Watson Fellow Teona Williams ’12 Returns Home from World Travels


Teona Williams ’12 shows slides of her year of travel

In one year, Teona Williams ’12 got lost in a slum in New Delhi, visited a fake city in Thailand, celebrated Christmas in Cape Town, lived with a big, warm family in Brazil, hiked 20 miles to a secluded cove in Trinidad, and watched the sunrise from a mountaintop in Jamaica.

After graduating from Bowdoin, Williams was able to globe-trot because she won a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. The prestigious $25,000 grant is given to 40 college graduates each year to fund a year of travel. The stipulation is that recipients cannot come home before the year’s out and must follow one of their passions.

Williams, a city kid from Washington D.C., fell in love with the outdoors as a teenager. At Bowdoin, she became involved with the outing club and majored in environmental studies and history, with a minor in Africana studies. While an undergraduate, she received a Udall Fellowship for outstanding environmental leaders on college campuses, as well as a Logan Environmental Fellowship, which funded a summer internship at The Nature Conservancy. She also was a Mellon Mays undergraduate fellow.

Teona's Latest Destination
After returning to her Washington D.C. home last August, Teona Williams ’12 began work as a communications assistant for an environmental advocacy organization. Her Watson shifted her career goals. “I was all set to get my Ph.D in history and research African Americans’ relationship to nature and outdoor recreation, but now my world has been expanded,” she said. “I see myself looking more globally at environmental justice issues to understand how marginalized groups everywhere see themselves as environmental activists.” 

For her Watson year, Williams planned a year of travel around her personal desire to be in nature and her curiosity about how people around the world interact with the outdoors. “I was looking at how the urban poor connect with their environment,” she explained to a room packed with Bowdoin students. Williams returned to campus in early February to participate in a symposium on environmental justice, and while here spoke to students interested in applying for the Watson fellowship.

As Williams described her trip, she recounted anecdotes about the seven countries she visited. At the end of each story, she finished by offering a piece of wisdom for the aspiring travelers in the room.

In India, Williams volunteered with The Hope Foundation, an organization working to give trash collectors legal standing to protect them from violence. As Williams was making her way from the airport to the organization, headquartered in a New Delhi slum, she got lost. Her taxi driver stopped to ask for directions. A man on the curb told Williams he would guide her there, and hoisted her backpack on his shoulders and charged off down the street. Williams followed, envisioning all sorts of nightmarish kidnapping scenarios. But when they arrived safely at the organization’s door, Williams said she resolved from then on to trust her instincts and to trust people.

From India, Williams journeyed to Thailand, Malaysia and South Africa, ending up in Cape Town over Christmas. There, missing her family, she fell into a morass of loneliness. Her blues were only abated after she, by chance, ran into a friend who was happy to watch Christmas movies with her and accompany her to church. Her message from South Africa: “During your journey, you will feel lonely and sad, but when this happens, reach out to people.”

After arriving in Brazil, Williams met a young couple at the train station. They invited her back to their home where she ended up staying for a short time, surrounded by their big, friendly family. “I was surrounded by so much love, even with people I didn’t know and even though I couldn’t speak Portuguese,” she said. The lesson here? “Don’t be afraid to go to countries where you don’t speak the language.”

Williams concluded her talk by showing a video of her rappelling down a steep rock face in Jamaica, the first time she had ever tried this. She told the audience she was scared. But at one point in the video, her fears evaporate, replaced by a raucous joyfulness. She pushes off the ledge with her legs, swinging through the air above the trees, laughing and whooping. “When worse comes to worse,” she told the students, “just push off the mountain, jump and have fun.”

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