GRINNELL, Iowa — Emma Schaefer, Grinnell College class of 2023, has been awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for 2023–2024 to explore music’s potential to inspire climate action by deepening people’s connection to nature and their communities.
Schaefer, from Niwot, CO, is among 42 students selected nationwide from 155 finalists from 41 partner schools to receive the $40,000 fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. The fellowship program offers “college graduates of unusual promise a year of purposeful, independent exploration and international travel to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community.”
Listening at Dawn: Music That Heals the Planet is the tile Schaefer gave her project with plans to travel to seven countries that represent geographical, ecological, and cultural diversity—Switzerland, Kenya, United Arab Emirates, India, New Zealand, Easter Island, and the United Kingdom—from August 2023 to July 2024. She describes her project as traveling around the world listening to Earth and the voices that amplify it through song.
“I am eager to learn from musicians around the world who are using their music as a way to inspire climate action and how their music helps people to deepen connections to their community and culture,” said Schaefer, a ‘Multimedia Storytelling’ independent major. “As climate change continues to become more of a threat for people around the world, I am grateful for this incredible opportunity to learn how music can provide hope as we continue working toward a more just and sustainable future.”
Grinnell has partnered with the Watson Fellowship Program since it was established in 1968. With the announcement of this year’s Watson fellows, 84 Grinnell students have received this prestigious award.
“We congratulate and celebrate with Emma in this honor she has received,” said Ann Landstrom, the College’s assistant dean and director of global fellowships and awards.
“Watson projects are personally significant,” continued Landstrom. “Emma’s love of music and nature, search for healing and community, and gift of storytelling resound through her life journey.”
Schaefer grew up in Colorado “building fairy forts and hiking in the forest” as she described in her application. She began writing songs in sixth grade as a way to express herself, and her first performance was in eighth grade for a local songwriting contest. Inspired by other singer-songwriters she continued to enter contests and in her junior year of high school she won the eTown’s Handmade Songs Competition, a competition with the mission to educate people to create a more sustainable world.
At Grinnell College she has created an independent major that embraces courses from many disciplines to inform her interests in storytelling. For her senior thesis, she is researching folk music, social movements, and Iowa ecosystems to then write an album of original folk songs about ecosystems with community performances in May 2023.
Schaefer has organized community initiatives related to music, storytelling, and the environment. She has co-hosted student open mic nights, organized songwriting circles for student musicians, co-founded a virtual benefit concert series over the pandemic, and organized Earth Art Workshops through the Drake Community Library, Grinnell, IA, where children explored their connection to nature through art, stories, and song.
Her leadership and creativity is also represented in her experiences as a research assistant examining the intersection of nature and culture through storytelling in the prairie region with Anthropology Professor Jon Andelson, artist in residence with Mustard Seed Community Farm through the AgArts-Iowa farm-to-arts residency, junior media producer creating animated children’s videos for a world-wide organization, and intern at Studio E Grinnell.
On campus, she has committed her time to serve as a senior interviewer and tour guide for the Office of Admissions, received honors and awards for her time as a NCAA Division III cross country and track athlete, and even hosted a radio show.
Upon completion of the Watson year, Schaefer will continue supporting communities through storytelling initiatives related to environmental and social justice. Perhaps that will be in the form of teaching, working for a nonprofit, or writing musicals or screenplays in collaboration with marginalized communities. She shared, “I also plan to use my platform as a singer-songwriter to bring awareness to important issues and create dialogue between voices with many different backgrounds and perspectives.”
“Receiving a Watson feels especially meaningful because of the many people who have supported and guided me throughout the application process, and I am incredibly grateful for their role in making this a reality,” added Schaefer.
The College appreciates the journeys proposed by all of the candidates this past fall and commends the three other nominees: Emma Hastie, Long Beach, CA., Classism through Clothing: Materializing the Wealth Gap; Isabelle Madorsky, Chicago, IL, Experiential Haunting: Jewish History’s Cultural Ghosts; and Millie Peck, Jackson, WY, International Vulnerability: Healing Body Shame through Stories. “All of these students proposed personally significant and uniquely transformative Watson journeys that will continue to be part of their lives,” said Landstrom.