Announcing Rhodes College’s Four Nominees for the Prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship

a collage of four students
(top row, l-r) Gunner Smith, Vindhyaa Pasupuleti and (bottom row, l-r) Hannah Johns, Jacob Fontaine

Four Rhodes College seniors are competing for the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which provides a $36,000 grant for purposeful, independent exploration abroad in 2021. If selected, fellows execute their conceived projects by traveling outside the United States for one year. They decide where to go and when to change course. They do not have to affiliate with an academic institution or hold formal employment. The program is designed to produce a year of personal insight, perspective, and confidence. Qualities sought in the selection of fellows include imagination, independence, emotional maturity, courage, integrity, and resourcefulness.

The Rhodes nominees and their proposed projects are:

  • Jacob Fontaine, an international studies and economics major, whose project is “Fostering Environmental Participation through Culture, Religion, and Policy”
  • Hannah Johns, an economics major, whose project is "Tea Time: Brewing Identity, Community, and Livelihoods"
  • Vindhyaa Pasupuleti, a neuroscience and health equity major, whose project is “A Global Exploration of Spirituality and Healing”
  • Gunner Smith, a business and art major, whose project is “Queer on Display: Diversifying Art Processes”

Fontaine, who is from Flower Mound, TX, serves as Rhodes Student Government president. In the summer of 2019 at the London School of Economics, he studied international political economics and produced research on the implications of global economic imbalances. He previously served as editor-in-chief of The Bridge, Rhodes’ student-run nonprofit that helps Memphians experiencing homelessness generate stories and an income. Fontaine now works with the biology department on Amazon deforestation research and has led sustainability efforts on campus with leaders on the Rhodes Sustainability Coalition and the faculty sustainability group.

Johns, who is from Germantown, TN, serves as president of the Rhodes Activities Board and as a student trustee. She worked abroad in Singapore in the summer of 2019 as the recipient of Rhodes’ Theodore William Eckels International Business Internship. Later that year, she was an intern at Slingshot Memphis, researching best practices for alleviating poverty within the Memphis community. As a 2020 Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies fellow, she researched nonprofits that use music as economic mobilizers in the city of Memphis. Currently, Johns volunteers at My Cup of Tea, a social enterprise and ministry for women in Memphis’ Orange Mound Community.

Pasupuleti, who is from Denver, CO, is a recipient of Rhodes’ Minority Health Disparities International Research Training scholarship. In 2018, she studied abroad at the University of Nebrija in Madrid, Spain, and in 2019, she presented research and facilitated discussion about gender-based inequities influencing teenage pregnancy in the youth of Nejapa, Nicaragua, at the American Public Health Association Annual Conference. Pasupuleti was a student researcher during the summer of 2019, exploring the relationship between the local nonprofit World Relief and migrant communities of Memphis. Currently, she is a community outreach intern for the Wellness and Stress Clinic of Memphis.

Smith, who is a native of Kennett, MO, has had study abroad experiences in Tianjin, China; Oxford, England; and Cuenca, Ecuador. As a recipient of Rhodes’ Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center Fellowship in the Arts, he has been conducting research and producing a documentary about the once Luciann theatre in Memphis and its connections to new queer cinema. This summer, he worked as an art assistant in 3D animation.  Smith runs his own fine art website, where he donates to Friends for Life, a nonprofit that offers free HIV screening and pre-exposure prophylaxis medication.
Winners of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship will be announced in March 2021.