The following interview is with Anson Stewart ’10, from Irvine, California. Anson is an Engineering and Urban Studies major who recently received a $25,000 grant from the Watson Foundation for a year of independent travel and study. The unique aspect of a Watson Fellowship is that it expects no tangible results from its grantees—just a year of personal growth, reflection, research, and time for discovery. The catch is, as a Watson Fellow, you’re expected to stay outside the United States for the full fellowship year.
Stewart will spend his year abroad studying “School Bus Migrations,” an exploration of what becomes of school buses purchased from schools in the United States and used as public transportation in countries such as Nicaragua. He will explore the ideas of personal mobility, urban form, and social justice. He plans to travel to Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, Panama, Brazil, Argentina, Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa to study public transportation.
Daily Gazette: This is a really unique scholarship, how did you find out about this opportunity?
Anson Stewart: People call it the dream grant. It really is that. You have a year to just follow your dream and the only requirement is that you don’t come back to the United States. I really have to thank Melissa Mandos … for making this opportunity aware to so many Swarthmore students and for their guidance through out the application nomination and selection process.
DG: Lead me through the process of applying for the Watson Fellowship.
AS: I’d heard of it when I was a sophomore. At the end of my junior year I decided to go to the information session. I really like the idea, and I thought about it over last summer as I was riding buses around L.A. … I decided that the process of bus companies repurposing and reusing American school buses in Central and South America was really interesting to me. I thought about in the context of my Lang Scholarship, and the work I had been doing previous summers with transportation issues. It occurred to me that a focus on these vehicles could offer a really interesting year of thinking about large issues of social justice, personal mobility and urban form.
I wrote the application when I got back to Swarthmore at the beginning of my junior year. I submitted a written application at the national level in November, and then it was just a waiting game until the interview with the executive director of the Watson Foundation, which was about a month ago.
DG: It really is such a funny thing to discover that regular American school buses are being used in this way in other countries, how did you develop this interest in investigating this phenomenon?
AS: I should say that since eighth grade I’ve kind of had an obsession with school buses. It just something I keep a running interest in. So when I saw these buses being reused in Nicaragua, it peaked my interest and I learned more about it. School districts here will sell the buses to a dealer, drive it down to New Orleans, put it on a barge, and ship it off to somewhere in South or Central America.
DG: Do they use them as school buses there?
AS: No they use them as public transportation. In Nicaragua, that’s how people get around. They don’t have a municipal bus company. It’s just all these private operators who’ve bought old American school buses. They use them for a couple of years and then the buses are deal, but there are so many buses being resold all the time.
DG: So what is the outcome of the project? What do you feel the Watson Foundation expects of you, during your travels?
AS: Like I said, it’s unique if you get any other research grant you’re expected to produce research. The Watson Fellowship has a returning scholar’s conference, where all the years’ scholars gather and talk about their most interesting and challenging experiences. You need to be in contact with the foundation, do quarterly reports, and report your finances, but the goal of this fellowship is not to produce some body of research. It’s to grow and be challenged and to find out new things about yourself and the world.
DG: Are you going it alone then?
AS: Yup. That’s the idea.
DG: That must be scary.
AS: Yes, it’s generally scary, but it’s also scary because one of the top ways for Americans to die when they’re abroad are in crashes, and these buses are by no means of the imagination safe. When I read The Los Angeles Times, now my eye always gravitates to some headline like, “Head-on bus collision in Panama kills 100.” I see that now and I worry. Accidents are not uncommon instances with these buses.
DG: What about planning? How secure are your travel plans?
AS: It’s definitely still a process. These projects aren’t selected because they’re the mostly fully planned out projects. At this pointm I have a contact in each country I’m going to, but beyond that I have no idea where I’m going to stay, how I’m going to feed myself, none of that. So that’s part of the adventure, part of the challenge.
DG: Well, my mother would kill me if I wanted to do that.
AS: Oh my mother is so not happy about this. She’s happy about it, but she’s terrified. A mentor told me today, “Well it’s the mother’s job to worry, so you don’t have to, and you can just enjoy it.”
DG: So how did you choose the countries you did?
AS: It’s a mix of things, some of them I have a personal connection to, others, I just really interested in the transportation systems there. Curitiba, Brazil for example, is a world-renowned bus rapid transit system. It’s not my topic per se, but it shows an evolution of a system. They’re moving hundreds of thousands of people everyday. They have some bus lines it Curitiba that can rival the capacity of the New York Subway, in terms of passengers transported per hours. And you’re not tunneling to build subways. It’s much cheaper.
DG: Engineering and Urban Studies … at first, I didn’t get the connection, but when you started talking about transit, it seemed to make perfect sense. How did you arrive at those two majors?
AS: I like this question! That’s kind of been the question of my time at Swarthmore. In second grade I was convinced that I was going to work for the California Department of Transportation. But that faded as I got older and realized I couldn’t make a career out of playing with train sets in my living room. And then when I came to Swarthmore I realized, oh wait, I can; I can make a living out of the stuff I enjoyed in second grade.
Urban Studies is a Sociology/Anthropology major that looks at the socio-cultural basis of cities and people operate and move and interact in cities. There’s a link between that and he built environment. There’s so much interplay between how people interact on a day-to-day basis and the infrastructure and transit systems through which they have that interaction.
DG: And after your trip?
AS: For graduate school I want to pursue Master of Science in Transportation and a Masters in City Planning. It’s kind of just what I’m doing at Swarthmore, and it would send me on the right track to do a career in transportation consulting, and live what I wanted to do in second grade … it’s kind of amazing.
DG: So what other kinds of careers do you see for yourself?
AS: I’m really interested in California’s high speed rail system. The state just got over two billion dollars from the federal government in additional to ten billion in state funding fro a high speed rail system. I would love to work on it, not necessary the rail it self, but on the way local transit agencies are able to integrate their services into this line. I think the project is tremendously promising for California, and I would love to be a part of that.
DG: So when do you leave?
AS: I have to leave before August first. I’m telling people mid-July, but my travel plans are still kind of shaky at the moment.
DG: As long as you get everywhere you have to be…
AS: Actually that’s the cool thing too. If I don’t make it to all the countries, it’s my prerogative. If I’m really fascinated by something and I want to stay and investigate that for an extra month, I can do that.
DG: How exactly does this investigating work if you don’t have contacts within the transportation agencies?
AS: That’s the really cool thing I learned at Swarthmore actually. I understand cities, by just riding, just riding the trains, riding the subways. I feel like I have a really good understanding of cities just by using their public transportation. My girlfriend gets mad at me. When we go to New York she’ll want to talk to me while we’re on the subway, and I’m just looking at the cars and checking out the tracks and the interlocking on the tracks and how the maintenance yards are. She’s gotten used to that now.