Lawrence University senior Maggie McGlenn, having long blended her interests in fashion and environmental sustainability, will have an opportunity to explore those passions in unison as the recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.
A biology major from Madison, McGlenn becomes the 77th Lawrentian over the past 53 years to be awarded a Watson, which provides $36,000 in funding for a year-long wanderjahr of independent travel and exploration. She is one of 42 graduating college seniors across the country selected as part of the 2022 Watson class.
McGlenn will travel to Scotland, India, Tajikistan, Senegal, and the Netherlands, seeking out communities of people involved in the creation and/or recycling of clothing while staying in harmony with the land they call home.
McGlenn got word that she was awarded the Watson shortly after finishing a Winter Term final exam.
“The first thing I did was call my mom and dad,” she said. “I was so excited and at the same time it felt unreal.”
“Ever since I learned about it, I’ve been day-dreaming about what I would do if given the chance.”
McGlenn has been a constant in the theatre costume shop since her first year at Lawrence. She’s known across campus for her skills in creating and altering clothing, and she used her talents during the COVID-19 pandemic to make protective masks for the Lawrence community. She’s also been heavily involved in biology professor Israel Del Toro’s pollinator research, the SLUG garden, and other sustainability efforts across campus.
Her Watson journey, she said, will build on those experiences.
“I was drawn to the opportunity because it allows me to take something I love so much—fashion, clothing, sewing—and give it such a greater perspective,” McGlenn said of the Watson. “I hope that through this opportunity I can find a way to do what I love the most in a way that is also good for the world and everyone in it.”
Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory of Music and a Watson recipient following his own graduation from Lawrence in 1986, serves as the university’s lead advisor for Watson applications. He called McGlenn’s talents with a sewing machine a beautiful blend of inspiration and art.
“Maggie is a creative artist with an incredibly imaginative eye,” Pertl said. “Instead of paints, her medium is cloth. Maggie repurposes used clothing from Goodwill, leftover cloth from the costume shop, even old theater curtains, and creates magnificent wearable art. Her creativity, adaptability, and her love of community and collaboration will serve her well on her year of exploration.”
McGlenn will begin her 12 months of travel and study on the Isle of Iona, Scotland, where she’ll be immersed in a community of sheep farmers who cultivate precious natural wool.
“I will assist the shepherds at Maol Farm, exploring how treating animals with dignity, respect, and love produces the best results for both parties,” she said in her Watson proposal.
She’ll then select, spin, and dye the fiber from the same sheep she tended.
From there she’ll go to Jaipur, India, to explore a textiles community that has never departed from natural dyeing.
She’ll head to Kulob, Tajikistan, where she’ll connect with UNICEF’s Protecting Children Affected by Migration in Southeast, South, and Central Asia.
“In collaboration with Terre des Hommes, I will sew alongside families affected by migration, transforming simple cloth into a life-saving livelihood,” she said.
Then it’s on to Dakar, Senegal, where McGlenn will explore what happens to the nearly 18,000 tons of second-hand clothing that enters the country every year and how recycled materials can alter how we think about new clothing.
Her final stop will be in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where she’ll rummage through waste sites “to gain a visceral understanding of fashion consumption habits” and assist with a local waste management study that is looking at the creation of carbon sinks and energy from retired landfills.
“Amongst our garbage, I will explore how recognizing waste as a potential for recreation and energy can help to heal our relationship with the environment,” she said.
McGlenn said she has been fascinated by fashion since she was a toddler and expects it to be part of her life going forward. But how that ties in with her other interests, including the ways fashion can be used for good, is something she’ll have a chance to explore through her Watson experience.
“Whenever I would get nervous or overwhelmed during the application process, I would just remind myself that my plan was to go and make clothes, and I would instantly become excited again,” she said.
Watson Fellows are selected from 41 private colleges and universities across the United States that partner with the Watson Foundation. More than 3,000 Watson Fellows have been named since the inaugural class in 1969.
The Watson Foundation dates back to 1961, created as a charitable trust in the name of Thomas J. Watson Sr., best known for building IBM. It works with students to develop personal, professional, and cultural opportunities that build their confidence and perspective to be more humane and effective leaders with a world view.
McGlenn said she grew up hearing tales of the places that she’ll now get to visit.
“I learned about the Watson through friends who described it to me as the chance to travel the world studying something you are uniquely passionate about,” she said. “Ever since I learned about it, I’ve been day-dreaming about what I would do if given the chance.”