Wen wins Watson Fellowship, Toppa wins Zeff Fellowship

Rice University senior Jenny Wen is one of 40 students across the country awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. She will receive $25,000 for 12 months of world travel and independent study.

Senior Sabrina Toppa is this year’s recipient of the Roy and Hazel Zeff Fellowship, which is awarded to the Rice student ranked highest by the Rice Faculty Committee on Fellowships and Awards who does not receive a Watson Fellowship. She also will receive a $25,000 grant for world travel and independent study.

Caroline Quenemoen, Rice’s director of fellowships and undergraduate research, noted that Wen was chosen from 148 finalists culled from more than 700 candidates for the Watson Fellowship.

“Rice is one of only 40 schools eligible to nominate students for the Watson Fellowship,” Quenemoen said. “We’re grateful to the Watson Foundation and to Rice Professor Stephen Zeff for making it possible for our students to pursue their educational interests around the world.”

“This year’s fellows are a constellation of remarkable students whose ideas cross as many disciplines as national borders,” said Chris Kasabach, director of the Watson Foundation. “For 45 years, this has been the hallmark of the Watson – a boundless year of purposeful, independent discovery that forever shapes a fellow’s view of themselves and the world around them.”

Jenny Wen

After Wen graduates from Rice in May, she plans to study female survivors of sexual assault in vastly different cultural, historical and social contexts to see how they navigate each region’s legal systems, cultural norms and health care resources to overcome obstacles and regain empowerment. She will visit Sweden, Turkey, South Africa, Indonesia, Japan and Peru to interview survivors, advocates, law enforcement and the survivors’ medical and legal counsel. She also will observe and participate in educational and awareness campaigns and lobbying efforts. She plans to share her experience via her blog and build a global partnership among advocacy organizations. After her Watson journey, Wen plans to earn an M.D. and a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“My dream is to become an obstetrician/gynecologist and a public health worker in an underdeveloped country,” said Wen, who is majoring in psychology and minoring in Rice’s Poverty, Justice and Human Capabilities (PJHC) program. “I want to serve underprivileged and battered women and implement initiatives that integrate the promotion of sexual and reproductive health, gender equality and advocacy against gender-based violence.”

Born in Beijing and raised in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Wen came to Rice in 2009.

“Rice University has provided Jenny a range of opportunities in and out of the classroom to acquire a broad perspective on gender inequity and to help those less fortunate in the U.S. and abroad,” Quenemoen said.

As a research assistant for Rice Professor of Psychology and Management Mikki Hebl, Wen examined the impact of gender differences in the work place. While a Gateway Fellow studying abroad for a semester in Geneva, Wen completed an independent research project on women’s health care access in Switzerland and Morocco that won the Best Paper Award at the World Youth Leaders’ Forum at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

A vocal advocate for women’s rights and social justice, Wen has volunteered at women’s shelters and health clinics in the U.S., Ghana and Nepal through Rice’s Alternative Spring Break program and as a PJHC service intern. She co-founded Fund Recruit Educate Empower (FREE), a partnership with nonprofits in Houston to raise awareness of and funding for victims of human trafficking, and she presented the program at the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative — University Conference.

On campus, Wen also is an advocate for student health and wellness. She is the current co-president of Rice Health Advisers, a volunteer peer-education program on physical and mental health, and has been actively involved in Peer Academic Advisers, Orientation Week advising, the Student Association and government at her residential college — McMurtry College — which honored her with a service award two consecutive years.

“I am incredibly grateful for all the opportunities Rice has given me and the support of such a loving and inspiring community,” Wen said.

The Thomas J. Watson Foundation was created in 1961 as a charitable trust by Mrs. Thomas Watson Sr. in honor of her late husband, the founder of IBM. The Watsons’ children established the fellowship program in 1968 in recognition of their parents’ long-standing interest in education and world affairs. More than 2,700 Watson Fellowships have been awarded.

Sabrina Toppa

Toppa, whose residential college also is McMurtry, is majoring in policy studies and Asian studies. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in a family of Pakistani taxi drivers, she will travel to Bangladesh, Qatar, South Africa, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to spend time in taxi ranks and garages, ride minibus taxis and interview rickshaw-wallahs so she can write stories with, about and around migrants in the transportation service economy.

“Writing is a tool to reclaim the voices of the marginalized,” Toppa said. “The face of the transportation service laborer is everywhere, yet the story often goes unheard. Oftentimes, there is a tendency to pity migrants on the move and assume they lack agency or goals of entrepreneurship, but they are often engaged in enterprising practices unknown to the general public. Migration is a strategic tool to discover new opportunities. Most migrants don’t necessarily see themselves as victims: they’re the lucky ones who leave and access new opportunities.”

Toppa aims to document these stories about their autonomy and entrepreneurship. “I want to give a voice to the faceless bodies transporting us from point A to point B,” she said.

At Rice, Toppa’s interest in labor, migration and transportation led her to conduct research on Houston’s bus system. She also pursued migration studies in North Africa on a Rice Wagoner Foreign Study Scholarship and spent time in Tunisia as a Cultural Fellow for the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education and in India on a U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholarship. While at Rice, she interned at the Tahirih Justice Center, where she conducted research on the U-Visa program offering temporary legal residence for undocumented victims of crime. For her research, she collected stories from human trafficking victims from Guatemala and Mexico, which prepared her for the nature of the interviews required for her Zeff project.

Toppa spent her junior year abroad. In Amsterdam, she volunteered with at-risk Moroccan and Surinamese youth and conducted research on migrant experiences in the Dutch labor market. By interviewing Muslim women across the Netherlands, she was able to compare the differential success outcomes for native-born and migrant labor. As a Gateway International Ambassador in Copenhagen, Toppa worked on Denmark’s only refugee-run magazine with Afghans living in refugee camps. She described the opportunity as pivotal in shaping her creative writing project for her Zeff year.

The Zeff Fellowship will serve as a foundation for Toppa’s graduate study in labor and migration. The fellowship was established by Stephen Zeff, the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Accounting at the Jones Graduate School of Business, in honor of his parents.


About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.