Yeeva Cheng, a senior anthropology major and Belk Scholar from Cherryville, N.C., was recently awarded a Watson Fellowship to study marriage practices among the Hakka people, a Chinese ethnic group with diaspora living across the globe.
The Watson Fellowship is awarded through the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, and provides a grant for independent study and travel outside the United States to graduating college seniors nominated by participating institutions. It offers college graduates "of unusual promise" a year of independent exploration in international settings to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness and leadership. Each fellow receives a $28,000 stipend.
Cheng is a Hakka woman herself, and grew up in a family that practiced arranged marriage. She explained how her upbringing led her to observe how marriage practices affect women's expectations for themselves. "When I was younger, I didn't see many women attend college, and certainly not colleges away from home," she explained. "Women who grow up in the culture of arranged marriages might lose confidence in themselves or not perform well in school because they know that their futures are already determined. On the other hand, this doesn't mean women aren't expressing their agency or empowerment in other profound ways."
Cheng said the primary purpose of her Watson Fellowship is to gain understanding about this cultural practice by meeting, interviewing and living with Hakka people in several cities around the globe-Kingston, Jamaica; Singkawang, Indonesia; Hamburg, Germany; and Port Louis, Mauritius.
She emphasized that she plans to observe and analyze rather than advocate for marriage choice in Hakka culture. "I'm not going on a mission to change peoples' minds about arranged marriages," she said. "My goal is to understand how people live with arranged marriages and cope with them."
Following her year as a Watson Fellow, Cheng hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in anthropology. "I know an anthropologist's life is not easy," she said. "You must constantly travel and await grant funds, but I'm excited to pursue it."
As a Davidson student, Cheng was primarily involved in a group called the Quest Scholars Network, which advocates for the interests of low-income students. "The Quest Scholars Network is a fairly new organization," Cheng explained. "I think it reflects the need for a campus culture change in how we accommodate students who are from different socioeconomic backgrounds." Cheng's mentorship within the group inspired the network-building that she hopes to share among the women she will meet over the next year.
Cheng said her Davidson education has prepared her to encounter a variety of cultures and situations during her Watson Fellowship. "Different facets of my identity-as a first-generation college student, as a woman of color, as a kid who grew up working in a family restaurant-have made it challenging to thrive here," she said. "But that's a reality that I will have to face everywhere I go. My professors and friends at Davidson have taught me how to embrace my identity rather than be ashamed of it."
Cheng said that Davidson taught her the bravery required for cultural interaction. She said, "The biggest lesson I've learned about encountering other cultures while at Davidson is that if I want to explore another culture, it's up to me. I have to take the initiative, because no one else will mediate that experience for me. "