Cross-country scholar-athlete and Belk Scholar Sierra Ponthier '18 has been awarded a prestigious and highly selective Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. She is one of only 40 annual winners, chosen from applicants at private colleges and universities across the United States.
Davidson has produced one or more Watson winners in 49 of the award's 50 years. Six out of Davidson's last seven winners have been scholar-athletes, in men's and women's cross-country, men's and women's soccer and women's basketball.
Ponthier's project, "‘Yes, Chef!': Female Leadership in the Restaurant Industry," will take her on a Wanderjahr to Brazil, Morocco and Ireland to explore how women in different cultures distinguish themselves in leadership and service in a male-dominated industry.
"Kitchens are high-energy, fast-paced, physically demanding environments. That was one of the things I loved most about it since I had my first job in a professional kitchen when I was just 16," said Ponthier, who hails from Palos Verdes Estates, California. "I was exhausted every day and my hands reeked of smoked salmon and onions. But everybody was in the zone and it was a team atmosphere."
It's also an unconventional atmosphere, one that is rife with harassment and abuse.
"Now more than ever we're seeing issues of sexual harassment," she said. "If you're trying to climb the ranks in a professional kitchen and you're the only female with all these bro' kind of figures around, who are you going to go talk to?"
Gender issues are among the myriad topics Ponthier will explore during her Watson year.
In Rio de Janiero, she will work at Restaurant O Navegador with Chef Teresa Corção, who partners with The Maniva Institute to work in support of small farmers of the indigenous crop manioc, or tapioca root. In Marrakech, Morocco, she will engage with the Amal Women's Center, dedicated to the empowerment of disadvantaged women through restaurant training and job placement. At Kai Restaurant + Café in Galway, Ireland, Ponthier will work on the front lines of female-chef activism with Chef Jess Murphy.
The twin virtues of teamwork and independence have defined Ponthier's Davidson career in both athletics and academics.
As an incoming first-year student, she won Davidson's traditional Freshman Cake Race, crossing the finish line with her seven classmates on the women's Division I cross-country team, with whom she would race for the next four years.
As a double major in environmental studies and East Asian studies, Ponthier worked at an organic farm in Italy and traveled to Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand. She taught nutrition-based cooking classes at the Ada Jenkins Community Center in Davidson, worked at a natural foods broker engaging with grocery stores like Whole Foods, and last summer interned in the front of the house at the Whitney Museum restaurant, Untitled, in New York.
The Watson Fellowship brings Ponthier full circle to her first love, the professional restaurant kitchen. She is still most interested in the food itself, but today she asks much broader and more nuanced questions about the bigger picture: about the ethics and morals of kitchen and server culture, about fair trade with farmers and supply-chain economics, about gentrification and immigration.
"Food is a part of everyone's life," she said. "How do restaurants serve more than just the people who can afford to come into the restaurant to eat?"
This 50th class of Watson Fellows comes from eight countries and 17 states and will travel to 67 countries exploring topics ranging from foster care to opera.
Watson Fellowships allow scholars to pursue independent research projects while traveling for a year outside the United States after graduation. Fellows receive $30,000 for 12 months of travel, and college loan assistance as required.
The children of Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of International Business Machines Corp., and his wife, Jeannette K. Watson, established the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program in 1968 to honor their parents' long-standing interest in education and world affairs. Nearly 3,000 people have embarked on a Watson Year, which provides fellows with an opportunity to test their aspirations, abilities and perseverance through a personal project that is cultivated on an international scale.
Watson Fellows have gone on to become international influencers in their fields including CEOs of major corporations, college presidents, Emmy, Grammy and Oscar Award winners, Pulitzer Prize awardees, artists, diplomats, doctors, faculty, journalists, lawyers, politicians, researchers and inspiring leaders around the world.