This past year has been full of adventure, even if of a curious nature. Talking to people about their favorite snack cake, debating the effectiveness of development policy, learning to roll tortillas, or hearing about skyrocketing rates of diabetes in developing nations from those suffering from the disease, I was blessed with the kindness of strangers the world over. Every day was a gift, whether or not I knew where I was going or what I was doing. Every interaction had a potential to teach me something new. The effects this year will have on my career path, my personality, and my view of the world are yet unfathomable – but that there has been an affect on my life is unquestionable.
I think perhaps the most valuable thing I learned during the past year is how easy it is to learn. My topic came from a synthesis of several of my personal interests. When I began my journey, I knew astonishingly little about what I was talking about. I began my trip a student of American history – I had baked, I had worked in farms, I read the news – but that’s it. I have never taken a course on economics – let alone studied development agriculture – yet this all worked out.
I am interested in the way that history gets recorded and the Green Revolution is one of the most significant events of the twentieth century that hasn’t yet developed a dominant narrative; I learned how various groups are trying desperately to get their version of the truth accepted as the official history. I am interested in agriculture and I wanted to spend more time seeing where my food comes from, talk to the people who grow it, and learn how their lives are altered by the rapid pace of change; I learned how similar the struggles faced by farmers around the world are and how diverse the answers to these problems will need to be. I am interested in food and I wanted to spend a year eating, talking to people about what they eat and why; I learned about the importance of food traditions to individuals and how to cook foods I had never eaten before.
Over the past year I have been amazed to see how casual contact with people, organizations, and events can lead to such quick and great acquisition of knowledge. Though I am still no expert, I feel like the opportunities which the Watson Fellowship afforded me have given me perspective and experience that would be virtually impossible to acquire otherwise. While building up to my trip I would sometimes ask myself, ‘Just how is this going to all work out?’ As I went, I was amazed to see that somehow everything just fell into place.
It was fortunate happenstance that I began my project as a matter of personal interest and then watched as it became of greater political import over the past year. As I learned more about my topic, its importance simultaneously became clearer. As my knowledge base grew, the political climate shifted: an intellectual game of cat and mouse.
So much time alone in my head and working towards my passions has certainly changed me as an individual, but the line between the changes in my attitude and my education on this topic can be hard to draw. I began this year optimistic about the challenges we face to produce enough fair, affordable, and nutritious food for people the world over. I am finishing amazed by the variety and size of the struggles which lie ahead. Agricultural development is a shining example of the perils of good intentions – though I found that even among aid programs there are few acts which are truly selfless – and the pain poor foresight can cause. Although what I have seen and done has made me more critical, I am finally feeling informed about my topic and inspired to go out and do something about it. I have realized how simple everyone (including me) wants things to be, and how complicated these situations are in reality.
It was amazing to be able to talk to the scientists who designed the technological changes of the Green Revolution, then be able to talk to the policy makers implementing those changes, to the farmers who were doing the work on the ground, and to the people whose diets have changed because of it – and then to realize that none of these players has ever bothered to talk to all the other stakeholders in the system. I saw the benefits of a liberal arts education which taught me to think beyond rigid boundaries and more importantly, the benefits of having the freedom to actually express that curiosity. I can see how much so many people could gain from taking the time to go out and learn in the manner afforded by the Watson. It seems too many people who I spoke to, some making decisions which are impacting the lives of millions, have gone through their education wearing blinders. In their professional lives, their expertise in their own fields made them believe they didn’t need to look outside their own box. I learned that in order to help people, one needs to talk to people.
I love talking to people. I loved the meetings, run-ins, and meals I shared with such a variety of individuals. I love that I have been given this mundane superpower to talk to people – that prior to my Watson I never would have thought to ask strangers about their lives, opinions, or work – but it now seems like the logical thing to do. Although my Watson is over, my curiosity lives on. The most shocking thing I experienced during this whole trip was the ease with which two people who have no reason to speak can talk for hours. Going into meetings with officials or chatting with my waiter, I was amazed to see how little I needed to talk to have others talk to me. People are looking to tell their story. By just showing up and asking one or two questions, people gladly spoke for hours about whatever they wanted to get out and what they thought they could teach me. It was startling to see how little prompting it took to get people to share stories of their own or frustrations with their lives and work, organizations and situations. It was beautiful to realize how much excitement so many people have for what they do. It was remarkable to walk into the lives of strangers for a few minutes and see them suddenly realize they have a voice.
In this way, rather than making me more talkative, I think my trip gave me the confidence to listen. I didn’t enter this trip with an agenda. I wasn’t seeking to change the world, proselytize, or even try to find a new best friend. I came out to explore and to learn. I became more confident in myself, not in overcoming a fear to speak to strangers, but in the confidence not to feel obligated to always do so. Some of the best learning I did was from sitting back and observing, letting a place and people come to me rather than immediately seeking out information or entertainment. The confidence I gained in my solitude gave me a better chance to connect to others.
Nonetheless, the extent to which I kept myself busy taught me that I am wired to work too hard. It wasn't until my fellowship ended and I was vacationing in Israel that I realized how much I had been pressuring myself to learn. I don't know what was expected of me, but I know what I expected of myself. I thought it was important that I be using as much of my time towards my work as I was able. Because I was always moving forward, I never felt lost. Part of me thinks I should have given myself more freedom to be confused and that I should have pushed myself to be more uncomfortable. I was given the most open ended grant you can imagine and still I pushed myself to work on it like I was doing research for a dissertation. Silly.
The pressures of travel taught me an appreciation for simplicity. I met so many people who, out of necessity, made the most of what little they had. Those I met who had recently adopted a Western ideal of consumption brought to light the absurdity of our lifestyle with their newly acquired habits. My small collection of personal possessions was plenty to make it through a year of varied climes, adding to my confidence that in the future I am going to try to live as simply as possible.
Seeing firsthand how fortunate I am to have control over so many variables in my life has likely been the most inexpressible lesson. Reading about poverty is one thing; speaking to those who struggle to meet their basic needs and rights for food, shelter, and water is another. For years to come I will appreciate how fortunate I am to have security and opportunity; trying to figure out how I can help improve the wellbeing of others will be a lifelong quest.
Finishing my year, I don’t know what is coming next. I have wound down from my Fellowship with a little bit of personal traveling and will soon return to the US to begin planning the next stage of my life. As I have begun to see friends it has been amazing to see how comforting it can be to be with those I know and love. Trying to express the growth which I have experienced in the past year, let alone trying to translate it onto job applications, will be difficult. In some ways I thought of this year as an opportunity to put my toe in the water and ask myself if working towards a more just global food system was the direction I wanted to take my life and career. With all of this behind me, I can definitively say that it is. Finding how I will accomplish this goal is where the next adventure begins