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Oh, the Places You’ll Go!Watson Fellows Asia Alman ’17 and Julie Byrnes ’17

Shortly after they graduate, Asia Alman ’17 and Julie Byrnes ’17 will embark on yearlong study trips around the world. Both will be engaging with people in diverse societies, gathering stories for projects fostered not only by their academic curiosity but also born out of their personal experience.

Alman and Byrnes were awarded Thomas J. Watson Fellowships, which provide graduating seniors the opportunity to conduct 12 months of independent study outside the United States. Alman, the daughter of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago, will travel to Brazil, China, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and the United Kingdom, speaking to Black immigrant women about possible threats to their visa status or pending citizenship in those countries. Byrnes, who lost both of her parents to drug addiction, will visit Ghana, India, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, exploring the use of narrative medicine as a means of treating addiction.

Asia Alman ’17 will explore the narratives of undocumented Black immigrant women in Brazil, China, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and the United Kingdom.Photo: Karl Rabe

Alman, a Political Science and Africana Studies double major from Brooklyn, says she first began to explore her topic in depth after she enrolled at Vassar and served internships at two New York City-based, organizations, the African American Policy Forum and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

When she studied in Jordan during her junior year, Alman ventured out of her program to speak with and learn from young Jordanian women about their experiences. There, she met a Sudanese-Jordanian woman who introduced her to the struggles among the Sudanese migrant population in Jordan. "I witnessed the intersection of refugee crisis and black subjecthood," she says. "Sudanese families were not receiving the same services as Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian refugee populations. In late December, after several peaceful demonstrations, hundreds of Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers were deported back to Sudan."

Alman says she plans to establish connections with university students concerned with issues of immigration and race."I have been fortunate to have developed connections through my internships and study abroad program that have provided me with access to sites that are useful to my project," she says. "With the consent of the women I hope to speak to, I intend to listen to and record their life stories. I hope to transcribe these conversations so that each woman has a document of her story, told in her own words."

Alman says she has always been interested in learning more about issues “at the intersection of Blackness, undocumentation and gender because while my family has always been proud of their Caribbean heritage, they have been silent on issues of undcoumented status.”

Alman says her mother came to the United States, documented, at the age of 18, and went on to earn her master’s degree in social work. "When she first arrived, she faced difficulties in her speech class where her professor refused to allow her to continue if she didn't pronounce certain words 'correctly,’” she says. Alman says she has often considered how this experience of “correct” speech correlates to rhetoric on “good” and “bad” immigrants. She is interested in enhancing her knowledge about how immigrant classifications impact the realities of Black migrant women, wherever they may find themselves.

Julie Byrnes ’17 will travel to Ghana, the United Kingdom, India, and Japan to study the use of narrative medicine to fight addiction.Photo: Karl Rabe

Byrnes, a cognitive science major from New York City, has been interested in addiction her whole life. Through high school she worked at the Dual-Diagnosis Ward for Mental Illness and Addiction at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. More recently, she interned at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Baltimore last summer, studied drug abuse issues in Cape Town, South Africa during her junior year study-abroad program, and she wrote her senior thesis exploring why religion is an effective tool in treating addiction.

Byrnes says she decided to devote her Watson Fellowship to exploring the potential healing power of an emerging field called “narrative medicine.” In preparation for her trip, she spoke to Dr. Rita Charon, a physician and founder of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University.

Byrnes, who will enroll at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City next year, says she will use the field of narrative medicine as an inspiration as she speaks with those she meets on her trip. “Empathy is crucial for healing,” she says. “I will never be able to truly understand what the people I will be talking to are going through, but feeling the pain of addiction myself, I also understand the importance of bearing witness.”

Byrnes says she chose five countries that use varied approaches to addressing addiction, “I’m excited to be challenged by the cultural diversity I will encounter,” she says. “I’ve worked most of my life trying to understand addiction, wishing I could do something, and I hope to gain more perspective on the healing process. Down the road, I hope to find ways to influence drug policy, nationally and internationally.”