Isabella Amaro Varas ’23 has been awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to embark on a year of international discovery to explore the role of language as a form of self-empowerment and cultural pride for refugees building a home in a new country.
With the $40,000 Watson fellowship, Amaro Varas will travel to Spain, Morocco, Germany, Turkey and Australia to work with different organizations that support refugees through language learning and study the best practices to teach foreign languages in a way that celebrates cultural-linguistic diversity.
“My project, ‘Sound of Home,’ stems from the idea that language has the power to make people feel at home in a foreign environment, from learning the language of the local community to using your own language to build community,” said Amaro Varas, an international relations and French double major, economics minor and scholar in the Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts.
“My experiences working with refugees, teaching ESL and finding community at Conn as an international student from Mexico have helped me see language as not only a tool for communication, but as an expression of cultural pride that forms bonds between people and helps them build a home away from home. All this inspired me to develop a project that would allow me to explore new forms in which language learning and cultural pride can coexist in refugee communities.”
Growing up in Guadalajara, Amaro Varas says she was exposed to the impact of gang violence and poverty on furthering inequality and forced displacement.
“Throughout my childhood, I witnessed migrants’ perilous journeys on top of cargo trains to get to the Mexican-U.S. border and the formation of makeshift campsites blocks away from my house,” she said.
Moved by the hardships she witnessed, Amaro Varas volunteered at a center assisting migrants fleeing to the U.S. and refugees restarting their lives in Guadalajara. The experience led her to found Amigos Sin Fronteras, an organization offering free English lessons to migrants and refugees. Since then, she has been devoted to learning about ethical practices in community engagement, educating herself as an ESL instructor and learning what it means to manage a small organization.
After her Watson experience, Amaro Varas hopes to embark on a career in nonprofit management for organizations that support displaced populations and promote access to education. She plans to pursue a graduate degree in international development and is interested in using social entrepreneurship to transform the impact the private sector has on people’s lives.
Amaro Varas is Conn’s fourth Watson winner since the Watson Foundation reestablished its partnership with Connecticut College in 2019 in recognition of Conn’s excellence in global education and the power of its personalized, inquiry-based Connections program. Conn offers a wide range of fellowship opportunities for students and recent graduates through the Otto and Fran Walter Commons for Global Study and Engagement. In addition to the Watson, students and recent grads in 2023 have been awarded four Fulbright fellowships, a Beinecke Scholarship for graduate study, a Newman Civic Fellowship, a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and two Critical Language Scholarships from the U.S. Department of State. To read
about those awards, please visit conncoll.edu/news.