Sira Nassoko Receives the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship

The Watson Fellowship is a $40,000 one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration outside the United States

March 15, 2024

Sira Nassoko ’24 has been awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for 2024–25 to explore music and soundscapes of the environment to reveal a lineage of hope and resilience across four countries.

Nassoko, from Bronx, New York, is among 35 students selected nationwide from 154 finalists from 41 partner schools to receive the $40,000 fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. The fellowship program offers “college graduates of unusual promise a year of purposeful, independent exploration and international travel to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community.”

Nassoko’s project, Sounds of Hope, will be spent collaborating with musicians, music educators, and organizations dedicated to mitigating violence and promoting hopeful futures in Finland, Rwanda, Argentina, and Australia. She will consider sound as a testimony for every country’s unique history.

“Hope lives in all of us as a result of various kinds of violence,” read Nassoko’s project summary. “Sound is a powerful tool to explore this relationship.” She plans to develop a digital anthology of soundscapes throughout the year, using soundwalking, musicking, and ethnographic practices to interrogate what histories of violence and hope exist in communities around the world.

"Even though I’ve spent months thinking about this opportunity and my potential year, the actual realization of my project feels like a different mountain entirely,” said Nassoko. “I am excited, nervous, and extremely grateful to be able to undertake this journey. I can’t anticipate the connections I’ll build and the things I’ll come to learn during the year."

Grinnell has partnered with the Watson Fellowship Program since it was established in 1968. With the announcement of this year’s recipients, 85 Grinnell students have been named Watson Fellows.

“We congratulate and celebrate with Sira for this honor she has received,” said Ann Landstrom, the College’s assistant dean and director of global fellowships and awards. “Sira’s curiosity to explore such a deeply meaningful and personally significant project on a global scale will test resilience, inspire confidence, and strengthen understanding of hope in our world.”

Nassoko was named a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow in 2022, writing an independent thesis in the field of Ethnomusicology about ‘the use of hip-hop in diplomacy efforts and music torture operations following 9/11’ and in summer 2023 embarked on a month-long ethnographic project in the Middle East and North Africa to support her thesis. She has interned with both the State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs and the University of Michigan’s Human Trafficking Lab.

Nassoko is a computer science and music double major at Grinnell College. At college and in the Grinnell community, she plays bass in the Latin American Ensemble, serves on the Music Department Student Educational Policy Committee, supports peers as a writing and computer science mentor, volunteers as a Grinnell advocate, works as a Sociology Mellon Humanities in Action course and pedagogy assistant, and provides Resources for Indigenous Survivors and Empowerment with the Meskwaki settlement as a victim services advocate.

“Her leadership and strengths have been present in so many ways, from her academic departments and community engagement to serving as a residence life community advisor and Rosenfield Program committee member,” shared Landstrom. “Sira’s integrity, compassion, listening, and storytelling skills will resonate throughout this transformative journey.”

Upon completion of the Watson year, she wants to pursue a PhD in Ethnomusicology and enter the professoriate. She wants to continue to conduct research on the intersection of sound, violence, and hope. Within her career she wants to advise musical exchanges and cultural diplomacy programming — “Work that centers resilient voices in the face of global conflict,” said Nassoko. 

The College appreciates the journeys proposed by all of the applicants this past fall. Other nominees included Kelly Banfield ’24, Washington, New Jersey, The Language of Craft and Ari Dworkin-Cantor ’24, Chicago, Illinois, TransTemporal Kingdoms: Transmasculinity and Drag Kings Through Time. “The Watson application process transforms a person’s deepest interests into a project of purposeful independent exploration that will continue to be part of an applicant’s life forever,” said Landstrom.

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