A Watson Year in 10 minutes –

At the Returning Fellow’s Conference, hosted this year by Pomona College, 37 Watson Fellows, along with the Board, Foundation, and new Campus advisors, met for the first time and shared stories and perspectives. As each fellow unveiled fragments of their years, I was struck by their passion, resilience, and resourcefulness in pursuing a project of their choice. They are truly incredible people and I feel privileged and honored to know them. You can read more about their projects here:

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Boiling down 365+ days into a 10-minute presentation was challenging, and I hope to share more from this year as I reflect, but I hope the following can provide a meaningful glimpse. I invite you to read it out loud because I wrote the words in a way that they ought to be spoken.

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A few thousand miles and an ocean away from home, I found myself in a city of thunderstorms. In a Kuala Lumpur highrise, a woman sat next to me. She was a radio talkshow host and a pioneering politician.
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Through forwarded chain mail, Ms. Chew Hoong Ling had learned that a 13-year old girl needed a liver. Without hesitation, she gave 60% of hers. When Lee An Qi died 8 months later, Ms. Chew had nothing else to offer but an unbridled commitment to championing organ donation in a place with one of the lowest rates. For her, donation was one of the highest acts of compassion and altruism.
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Ms. Chew was one of the first people I had the privilege of meeting on my Watson. I left Boston with a great deal of planning but no certain plans in mind. My original itinerary was thwarted by visa issues; Plan B brought me to places of which I knew little. All I was sure of was the sheer terror I felt when the plane took off. What did I get myself into? Why did I even think this was a good idea?
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Before I get to what happened after that plane landed, I’d like to explain why I got on it in the first place. When I was sixteen, I was blindsided by an unexpected question on my driver’s license: Do you want to be an organ donor? I left the box unchecked. As an interfaith activist, aspiring physician, and Muslim, my hesitation to be an organ donor left me in a bit of an existential crisis. I knew I wanted to save lives, but I was less confident about becoming a donor. Did Islam permit organ donation? Was the choice my own or my parents’? Was my moral compass weaker because I was unsure? Fast-forward to age 21, I reasoned through science and Islamic scripture to value life-saving over body-preserving actions.
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But I still wondered if other people hesitated too. I wondered what countries were doing to solve the global organ shortage. I wondered why people said yes or no. I wondered what role education, economic factors, societal tensions, trust, culture and religion played in organ donation. I wondered how much I could learn in a year.
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With a stamped passport, I stepped into a year filled with happiness, loneliness, introspection, and conversation. I moved when I was uncomfortable, tumbling down rabbit holes that brought me to places I never imagined and wonders I thought were reserved for library books.
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Pursuing a Watson allowed me a rare privilege to understand what other people thought about this complex interaction between spirituality and science. An intersection where the questions about burial rites, brain death, family consent, body integrity, and fairness confront the exigencies of practiced religion and healthcare decisions.
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I followed organ donation and interfaith narratives down the Malaysian peninsula to skyscraping Singapore and to the rainy cities of Indonesia.
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Why were Malay Muslims less likely to donate than the Chinese and Indian Malaysians minorities? Why had Singapore excluded Muslims from its presumed consent system prior to 2007? Why was organ donation considered a sin and a privilege of the rich by some in Indonesia?
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By the European winter, I arrived in France, where the new organ donation law brought questions around family consent, and with it, the clash of individualistic and communal cultures.
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By March, I left to understand one of the world’s best organ donation systems in Croatia. There, I explored Zagreb with priests and was introduced to the global enterprise of transplant procure management.
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By March, I left to understand one of the world’s best organ donation systems in Croatia. There, I explored Zagreb with priests and was introduced to the global enterprise of transplant procure management.
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I love to think about how when I got off the plane or the overnight bus, I had no clue what in the world I was doing or if any of what I just said was going to happen. But over the weeks, days unfolded and brought me to incredible people.
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With every departure, I learned of heartbreak. Every hello felt like a goodbye, until I started opting for “seeing you later’s”. I don’t know how long later will be,
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I’ll think of the textured gi of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
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Philosophy walks in Singapore.
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Singing Bahasa on the back of pick-up trucks.
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Cleaning flapjack trays in France.
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Farming with a Croatian donor family..
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The rave of an English football game.
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I’ll remember most not the sights I saw, but the conversations I had. I feel happiest realizing the unprecedented brilliance of a stranger.
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I feel happiest thinking of the people who gave me their time and shared their love of life with me. This year taught me how to be alone, how to be uncomfortable and resilient, but it also helped me question my assumptions: about countries I studied, people at first glance, and of course, about organ donation.
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I thought religious beliefs would play a critical role in people’s support for organ donation; and it does, but not in the way I imagined. No religion says anything directly about organ donation.
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What religion and culture do provide is a hierarchy of values. In interfaith circles, we talk about how religion teaches us how to love our neighbors and even our enemies. Most religions, if not all, uphold that saving a life is pretty much a bullet train into heaven.
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To save a life is one of the most powerful embodiments of love. And according to Pope Francis, organ donation is a testament of that faithful love. It is with love that Mrs. Chew gave part of one of her only assured possessions to a girl she had never met
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And so I’ve asked myself, if this hierarchy of values seems so inclined to saves lives, why would a person of faith say no to organ donation?
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The motivations to donate are the same, but the differences depend where you are, who you are, and what you’re balancing. There are valid and respectable reasons that dissuade people from ultimately donating their organs, from trafficking to systematic distrust to unimaginable grief to an uncertainty of death, and that’s okay. Our body is a vessel with which we pursue life; our identity is intrinsically tied to it. If you are informed about organ donation, then your decision to say yes or no is sound. But we don’t really talk about organ donation, or how to culturally approach it. I’ve met religious leaders who did not understand brain death, thus found organ donation impermissible. Some medical professionals assumed that certain ethnic or religious groups could not donate, and then never asked the family.
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Yet, if you share the facts and figures, the severity, susceptibility and benefits of organ donation, if you engage in dialogue that respects religious, social, or cultural obligations, or if you simply ask: If you’re willing to receive, are you willing to donate? People, like I did, think twice.
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To the around 200 people to whom I spoke about religion and organ donation, I often asked what everyone should know. Across countries, religions, and cultures, two statements were common. First, amid this global shortage, you can save lives. Second, death is not a singular event: “it happens to each of us, but also to the people we leave behind.” Educating people about organ donation reduces the burden on a family in the worst moment of their life. A preempted conversation prevents the family from mourning with the uncertainty of whether they honored their loved one’s last wish.
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If this year showed me anything, it’s the importance of conversation. From listening to you, I don’t think I have to say anything about reaching out. But what I do encourage you to do is to have a conversation with your loved ones about organ donation. I know in the coming years, I’ll take these conversations with me, as I facilitate dialogues, write for the public, and pursue a life’s work in bioethics and medicine center around the people I may have the privilege of helping. But I’ll also remember what it felt like to live this year. I near dreamed of walking the grounds of wonders or the streets of cities unfamiliar. I found empowerment in the absence of social association, the surreal in days uncharted. So I traveled and traveled and found a reason to smile and space to be somber. This year has been a gift and a privilege: to see parts of the world, I otherwise wouldn’t; to know people I wouldn’t. The world is truly breathtaking; but I think, it is the people who breathe life into it.
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Terima kasih. A plein des bisous a vous. Hvala vam. Cheers. Jazakhallah khairun. Thank you.

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