Wilder McCoy named Sewanee’s 49th Thomas J. Watson Fellow

Pictured: Wilder McCocy (C’20). Photo courtesy of McCoy.

By Luke Gair 
Executive Staff

While most Americans regard oil, coal, labor, and related resources as characteristics of capitalist necessity, water rarely works its way to the forefront of conversation. Companies pack water onto store shelves, the faucet runs needlessly as we brush our teeth and, more often than not, hardly any thought goes into this behavior. Though renewable, few candidly recognize the degree to which water powers our national and global economy. 

Former Biehl Fellow and newly named Watson Fellow Wilder McCoy (C’20) seeks to dig deeper and understand how certain cultural contexts determine how water is valued, paving the way into an exploration of “how financial mechanisms can be used to protect [this] sacred relationship.”

Throughout his four years at Sewanee, McCoy has actively worked to bridge the gap between the public and private understanding of socially conscious investing, and what that precisely entails. His efforts in the Socially Conscious Investment Club, along with previous opportunities to work in water resource management, formed a general intersection of interest. 

McCoy noted that “the project is a combination of these two fields that have more in common than one might think.”

While the project proposal clearly succeeded, he explained how entering the rigorous application process was not a simple decision, but instead one ripe with irresolution. Yet, the more McCoy considered it, the more interested he became. Two figures, Professor of Biology Deborah McGrath and former Associate Dean Elizabeth Skomp, guided him during this term of discernment. 

Dr. C. Ken Smith, Professor and Co-Chair of Earth and Environmental Systems, told McCoy that when it came to applying “there is no risk, and a really high reward” when applying for the fellowship. 

“Initially, I was very conflicted about it. It seems crazy to fund a yearlong post grad experience for something that doesn’t necessarily have to do with your career aspirations,” he said, “[but] a couple people encouraged me to apply, so I decided to shoot my shot. No harm in it least trying.”

India, Algeria, Australia, Bolivia and Peru all stand as definitive locations on his list of countries, but McCoy emphasized that the stipend provides an opportunity to “visit neighboring countries in the respective regions” as well. 

“Each of the countries listed has both a significant and interesting cultural relationship to water along with innovative mechanisms that are working to more equitably manage freshwater resources through economic tools,” said McCoy.

He contextualized his research by outlining “the potential dangers of viewing water… as a commodity and not a common good,” citing recent events in Bolivia, where a civil war manifested due to similar water privatization issues. 

With consideration to his 2019 Biehl Fellowship, McCoy is seemingly far from unfamiliar with the intricacies of both social and scientific research. During his time in Tunisia, he investigated “equitable access to potable water in rural versus urban [areas].” Thus, his upcoming project allows him to revisit these larger questions considering water access and privatization. 

The program demands that participants leave the United States for an entire year but, set on their way with a $36,000 stipend, they’re set up with the necessary resources to succeed. After spending four years on an incredibly small college campus, McCoy flagged feelings of loneliness and isolation likely to ensue. 

“To be removed from one’s culture, and largely people, for a consecutive twelve months is a real test,” he added. “Staying motivated when problems arise and being flexible to adapt the project to the place, people, and resources at hand in the various locations are challenges I look forward to.”