Power and Ice

Watson Fellow Alisa Chen ’21 will examine the dynamics of power and privilege in ice hockey.

By Romel Hernandez | March 30, 2021

For more than 50 years, the Watson Fellowship has enabled scores of Reedies to embark on research adventures around the world. Alisa Chen ’21 will do it on ice skates.

Graduating this spring from Reed with a degree in anthropology, Alisa will spend a year exploring the power and privilege dynamics of ice hockey, a sport they grew up playing in their home state of Michigan. Their Watson itinerary will take them on a tour of far-flung places to see the game in action—Canada, Sweden, India, Iceland, and Hong Kong. 

“My project is about seeking out ice hockey experiences that are centered in community, that are working towards inclusivity and trying to diversify who’s on the ice,” Alisa says.

The Thomas J. Watson Foundation offers graduates from top liberal arts colleges a chance to spend a year traveling abroad in pursuit of a singular passion. The prestigious program aims to develop the next generation of global leaders through journeys of self-discovery. The terms are generous—Watson Fellows are free to adapt their projects to changing circumstances. The only requirement is that they immerse themselves in the experience by spending the full year abroad.

Alisa is the 71st Reedie to be selected as a Watson Fellow since the program began in 1969.

They first laced up hockey skates at the age of five. Their parents, who emigrated from China, saw hockey as a way to be active and have fun. In hindsight, Alisa sees that hockey played a major role in their assimilation in the predominantly white, affluent community of Troy, a suburb of Detroit.

In time, Alisa developed into a standout defender on competitive hockey teams. But as much as they loved to play and enjoyed the relationships they formed with teammates, they also felt continually marginalized as “other” in the predominantly white and male sport. As they got older they heard plenty of racist and homophobic banter in locker rooms over the years.

“My relationship with hockey got really fraught,” says Alisa, burning them out on playing by the end of high school. When they moved to Reed they didn’t bother packing their hockey gear.

At Reed, Alisa served as president of the Student Body and as house advisor at the Chinese House. They also participated in internships with the National Park Service in Alaska and the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. Their senior thesis explores the role itinerant laborers played in the expansion of the American West, and the ways those workers have been both romanticized and vilified.

During Alisa’s first year at Reed, an older student told them about the Watson fellowship, which sounded too good to be true. “At first I couldn’t believe someone would give you money to literally pursue your dreams.”

When it came time to apply, Alisa got support from the Center for Life Beyond Reed, meeting with advisors to talk through and refine their ideas for the fellowship and navigate the selection process. “I’m so grateful for the space and the many hours they spent working with me.”

Titled “Chasing Ice: Hockey, Gender, and Institutional Power,” Alisa’s project aims to explore how the sport can “reflect sociocultural and political understandings” of different cultures.

The fellowship will take them to Canada and Sweden, where ice hockey is a mainstream sport, to see how the game is shaped by gender, race, and institutional power. In Montreal, Alisa will volunteer as a youth hockey coach with a community non-profit. In Sweden, they will focus on professional hockey, especially the women’s league (Svenska damhockeyligan) and its players’ push for equal pay for men and women athletes. Next come visits to India, Iceland, and Hong Kong.

“I’m going to these places with an open mind to connect with organizations and communities that are finding ways to challenge norms of what hockey looks like,” Alisa says. “I want to learn how hockey can become less elitist and more inclusive and community-driven.”


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