Social Sciences

To Watson Winner, Money Talks—But Not In The Way You Think

Economics major Gio Ramirez ’20 wins Watson Fellowship to explore the loaded connections between currency and identity.

By Romel Hernandez | April 15, 2020

Raised by a single, working mother and his elderly grandparents in a small beach-town in Puerto Rico, Giorlando Ramirez ’20 grew up appreciating the value of a dollar.

One of the most indelible memories of his youth is of his late grandfather—a champion of Puerto Rican independence—pointing out the portrait of George Washington on a dollar bill.

“Not my president,” his grandfather would say. “This is gringo money.”

“To my grandfather that dollar was a constant reminder of U.S. imperialism,” Gio says. “I realized how so much of how we see ourselves is reflected in the money we use every day.”

Thanks to the Watson Foundation, he’s getting the chance to spend a year studying the connections between national identity and currency in Brazil, Cuba, Spain and Zimbabwe. He is one of two Reed seniors to win a Watson Fellowship—a prestigious national program that empowers new college graduates to travel the globe on projects that they have designed themselves.

Gio grew up in Dorado, Puerto Rico, and moved to Florida as a teen with his mother and younger brother. The family struggled to make ends meet; when the time came to go away to college he chose Reed, which offered him a generous financial aid package.

“I remember getting a big book from admissions all about Reed,” he says. “I just fell in love.”

He went through some culture shock when he first arrived on campus. At first he was surprised by the affluence of some of his peers, reflected in everyday conversations about the relative merits of buying new or used textbooks. “I remember thinking how differently people perceived ‘expensive’ versus ‘cheap,’” he says.

Gio has thrived as an economics major, but has enjoyed taking a wide array of classes. “Reed has been a great experience,” he says. “Especially the breadth it offers in the liberal arts.”

His Watson project owes almost as much to political science and anthropology as it does to economics. “Money is much more than a means of exchange,” he says. “Money is a powerful symbol.”

That interdisciplinary focus certainly caught the eye of the Watson Foundation, which awards travel fellowships to graduates of 40 elite private colleges and universities across the country. Some 70 Reed graduates have been Watson Fellows over the past 50 years. The $36,0000 grants support international travel for recent graduates seeking to pursue passion-projects that, according to the foundation, “expand their vision, test and develop their potential, and build their confidence and perspective to be more humane and effective leaders on a global scale.”

“Gio is a terrific choice for the Watson,” says his thesis advisor Prof. Kim Clausing. “He’s so intellectually curious in the world.”

He also credits the Center for Life Beyond Reed for its support in applying for the Watson: “They guided me through the process and pushed me to open up about myself as a person.”

The four countries he will visit represent vastly different histories and cultures, but they all have seen major changes in their national currencies in recent times. He will travel to:

  • Brazil. to examine the country’s adoption of a new currency, the real, to stabilize the economy during a period of hyperinflation that reached annual rates over 2,000%.
  • Cuba, to explore the government’s struggle to unify its unique dual-currency peso system, instituted to cope with the economic fallout following the collapse of the USSR.
  • Spain, to connect with historians, economists, and bankers to learn about the impact of country’s move from the peseta to the euro, the common currency for the European Union. 
  • Zimbabwe, to see how the country is re-instituting a national currency a decade after abandoning its own dollar in favor of an international, multi-currency system.

Following his Watson year, which may be delayed due to COVID-19, he’s exploring taking a job in finance, and plans to eventually attend graduate school to study public policy.

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