, she has her sights set on an exciting year of adventure, research, and storytelling. An independent major in Creative Writing, Sanam has spent her time at Bryn Mawr honing her craft as a poet and artist.
She will explore a deep passion this year as she travels the world to see how women in different communities can use storytelling workshops to tap into processes of healing.
Sanam will travel to Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Mauritius, and Germany and Scotland 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.
We sat down with Sanam to spend some time talking about her plans for the next year.
Congratulations on receiving the Watson! Can you describe the work you plan to do through this fellowship?
I think my project is a conception of an idea right now. I’ll be able to understand it more once I actually get on the ground and get a hold of what I’m working with. I’ve been thinking a lot about women outside of a Western context, about how much trauma we endure in different realms of our lives, but how so few are afforded any space to name that and to tell their stories— to claim that narrative. I think there’s a lot of power that comes out of being able to tell your own story.
So my project is looking at creating workshop spaces in which women come together in a room and are just storytelling, and writing if possible, and how that can create a space in which healing starts to occur. Words have always been my form of understanding, claiming, and reclaiming. There’s a lot of power in being able to put language to something. I’m thinking about partnering with different organizations in the countries I go to such as women’s centers and asylums: spaces for refugees or for people who have been victims of domestic violence. They already have different programs running, and I want to see if we can introduce or build further on those kinds of spaces.
That’s one side of my Watson. The other side is just that this is a gift of a year, a gift of time and resources, and a gift of the world, really. I want to be really intentional about the art I make, and the art I put together, and the art that can come from engaging with all these different stories and realities.
How did you pick these places and plan your itinerary?
Trinidad and Mauritius both have really high populations of Indians. You’re not allowed to go back to your home country during your Watson year, but I want to work with Indian women! So I chose these places because, one, they’re English speaking, and two, I can interact with the diaspora. I’ve experienced again and again all the ways in which women in India go through these cyclical issues, but what does that look like outside of India? In these countries that aren’t their countries but are their countries at the same time?
But I also want some contrast: what about women who are privileged in these Western countries? What does that look like there? Your trauma is still trauma. As women, we’re going through that. And then Italy, well I’m going to change that to Germany. Germany and Italy are both big ports for refugees in the modern-day crisis, so that’s why I chose those places.
That sounds like an exciting and extremely busy itinerary—you have so much to see! What’s running through your mind as you prepare to experience all these new cultures?
Oh wow, I just want to be blown open! I feel like traveling is the best way of seeing and experiencing and feeling and we all get so naïve in thinking that the world works in this way and life works in that way, and this is what dinner looks like, and this is what a day looks like, and this is what winter looks like. Traveling, for me, is a way to just thwart human knowledge in the sense that you no longer know anything because everything is done differently everywhere. Traveling, when done respectfully, gives you the opportunity to discover so many different doors within yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t have permission to open because ‘that’s just not how things are done.’ When I came here to America, I grew so much in my personhood, I changed a lot, I was given all these permissions. I want to experience different versions of everyday life. And I can’t even start thinking about the food! That’s too much! When I think about culture, I think about colors, music, clothes, dance, art, just a whole palette of existing. But I don’t know much about the world—I don’t know much about anything. So just going and trying to find out what I can is what I’m trying to do.
Have you traveled before?
I traveled to come here! My mom let me fly 8,000 miles to come to Bryn Mawr. So this is my main experience, and then I studied abroad in Copenhagen, in Denmark. I went to this literature festival in January in the Netherlands. And I’ve moved around in the U.S. a little bit. But I’m excited for this version of international travel.
What prompted you to apply for the Watson?
One of the very dear people in my life went on the Watson, and experiencing it through her lens gave me an interior to it—it was really valuable. I saw what it brought to her life. I saw the way it completely blew open her assumptions and perspectives about how we should move through the world. It just thwarts conventionality. It eradicates the notion that there is a particular trajectory your life should have. I remember when I visited her in one of the places that she was in, and an uber driver would ask her ‘why are you here?’ and she’d explain it, and they’d say, ‘Dude, that’s the dream. How do I get that?’ and it is the dream! When someone is offering you $30,000 to travel the world and, to literally quote the website, ‘discover yourself,’ how can you not?
Growing up, freedom was something that was elusive to me. I come from a stricter household. This is the gift of freedom; there are no constraints. That’s scary. That’s really scary. But it’s also appealing. It’s a lot of pressure and responsibility because I want to be intentional about it. I want to be intentional about my art. I know that this is just a gift that I’ll never get back.
What experiences have you had at Bryn Mawr that informed your decision to pursue the Watson?
I worked with this amazing organization last summer called GirlForward that runs different programs for teenage refugee girls who are resettling in America from all over the world. We did a two-month summer program. We taught English, facilitated workshops, and constructed all these different conversations. The girls were coming from Syria, Myanmar, Afghanistan—all over really—and were suddenly going to be placed in American high schools. Our goal was to bridge as many of the gaps as we could to help them be better equipped. That experience and those girls, you know, these young women who are just so incredible and resilient and—I don’t even have enough words for them. That experience changed my entire perspective on everything. It baffles me that you and I are sitting here in this air-conditioned room and someone is wading across a border. I can’t believe that we are sharing the same world at the same time. I really want to spend a lot of time being able to contribute to that sphere.
Other than the goals we’ve discussed, what personal ambitions do you hope to pursue?
Something I’ve been thinking about is how here at Bryn Mawr I have a lot of love that just surrounds me, and I’m really blessed by it. But I think that being by myself in the solitude of a Watson year will force me to cultivate that love for myself, by myself. And I think that’s something that is really necessary for everyone to do. It’s very easy to use the people around you as a crutch.
What’s also interesting is when you’re here at Bryn Mawr, you are so familiar—you are so recognized, there are expectations already attached to you. But when you go into a new space, you get to decide who you want to be; these people don’t know squat about you. So I’ll get to decide: what does my gender feel like today? What does my sense of humor feel like today? What does my assertiveness feel like today? I think having to figure that out for yourself is really lovely, and I think it will broaden my scope as a writer and artist.
What are your plans for when you return?
I hope that the year informs that, first of all. I hope that it opens doors that I didn’t know existed. I know that I want to get an M.F.A. at some point. I want to keep putting work out, and that’s one way to do it. I’d like to be in school for as long as I can. But I’m also playing more and more with the idea of going back home after the Watson. And when I say ‘home,’ I don’t mean my parents’ home; I mean India in general. I’ve never been an adult there. There are so many axes of my identity that I have realized while being at College, and I don’t know if they fit and function at home, because it’s such a different space. I feel this disconnect from the youth there, from the politics there, from the world there, and I want to know what it’s like. And I want to know if I can live there. I would rather spend my life there, and in today’s climate, it’s a blessing to have a home to go back to. So after coming here and learning what this way of life has to offer, I want to figure out if it’s possible for me to carry it back without feeling like I’m sacrificing too much. So I think I’ll find some work, I’ll find a job there for at least a year to try that out, and then I’ll get back to school.