Graduating Senior Samantha Lilly Receives the Watson Fellowship

Samantha Lilly ’19, majoring in Philosophy with an interdisciplinary emphasis in Bioethics, is a 2019 recipient of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Out of around 200 students nominated by universities, this prestigious fellowship is awarded to up to 50 students. As described by the Puget Sound Fellowships Office, “in selecting Watson Fellows, the Foundation is most concerned with holistically identifying individuals who demonstrate integrity, imagination, strong ethical character, intelligence, the capacity for vision and leadership, the promise of creative achievement and excellence within a chosen field, and the potential for humane and effective participation in the world community.”

Samantha illustrates the fellowship, her project, and how her philosophy education has prepared her for the project:

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, colloquially known as “The Watson,” is a rare window after college and pre-career to engage my deepest interest on a global scale. Watson Fellows conceive original projects, execute them outside of the United States for one year and embrace the ensuing journey. They decide where to go, who to meet and when to change course. The program produces a year of personal insight, perspective and confidence that shapes the arc of fellows’ lives. Started in 1968, Watson Fellows comprise leaders in every field.

My project, “Understanding Suicidality Across Cultures” will take me to the Netherlands, Argentina, New Zealand, Indonesia, and Nepal. In each country I intend to understand the tangible ways that different communities and cultures understand suicidality. In other words, my project is driven by my background in philosophy because underneath the hands on work I’ll be doing, I am asking questions that I believe are best answered philosophically: “What makes a life worth living? What does flourishing look like? Can suicide be ethical? Why do people die by suicide? How do we know for certain suicide is wrong? What makes a suicide rational or irrational? And, when is paternalism justified and when is it an infringement on autonomy?”

It is my hope that my Watson Year further shapes my ability to think freely, reason well, and grow as a philosopher and human.

After my Watson year, I intend to pursue a J.D. in Health Law with a special interest on mental health care law in the United States. But, I try not to think about that too much. I want to live in this moment of achieving something I’ve been dreaming about and working toward since I was a wee sophomore here at UPS. There’s honestly not much else I’d like to say except to give thanks and express my gratitude to every professor in the philosophy department for mentoring me and guiding me through this major and ultimately shaping me into the type of person who gets awarded a kick ass fellowship like this.

If it were not for Ariela, I would not have even considered becoming a philosophy major and definitely would have never thought of going to law school. Thank you for being my advisor, mentor, and friend. There is so much more I could say here, but I just want you to know you have changed my life and I am grateful.

I am more ethical (gentler, warmer, and softer) because of you.

Without Justin, I would have never asked the important questions regarding mental illness, the mind, and how we can be certain of our beliefs. Thank you for teaching me how to question and how to articulate my thoughts. I am a better thinker, questioner, and joke teller because of you.

Or, in other words, I am a better version of myself because of you.

Sara, I would have never considered a disability framework for suicidality until I took your class. And, quite frankly, I’d still be writing scattered papers with absolutely no sections (yikes!) if you hadn’t taught me what makes a good philosophy paper.

I am more considerate and empathetic because of you.

Beardsley, oh boy, where to begin? I don’t know where I would be today without 19th Century Philosophy. Your ability to teach and communicate Hegel is I bet pretty unprecedented. I think about this class every day — it has shaped my thoughts about the world around me and has overall given me the words and confidence to speak about the future and the past.

I am more thoughtful because of you.
And, this is out of context, but I also think about souls and owls a lot because of you.

And finally, Sam. I think similarly to Ariela, I cannot thank you enough for the time and effort you have put into my work. You have allowed me the opportunity to articulate how I feel in a way that is constructive and worthwhile.  There are so many things to say and so little time. I suppose I’ll just leave you with this:

I am a better philosopher because of you.

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Samantha Lilly ’19: “An Ethnographic, Experimental Philosophical Inquiry into Attitudes and Perceptions Toward Suicidality.”

Philosophy major Samantha Lilly ’19 received a Summer Research Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences (information on the Summer Research Grants in Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences is available here). She describes her experience working on her summer research project under the supervision of Prof. Andrew Gardner in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology:
My summer research was an attempt to amalgamate the logical approach of my philosophy major, with the data collection methods of the ethnographer, to be able to better answer a fundamental question of philosophy, “is suicide wrong?” The philosophical approach to answering questions gives me the ability to utilize logic to create normative claims about how things ought to be. In other words, philosophical research allows me to answer the question, “is suicide wrong?” while ethnography gives me the substantiated qualitative data to answer  the essential follow-up question, “how do we know?”
Spring semester 2018, I finished research designed to help answer the very question my current research is aimed at solving. My spring research, however, investigated the United States mental health care system’s understanding of suicidality. I sought the accounts of the mental health care professionals’ run-ins with suicidal behaviors and stories they encountered with their patients. Here, I used the same ethnographic methodology as a warrant for different normative ethical claims on how the United States Mental Healthcare System ought to approach their understanding of mental health, illness, and suicide.
This summer, my research shifted its focus from the contradictory medical model of mental health to individuals who have been bereaved by suicide.  The ethnographic research design utilized semi-structured interviews to collect data from thirteen individuals who have lost a loved one by suicide. The research design also included elements of participant observation conducted within a suicide bereavement group located within the state of Washington. These people all varied in age (20 years old to 80 years old), in walks of life, and in grieving experiences. Some participants lost mothers and brothers, whereas others, lost daughters and partners. After transcribing and coding each of the interviews, I found that each interviewee reported grieving in a way that strays significantly from the traditional grief model and the typical reactions portrayed by modern media. What is more, is that with each story of death, heartache, and grief, each individual described an extreme confusion in how to feel toward their loved one and how they ended up dying. Ultimately, my summer research revealed a unique expectation placed on individuals bereaved by suicide; on the one hand, they are told and expected to understand their loved one’s death as irrational (as a result of mental illness), and on the other, they are expected and told to hold their loved one accountable, i.e., “they chose to kill themselves”, “they left me”, etc.
Philosophically speaking, the ways survivors understand their loved one’s death are at odds with one another. They are told to pin tricky discussions concerning free will against conversations on moral culpability. My job as a researcher and philosopher continues as I attempt to parse out ethical and normative ways we can mitigate this confusion and harm done—not only to those who have been bereaved— but those who have died as well.
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