DeAndré Espree-Conaway wins Watson Fellowship

by John Bogdal

DeAndré Espree-Conaway (C’13) has made his mark on Sewanee this year by receiving the prestigious and highly sought-after Watson Fellowship. For those who don’t know, the Watson Fellowship awards its recipients with the financial backing to go out in the world and work to make their aspirations, dreams, and goals a reality. Rather than fund projects themselves, the Watson Fellowship focuses more on the individuals behind the projects. As Espree-Conaway puts it, “they invest in people, not projects.”

Espree-Conaway spoke with passion and conviction about his plans with the Watson Fellowship award. He is a French major and an Anthropology minor, and he has always been fascinated by linguistics and cultures. As he tells it, he first found out about the Watson Fellowship as a sophomore at Sewanee when his anthropology advisor, Richard O’Connor, took him aside and told him that he seemed like a perfect fit for the Watson Fellowship. He gave the idea some thought at the time but soon turned his attention back to his studies.

In his opinion, past projects that the Watson Fellowship have supported seemed a bit eccentric and unfocused — not his cup of tea. It wasn’t until his junior year when his close friend Aaron Rutz (C’12) was awarded the Watson Fellowship that the fellowship’s potential in furthering his dreams became more tangible, something he could see himself doing.

But once again the idea was pushed to the back of his mind as Espree-Conaway’s life took off. During the second semester of his junior year, he traveled to Paris, France to study abroad and pursue his mastery of French. While abroad, he was pleased to receive both the Critical Languages Scholarship, which he had applied for before leaving the states, and the Biehl International Research Scholarship, which he applied for while studying in Paris.

The scholarship took him that following summer to a truly exotic location: Indonesia. There, he enrolled at the University of Malang in Java where he devoted himself to the study of the Indonesian language and an indigenous, local language called Osobkiwalanngalam. It was here that Espree-Conaway began garnering the international experience and independence that the Watson Fellowship called for. And so, as he finished his wild ride around the globe and returned to Sewanee at the beginning of his Senior year, he prepared to apply for the Watson.

The application process was grueling. It involved three rounds of applications to simply earn consideration. Then, after several interviews with professors at Sewanee, Espree-Conaway was selected as one of eight Sewanee candidates. After making revisions to his project and several more interviews, he made the cut as one of four Sewanee finalists. With further revisions and several more interviews with members of the Watson Foundation, he was overjoyed to be selected as the recipient of the Watson Fellowship and an award of $25,000 to fund his project Taking Down Tongues: The Culture of Language Documentation.

With this funding, he plans to travel to French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Australia, Indonesia, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Bangladesh. He plans to observe and study how institutions of language documentation affect the cultures and societies those languages are built around. Language documentation, the creation of grammar and dictionaries for indigenous languages, is important in his opinion because it helps languages in danger of extinction to be revived, taught, and learned in schools within the surrounding communities. He will be working closely with Linguistics Academics, Language Academies, and Bible Translators to see how their work affects the cultures whose languages they document.

When questioned why he felt all this work preserving these indigenous languages was necessary, Espree-Conaway’s response bore nothing less than the passion and conviction with which he had approached the Watson Fellowship, “In my opinion, language is a defining feature of who we are as human beings, and it is also a defining feature of myself. By doing this work and helping to preserve these languages, I see myself not just doing what I love, but also giving back to humanity something important and essential to our species.”