Riley Konsella ’17 is a 2017 recipient of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship who marks Union College’s fifth consecutive year of having a recipient. As a senior, Konsella has been very involved on campus. In addition to being a Computer Engineering major, he is also an Astronomy minor, former president of the Mountebanks, member of the club Hockey team and a writer for the Concordiensis’s Science and Technology column. Konsella said he believed that his involvement to Union’s campus resulted from his natural interest and enthusiasm to so many different things.
Last September, Konsella let his curiosity lead him further by applying for the Watson Fellowship, a one-year grant for graduating seniors to explore the world. And now, after graduating this June, Konsella will receive $30,000 to travel to Denmark, Rwanda, Norway, Singapore, Vietnam and Brazil to study the different means of transportation people utilize in these countries and look for innovative transportation options.
Konsella expressed his wish to understand what motivates people to choose the form of transportation they use, whether it is local authority or culture or infrastructure, from first-hand experiences. He wants to see why people in Denmark, Singapore or Vietnam, for examples, choose to use bicycles, public transport, or motorbikes and scooters to get around, as opposed to American “firmly entrained car culture.” He wants to see “what long term can the U.S. do to get away from everyone having a car powered by gasoline, with one person in at a time and find a more sustainable solution.”
His inspiration for the proposal was his “recent research in adventive self-driving cars and how that could very dramatically change the landscapes of the United States in the same way that cars themselves did a hundred years ago.” He said that the change would resemble the shift from “a tightened country of horse and buggy” to a highly individualized scene of transportation, where “by the 50s, every family had a car and by the last couple decades, you expect people to have a car.”
Anticipating these changes, Konsella wants to make it even better by exploring “how policies work and how people’s perception works for people to embrace different forms of transportation that they have always been using.” “That is sort of where my proposal roots from: it was about looking at what makes people accept something different from the norm, what lessons could I learn from that and how things are going to change in the U.S. in the future,” Konsella said.
His research on self-driving cars was not from any courses he has taken, but from his own independent projects and interests. After reading on the subject matter, he decided that it was something he would want to do in the future and incorporated it into his proposal. In his process of applying, he stated that he got a lot of help, both from friends and from Union’s Watson Fellowship review committee of seven faculty members. “Union is really good at helping people with fellowships.” Konsella stated, “Figuring out the idea for a project was a very difficult process,” and continued by saying “It definitely involved a lot of major changes, a lot of pouring over every weird article about every country around the world trying to find the best places to go and making decisions once you have all the information.
You would always be second guessing yourself.” Konsella changed his proposal midway. He did not learn about the Watson Fellowship until just a week before Union’s deadline to submit proposals for nomination to the Watson Foundation. When he did, he hastily submitted a proposal and “immediately started to second guessing” himself. He said he felt like he wanted to do something completely different.
In the interview with Union’s Watson Committee just a week later after the deadline, he changed his proposal. “I sort of just said ‘Never mind about my proposal,’ and handed out my new proposals around and said, ‘This is my new proposal.’” This action gained him support from the committee, because, as Konsella shared, “It’s less, at that point, about how good is this person’s proposal and much more about how excited are they to do this.
Are they the kind of person who can really make an impact with their projects, who support the values of the Watson Foundation and really just want to explore this trip around the world?” “Me not being able to decide what my project will be is just a part of my enthusiasm about everything,” Konsella said. It was the start of the three-month process for Konsella – an entire term of revising and rewriting essays, a process that Konsella said it would be beneficial and valuable even if he did not get the Fellowship.
He stated that the process made him a better writer and tuned him to explore more about the subject he was interested in. The process is, as Konsella put, “about a person exploring a personal interest. Not being able to pick a project is probably what made me a Watson Fellow.” Concluding the interview, Konsella shared his time management secret – how he manages to be an engineer, an astronomer and a Watson Fellow while still being very involved in various organizations around campus: “It’s sort of just picking your priorities. You gotta see what’s important.” He shared that he always has to make trade-offs, to give up his time on something to do something else he believes would be more enriching.