Charles-Olivier Lévesque '23 is a 2023 Thomas J. Watson Fellow. Charles-Olivier Lévesque ’23 is a 2023 Thomas J. Watson Fellow.Lévesque plans to travel through France, India, and Sweden, where he will study how communities are working together to experiment with collaborative living, permaculture, and low-tech tools to create alternative models advancing the causes of common welfare and environmental sustainability, with the goal of bringing this knowledge back to his home on the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec.

“I’ve had the opportunity to study these subjects at COA, but always from afar,” Lévesque says. “You can learn all about places and people on the internet, but you can only know what they’re really doing by visiting and connecting with them. It’s really quite an incredible opportunity to complete the loop.”

In the spirit of the low-tech philosophy of the project, Lévesque says he aims to keep his carbon footprint as low as possible throughout his year abroad.

“I’m hoping to reach Europe on a sailboat, partially as a way to limit my CO2 consumption, but also to fulfill a life-long dream of crossing the Atlantic Ocean,” he says, smiling. “I’ll then be biking around Europe for a good half of the year, after which I’ll set off for India, where I’ll travel by train.”

His itinerary will take him from the Indian Himalayas all the way to Puducherry near the Bay of Bengal. After he’s done there, he’ll return to Europe to spend the summer with communities in Scandinavia.

“In supporting recent graduates across a year’s worth of adventure where the organizing principle is personal growth through the pursuit of an idea, the Watson Fellowship is unlike any other post-baccalaureate fellowship I know,” COA President Darron Collins ’92 says. “I have no doubt he will come away with subject-matter expertise on these communities, but the real special sauce of the Watson Fellowship is in the personal growth he’ll achieve on this journey.”

Lévesque, a graduate Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific and a Davis United World College Scholar, has been focused on finding a better way for human society than our current extractive, pollutive economic model throughout his self-directed education at COA.

“I’m really interested in societal alternatives to the current system, because for many years now, scientists have been telling us that our society needs to change radically if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change,” he says. “Beyond decarbonization, we need intersectional alternatives that enable us to address social and environmental problems as one. Studying what those alternatives could be at a local level has been at the core of my life interests and my human ecology degree.”

During his time at COA, Lévesque has taken a variety of classes on food systems, community development, and economics. Some of these courses include Economics of Cooperation, Networks, & Trust, Active Optimism: Practices in Transforming Food Systems, Understanding and Managing Group Dynamics, and Economic Development: Theory and Case Studies. His breadth of knowledge also draws upon several independent studies and internships, notably work at the Strategic Planning of Val d’Espoir Permaculture School in Percé, Quebec and an internship at the Société de Développement Économique de Percé.

Being awarded a Watson fellowship is extremely exciting, if not a little unreal, Lévesque says.

“I don’t know if I fully realize it yet, because I’ve been focused on finishing my graduation requirements, but I know I’m about to embark on a life-changing journey,” he says.

Lévesque is most excited to meet new people during his travels, he says.

“There’s something that happens when you’re traveling alone, when you meet people and your plans end up turning out so much better than you anticipated. You get this feeling that some encounters are just meant to be, it’s very serendipitous. I just can’t wait to be enchanted by things that I didn’t foresee,” he says. “I feel a sort of responsibility to get the most out of it. You don’t get this opportunity twice.”

Lévesque is one of 38 COA students to be named a Watson Fellow during the school’s 50-year history.

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is a year-long grant awarded to graduating seniors for purposeful and independent global exploration. Seniors are nominated by one of 41 partner institutions, and the fellowship serves as a doorway into post-graduate and pre-career work that aligns with their deepest interests. Projects are completely original and last for a year, and fellows are encouraged to embrace the journey wherever it may take them. Fellows are given a stipend of $40,000, in addition to healthcare and loan repayment assistance.