Valeria Rojas Awarded Watson Fellowship

Dylan Reed-Maxfield

While other Lawrentians in the Class of 2008 begin their search for jobs or make decisions about graduate school, senior Valeria Rojas is preparing for a year-long journey to South America. Rojas was recently awarded a $25,000 Watson Fellowship to study ethnic discrimination and social exclusion in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador.
Each year, the Thomas J. Watson Foundation selects 50 students from an applicant pool that originally includes almost 1,000 seniors from private liberal arts colleges around the nation. Applicants must submit a personal statement and a project proposal, and recipients are eventually chosen through a process of rigorous interviews by professors at their institutions and representatives of the Watson Foundation who travel to campuses to meet each school’s nominees.
Watson Fellows receive a grant to travel outside the United States for a full year and explore topics of great personal interest to them. Ideally, their travels will increase “their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness and leadership.” This year’s recipients were announced on March 14.
Rojas was raised in the Peruvian capital of Lima, and thus was familiar with discrimination against indigenous peoples in South America from a young age. However, it wasn’t until she came to Lawrence that she really began to think of it as the great injustice she now believes it to be.
Rojas explained that in much of South America, prejudice against people who aren’t of European descent is normalized and quite open. It is seen as an aspect of culture not really up for ethical debate. She described a pervading “That’s just the way it is” attitude.
As a “mestiza” – a person of mixed race -, Rojas feels a strong personal desire as well as a social obligation to do something to address the problem of racism.
“I’m not thinking I’m going to save the world or anything,” she said, “but hopefully I’ll be able to help other people start questioning the stereotypes.”
Rojas’ project aims to examine the issue of discrimination from three different perspectives: that of the national government, that of the society of the South American cities and that of the indigenous peoples themselves. After a year of living both in the cities and among the indigenous in rural areas, she will return to the U.S. and give a presentation on her trip at a national convention.
Originally, applying for the Watson seriously intimidated Rojas.
“In July, I wasn’t going to do it,” she confessed. Recently, however, she’s thought quite highly of the process, saying “You learn so much about what you want to do, because [your proposal] has to be something personal to you.”
Rojas must depart for Argentina by August 1, and may not go home or return to the United States during the following 12 months.