Newsletter Summer 2014 Bonderman Travel Fellow: Kaiwen Sun


Kaiwen Sun, BA '14 in Philosophy and BS '14 in Electrical Engineering, will be spending at least the next eight months traveling solo to various countries including Russia, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Kenya, and South Africa as a Bonderman Travel Fellow. His objective is to delve into radically different cultural ideologies, learn how those ideologies influence each culture's world outlook, and how they impact its beliefs, values, and the interactions of their people.

Each year 14 University of Washington students are awarded the Bonderman Travel Fellowships and embark on an adventure of a lifetime. UW graduate students, undergraduate students in the University Honors Program and in the UW Tacoma's Global Honors Program are all eligible to apply. The fellows must commit to traveling alone for eight months to at least two continents and six countries. They are not permitted to participate in a program or organization, engage in any formal study at a foreign university or conduct research while traveling. The Fellows are encouraged to introduce themselves to new areas of the world, cultures, and people.

We asked Kaiwen to tell us more about his plans and how he became a Bonderman Fellow:

How did you become aware of the Bonderman Travel Fellowship?

I became aware of the Bonderman Fellowship through a lot of hearsay and excitement among my friends who are in the honors program. There was a lot of excitement and incredulity among my peers about the Bonderman Fellowship, because almost everybody likes to travel, and even if they didn't feel up to the task themselves, they could still dream about going. And who can believe that someone will fund your adventures for a whole 8 months, no deliverables required?

How did you pick where in the world you want to travel?

I'm interested in looking at how cultures affect people's behaviors, their desires, and their values. Thus, I want to see countries with radically different cultural and environmental factors around. Russia has always interested me, in part because it is so enigmatic. It comes into contact with the west, but is not really a part of the west, and has gone through being the center of the communist order in the last century. Mongolia and Kazakhstan are home to many nomads, who I want to make contact with, and the South Asian countries have a strong tradition of Buddhism and Hinduism, a spiritual focus that does not exist any more in many parts of the world. Finally, Africa is home to many different tribes and cultures living side by side, and I hope to see how that interaction is conducted among such peoples.

What is your past travel experience?

I haven't travelled too much in my past to exotic places. Mostly I go to China to visit grandparents for the summer, and that was all the travel I had done before I took a summer trip to Europe last year.

What languages do you speak?

I speak English at the native level, and Mandarin Chinese fluently. I'm currently working on Russian for my trip, but the good grammar has yet to come.

What are you bringing with you?

I'm going light, using a backcountry backpack to carry all of my things. I expect it will mostly have my clothes, some medicine, a few tools, and maybe a small tent. My Kindle might also provide me with some philosophy from time to time.

What do you hope to gain from your travels?

I hope to understand human life and human experience more through my travels. I'm interested in seeing different people's cultures and lives because it's all a part of the infinite possibilities that could happen within a human lifetime. I think seeing the possibilities will broaden my views of what a happy or meaningful life is, and what other people have found interesting on this subject as well. Perhaps progressing on the question about what makes people happy or life meaningful isn't as much of an intellectual endeavor as it is an experiential one. I'd like to experience different aspects of human existence, and see people who experience life in radically different ways than I do. They must have knowledge of different aspects of life that get merely a passing glance in our current fast-paced society.

Have you talked to any of the past Bonderman Fellows about their experience?

I have talked to several about their trips. They're back in Seattle, back to their normal lives, whether they are continuing with PhD work or jobs. But they told me that it changed the way that they see the world, and other people in the world. I've heard some really cool stories in which they were invited in by local people and really got to know them.

How often and how do you have to check in when you travel?

We are required to check in every month with our Bonderman advisors by email.

What are you plans when your travel fellowship is done?

I'm honestly not sure. I was planning to think about it more on the trip, and after. My current idea is that I will spend another gap year after the travel fellowship, and in that gap year apply to graduate school, since I like the academic atmosphere. However, I'm not really sure what field I want to go into though technology ethics has been a recent contender in my mind, but there are other possibilities.

Within that year after the travel fellowship, I hope to be living in another country as well as applying to graduate school, maybe teaching English, math, or doing something else, like working on a farm in exchange for housing somewhere abroad; that would be an interesting experience.

We wish Kaiwen Sun safe travels. You can follow Kaiwen on his blog: http://everystepisawaterdrop.weebly.com

If you are interested in the Bonderman Fellowship visit their website for more information.