History of Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society

From its roots in the Midwestern United States 47 years ago, the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society™ has grown into a global organization. 103 scholars — in North America, Europe, and Australasia — along with 107 interns in North America and Europe have created a significant legacy for our organization. Many of our scholars and interns have gone on to distinguished careers in the underwater sciences, marine research, and photography.

It all began in 1969, when Joyce Markstahler and Jim Mackie-Smith formulated the idea of a Middle Coast dive show. They approached Harry Shanks, President-YMCA Metro Council of Chicago, for assistance in developing the Our World-Underwater (OWU) Dive and Travel Exposition. Harry supplemented the initial cadre of volunteers with the officers of the Metro Council and premiered that first OWU show at Chicago’s Playboy Hotel in 1971.

The initial idea was that the profits from the show would be donated to the YMCA scuba program in Chicago. Joyce named the new dive show “Our World-Underwater,” and LeRoy Winbush designed the logo, which is still in use today. The upper half of the logo features the Great Lakes of the United States, reflecting the primary diving environment of the Society’s founders and supporters. The logo is a permanent reminder of the Society’s roots. 

In 1972, Harry Shanks and Joyce Markstahler traveled to San Francisco to attend the “Man in the Sea” dive show. During a cruise on San Francisco Bay, Joyce and Harry spoke with Dr. Joe MacInnis, a Canadian physician and well-known explorer. They discussed a proposal from the OWU Board of Directors to use $1,500 of the OWU dive show profits to finance research. Dr. MacInnis in turn pro-posed an alternative idea. He suggested using the money to invest in an individual with an experience-based scholarship that would cultivate the individual in the industry and the underwater world. Then and there, on September 3, 1972, the Our World-Underwater Scholarship was born.

During the next year and a half, Joyce Markstahler and Joe MacInnis worked to develop a list of hosts and experiences that would provide a credible scholarship experience to a young person, so they could be developed as a future steward of the waters of the world. The inaugural Our World-Underwater Scholarship was awarded to Mark Bensen in 1974. 

The first few scholarships were managed by the Scholarship Committee of Our World-Underwater, which was initially chaired by Dr. MacInnis.

In 1978, the Scholarship Committee of Our World-Underwater was incorporated as a separate entity in the State of Illinois as the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society™ (OWUSS). For many years, the annual meetings for the scholarship society were held in Chicago during the OWU show.

In 2000, the directors of OWU sold the rights of the dive show. Since that time, the scholarship society is no longer associated with OWU, and, in 2005, the scholarship society moved its annual meeting to New York City. The scholarship society has thrived through the invaluable assistance of its many dedicated volunteers and sponsors, who have worked hard to promote educational activities associated with the underwater world. Rolex Watch USA has been the Society’s “partner in education” since 1974. As the Society’s founding Corporate Sponsor, Rolex has worked with the board of directors in the form of advice and counsel since our inception. Additional support comes from throughout the diving industry in the form of diving and underwater photographic equipment, advanced and specialized dive training, hosting experiences and subsidized travel, and an engraved divers’ watch donated by Rolex to each of the scholars.

In 2001, Rolex SA, Geneva, saw the positive impact of the award and agreed to sponsor a European Scholar, giving the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society™ international reach and exposure. In 2001, the scholarship of the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society™ was renamed the Rolex Scholarship and all scholars dating back to 1974 became Rolex Scholars. 

In 2007, Rolex Australia further expanded the Society’s international outreach with the addition of the Australasian Scholarship. In addition to the Scholarships, the OWUSS offers internships in North America. The North American summer internships are offered for a one- to three-month period and are primarily directed at college undergraduates. Internship recipients receive a grant to help fund travel, room and board, and a stipend to cover living expenses.