Two Seniors Win Watson Travel Grants

2014 Watson fellows Alex Marecki ’14 and Rodrigo Bijou ’14

2014 Watson fellows Alex Marecki ’14 and Rodrigo Bijou ’14

A humanitarian soccer player and an advocate for greater digital privacy have each won a one-year grant from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation to travel the world.

While the two seniors, Alexander Marecki and Rodrigo Bijou, share a strong sense of purpose and a deep curiosity, they have strikingly different agendas for next year. Marecki, a lifelong soccer player, plans to volunteer with nonprofits, from Scotland to Ghana, which help disadvantaged children through soccer. Bijou will investigate hacker communities in South America and Europe.

Each year, the Watson fellowship awards $28,000 to 40 or so graduating seniors, with the stipulation that they don’t return to the United States for 12 months. Cindy Stocks, Bowdoin’s director of student fellowships and research, said the fellowship supports students who have particular passions and specific aims. A compelling Watson project is one whose goals cannot be accomplished by any other means, such as graduate school or the Peace Corps. “Alex and Rodrigo proposed fascinating projects that couldn’t be achieved without the support of a Watson Fellowship,” Stocks said.

Alex Marecki ’14: Humanitarian Soccer Player

alex mareckiMarecki will start his travels in June at the World Cup in Brazil to observe the world’s biggest soccer event and one that inspires young soccer players around the world.

From there, he will travel to Ghana, Colombia, South Africa and Scotland. Depending on the safety of the situation, he will also visit Ukraine, where his family is from. In each country, Marecki plans to volunteer with an organization that uses soccer to help children. “I want to explore the benefits of the sport for disadvantaged kids all over the world,” he said. “I want to see how it helps kids find agency and opportunity.”

For Marecki, whose parents are immigrants from Poland and Ukraine, soccer was his salvation as a child growing up in Long Island, N.Y., and Fairfield, Conn. He spoke Ukrainian at a special Ukrainian school and at home, so he didn’t become fluent in English until he was about nine. “In my American school, I couldn’t communicate well at an early age,” he said. When his parents put him on a soccer team for Ukrainian children, he found a place for himself and became a star.

“I know that throughout my life, soccer has always given me a positive outlook,” the economics and government major said. “Soccer has taught me that anyone can has something to bring to the table, even if it is hard to see at first.”

The first organization Marecki will volunteer with as a Watson fellow is the Right to Dream Academy in Ghana, which nurtures soccer talent in young people to help them earn scholarships to international high schools. He will then work with Hope Academy in Soweto, which uses soccer and faith to help children living in South Africa’s largest township, located just outside of Johannesburg. Football for Peace in Colombia will be his next destination, followed by Street Soccer, a rehabilitation program for young people in Scotland.

“An opportunity like this can show how soccer has the ability to help a lot of people in different circumstances,” Marecki said. “If so many people feel so strongly about a ball and goal, there’s something there.” According to Marecki, soccer provides community and promotes unselfishness. And it is basically democratic, because anyone can play, from a 6’6″ bulked-up guy to a petit 4’11″ woman. “You work with what you have to give to the team.”

Rodrigo Bijou ’14: Digital Traveler

rodrigobijouBijou says he’ll spend much of next year “hanging out with computer hackers.” Already the college senior is involved in the United States’ hacking community. He regularly gives talks about privacy and security at conferences designed for ethical hackers. And, when he’s not studying for his classes, he works as a contractor for corporations and government agencies to help bolster the security of their computer networks.

But while Bijou is familiar with the cyber scene stateside, he wants to explore its far reaches. (Ironically, he says the best way to meet people committed to shaping the online world is in person, since hackers are traditionally secretive.) He will use his Watson grant next year to visit São Paulo, Río de Janeiro, Buenos Aires Madrid, Paris, Berlin, Prague, Krakow and Moscow to both “help existing hacker spaces grow” and to set up conferences to support digital innovators. In these  spaces and at these conferences, computer gurus — including “NSA spooks and ten-year-old kids,” Bijou said, share technical tools and tips.

“On the local level, dozens of gatherings are beginning to form, reflecting a grassroots effort to spark conversations about privacy rights and share unconventional solutions to problems like staying safe online…,” Bijou writes in his Watson application. “Permanent ‘hackerspaces’ are becoming popular because they allow locals to establish collectives that share knowledge and tools to work on imaginative technical projects.”

It is from within these groups and gatherings, Bijou says, that the tools for protecting citizen privacy and uncovering threatening actors will emerge. “I believe that the hacker community will be the impetus for creating innovative projects that protect civil liberties and instill trust in technology,” he writes. He believes “that the traditional institutions [i.e. corporations and federal agencies] we rely on for safety are at best too slow, and at worst misguided to the point of infringing on our basic rights to privacy.”

Bijou, who grew up in Santa Barbara, first started playing around with computers when he was in middle school. His forays into the online world eventually led to a summer job at a New York City-based company that monitors terrorist activity in the “darkest corners of the Internet” and helps build cases against criminals attacking banks and law enforcement agencies. These days, Bijou works as a consultant to help organizations build stronger fortresses to protect their systems and data. To do this, he’ll hack into their networks to expose weaknesses.

Bijou is, in a sense, embarking on a mission as a Watson fellow. “It’s a big commitment,” he said. “They gave me this money and I want to have a significant impact.” And how will he gauge that impact? “A successful year will be one that doesn’t end,” he explained. “I’ll be leaving these places but I’ll still collaborate in the future with the people I meet,” potentially making the world a digitally safer, more transparent place.

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