Isa Amaro Varas ’23 awarded distinguished Watson Fellowship
Isabella Amaro Varas ’23 has been awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship by the Watson Foundation 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.
Born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, Amaro Varas is an international relations and French double major, economics minor and scholar in the College’s Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts. She is one of 42 students who make up the 55th class of Thomas J. Watson Fellows. The highly competitive fellowship is a one-year, $40,000 grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the United States, awarded to graduating seniors nominated by the 41 participating institutions.
Amaro Varas will travel to Spain, Morocco, Germany, Turkey and Australia to work with different organizations that support refugees through language learning, work within local communities to best welcome foreign populations, 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,” Amaro Varas said. “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 (ASF), 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.
Amaro Varas says her courses, professors and mentors at Conn have helped her understand language within the context of global power dynamics.
“In ‘Speaking French to Power’ with Professor Sana Abdi, for instance, I am learning about how language continues to be a crucial instrument for oppression and colonial domination, and how francophone authors have pushed against this. In my International Relations courses, I have studied different institutions that dictate the use of language and determine refugees’ livelihoods,” she said.
“Beyond my majors, courses like ‘Migration Crisis in Europe’ have allowed me to see the topic of migration from a different perspective and to understand my positionality, and my work as a communications ambassador for Race and Ethnicity Programs during my sophomore year was pivotal in my understanding of power dynamics in society, acknowledging my privileges and learning to engage in ethical practices when working with different communities.”
On campus, Amaro Varas serves as the treasurer for MeCHA, the Mexican student group, and works as a Spanish tutor, a House Fellow, an assistant for Catering Services and a campus tour guide. But her biggest focus has been working as a Student Refugee Alliance leader and as a Walter Commons fellow to develop Amigos Sin Fronteras into a sustainable program for both the refugee community in Mexico and Connecticut College students. This has involved establishing a partnership with Casa Refugiados, an NGO in Mexico City that supports refugees in the country; redesigning the ESL Teaching Methodologies Course to encompass a training program on working with displaced populations; doing research on practices for teaching language in a non-neocolonial way; coordinating volunteers; and more.
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 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.