Wilder McCoy, C’20, a natural resources and international and global studies major from Conway, Massachusetts, has been awarded a prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.

Wilder McCoy, C’20, a natural resources and international and global studies major from Conway, Massachusetts, has been awarded a prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for 2020-21. He is Sewanee's 49th Watson Fellow.

McCoy joins 46 other students selected as Watson Fellows; they hail from eight countries and 20 states. Selected from colleges and universities across the United States, winners of the fellowship receive a stipend of $36,000 for 12 months of independent study and travel outside of the United States. (Note: The Thomas J. Watson Foundation is working with this year's fellows to delay or adjust travel as needed due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

McCoy describes his project, “Blue Money: The Cultural Value of Water,” as a culmination of his two central passions: water resource management and socially responsible investment. He plans to visit Algeria, Australia, Bolivia, India, and Peru to understand how water is culturally valued and explore how financial mechanisms can be used to protect these sacred relationships.

Of hearing the good news, McCoy said: “After being completely off the grid with the SOP canoeing down the Rio Grande in the Chihuahuan Desert for spring break, our group emerged into a changed world. As we loaded the boats and drove out of the desert, we came into cell reception for the first time in eight days: a moment I was simultaneously dreading and incredibly excited for. Hearing that on-campus classes had been cancelled with graduation postponed and then learning of my Watson acceptance within five minutes was a borderline out-of-body experience.” 

“I chose the cultural value of water as my central focus because water is the critical fulcrum upon which our species depends,” said McCoy. “Without stable sources of water, our cities would crumble in a matter of days. Our oldest civilizations were all built around freshwater ecosystems. These civilizations emphasized the spiritual and fundamental value of water. If there is no monetary incentive to promote the ethical use of water resources, we will soon only read about the cultural and spiritual relationship to water in books.”

While at Sewanee, McCoy has studied water in many ways, including doing wastewater chemistry at the constructed wetland, sampling for microplastics, and as a Biehl Fellow conducting summer research on water resources in Tunisia. He has led a student movement to advocate for transparent and socially responsible investment of Sewanee’s endowment.

“I would not have been able to win the fellowship without the overwhelming support of the Sewanee community over my time on the Plateau,” he said. “In particular, professors like Dr. Skomp, Dr. McGrath, Dr. Elrod, and Dr. Wilson all had a tremendous impact in shaping me into the person I am today. Working with the Socially Conscious Investment Club and pursuing water research opportunities with Sewanee in China and Tunisia helped me build a strong Watson application. The Watson is a testament to the value of a liberal arts education.”

Read more about McCoy's project and the Watson application process in the Sewanee Purple.

Since 1985, when Sewanee was selected as one of the Watson institutions, the University has produced 49 fellowship recipients, including most recently David “Chief” Johnson, C’19. The Watson Foundation selects fellows based on qualities of leadership, imagination, independence, integrity, resourcefulness, and responsibility.