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Tips for Fellowship Applicants (Paying It Forward)

This time last September, I sat in my home office back in Missoula, Montana, having a tiny panic attack. The deadline for the Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship was three weeks away. My cluttered desk summed up the state of my application: teetering stacks of books, a fringe of Post-it Notes around my computer screen, and the trash can filled with rewrites.

I thought: Why put myself through the trouble? The odds were long that I’d get the grant, anyway.

Outside, the sun shone on changing leaves. Autumn is my favorite time to fish and I knew of a river where the trout were biting. My fly rod was in the closet, ready to go.

Pulled between a need to write, and a want to go flyfishing, I felt like the little boy in a River Runs Through It.

If you’re submitting an application for the 2016-17 competition, and you’ve found this blog post, odds are good you’re in the same boat I was in last year. And you’re doing what I did next: Instead of go fishing, turn to the Internet for inspiration. I bet you’ve read the program guidelines for the 100th time. You’ve clicked through the National Geographic “Voices” blog to see what kinds of projects have won in the past. And if your browser history mirrors mine, you’ve found 2014-15 Fellow Mimi Onuoha’s blog post of tips for applicants. If you haven’t, go check it out. Mimi made me feel like it was possible to win a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellowship.

Twelve calendar pages have flipped since then. The fish are again biting on that same river in Montana. But here I am in Moscow, two weeks into my fellowship. Life does have symmetry. In appreciation to Mimi, it’s time to pay the favor forward. Here are a few more insights to help you zero-in on a winning application.

With three weeks left until the deadline, what should I do right now, this second?

Touch base with your letter writers. Hopefully, you’re not a procrastinator like I was (sorry, letter writers) and you’ve already sent them a draft of your proposal.  If you haven’t, send them something — anything. Think of it this way: they’re vouching for your project as much as they are vouching for you. They need time to think about it.

Choose your letter writers wisely. They need to be critical thinkers, not just cheerleaders, who can challenge how you think about your project. I considered my letter writers (magazine editor, college professor, documentary filmmaker) to be a mock evaluation committee. Granted, one that really, really wanted me to win. If there was a hole in my proposal, I wanted to hear it from them. Better they find it than someone on the selection committee in D.C. who was looking for any reason to cull me from the heap.

And don’t stop there. Show your application to other people. My next door neighbor, a PhD candidate in forestry at the University of Montana, was one of my most valuable critics. He helped hone the language, making it clear that this fellowship would catapult my research about Russia and Kazakhstan to a level I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to achieve. Later, I found out that the selection committee understood very clearly that they were an important mechanism in helping me complete a five-year research project.

Cool, you’ve done that. Now?

Write a terrific personal statement. I mean, T-E-R-R-I-F-I-C. Let the creative juices flow. This is like an audition piece, showing readers that you have an interesting voice and can deliver a good story.

Speaking of story, follow the rules of good storytelling. There must be a payoff, a zinger, a lifting moment that causes a bit of a tingle. Have you watched Ira Glass’s four-part video series about storytelling? Here you go:

For my personal statement, I wrote about what motivates me to examine the cowboy life, even though I wasn’t raised a cowboy. I strove to keep a friendly, even comedic tone, giving readers a glimpse at what my blogging voice might be like. I know that if I was on the judging committee, the personal statement is the first thing I would read because a person’s story is way more interesting than the nuts and bolts of a research project. I’d need to care about the person first, and the project would follow.

Use the personal statement to build a relationship with your readers, showing them that, hey, there’s a living-breathing human behind your project. Help them come away with the feeling of: Dang, I’d like to hang out with him/her at a bar.

What’s it like the moment you hit “submit” on the application website?

Utter terror. It does not go fast, submitting this hefty packet of information. Give yourself lots of time, like 24 or 48 hours. Register with the website Embark ahead of time, and familiarize yourself with the different pages. Look at where all the buttons are, because they can be hard to find. Also, note the file-size limits for uploading documents. They’re surprisingly small, given that you might be submitting digital content with image files. I had to scramble in the last minutes, hitting delete on all the images I’d inserted into my Digital Portfolio, in order to create a file that the website would accept.

Has anything changed in the program from one year to the next?

Yes. The themes are different this year. In your project proposal, hammer home the theme your project is focused on. Mine was Food Security, and I used that term a lot. If at any point the selection committee organized applicants by theme, there was no doubt where mine went. Who knows, maybe I wasn’t competing with all 400 applicants, but just those in my pile?

Current applicants may submit projects for travel in one, two or three countries. The initial requirement for 2016-2017 that applicants must travel in three countries has been relaxed. If you go for three countries don’t just pick any three. Your itinerary should link countries in an interesting way. It probably wouldn’t hurt if your project reaches into countries that haven’t yet been visited by a fellow, although that’s not hard-and-fast. If your project is good, I’m sure they’d also send you to Russia and Kazakhstan.

Figure out what gives your project that “it” factor. My readers resonated with the idea that cattle and cowboy culture were native to the steppes, so there was historical circuitry going on in my project. I hadn’t fully appreciated this aspect until then.

One of the judges at our finalist interview said something interesting: National Geographic sees thousands of story pitches a year. They’re in the know about most current events. Yet, many of our projects caught even them by surprise.

Is your project surprising? Discover the unexpected within even your own understanding of it. For example, in researching my project proposal, I learned that Kazakhstan is filling the void of food suppliers to Russia, at a time when sanctions have cut off Western food imports. This tied my research from 2010 into current events surrounding the crisis in Ukraine, something I hadn’t noticed before.

Speaking of current events, it’s great for a project to have a news peg, an anniversary, somehow contribute to our understanding of an ongoing issue, or add to a growing body of research.

HOWEVER, keep in mind that your fellowship won’t start for another year, and then it runs for another nine months. That means your subject needs to have a shelf life of two years. I suggest writing some flexibility into how you frame your research angle. Do some thought exercises to discover how the passage of time will affect it (and your interest in it).

Is there one thing that all of this year’s winning projects have in common?

They innately are the same. All five fellows have personal connections to their projects.

Ari Beser’s grandpa flew on both aircraft that detonated both nuclear bombs over Japan, and now Ari is traveling the country to learn how the effects of radiation are shaping that society.

Janice Cantieri is returning to the island nations of Kiribati and Fiji, where sea-rise threatens their ways of life. She’s been there before, as an undergrad, giving her a timelapse view on one aspect of climate change.

Hiba Dlewati is a first-generation Syrian-American, whose parents left Syria during happier times. Now, she’s traveling to Jordan, Turkey, and Sweden to embed with her compatriots fleeing their homeland.

Christina Geros, an architect, is studying development in Jakarta, Indonesia, second-largest city in the world (30.5 million people). The metropolis is built in a river delta and often floods (imagine New Orleans during Katrina). She’ll tell the story of how architectural choices affect everyday life.

And I’m going back to Russia and Kazakhstan to see what’s become of a cattle industry I helped start, back in 2010. My background as a cowboy participant gives me an insider’s look at a current event story.

What about the winning projects from 2014-15?

Two words: intellectual curiosity. Holy moly, these were smart projects.

Ann Chen wanted to know if maps match up with what’s actually on the ground. She used balloons to collect aerial imagery and GPS data, then overlaid it with existing maps. The subject of her mapping, one of the straightest lines imaginable: a proposed oil pipeline in Canada. You’d be surprised how the maps look when they’re lined up together.

Erin Moriarty Harrelson, a deaf American, wanted to know what happens in a deaf community that doesn’t have a common sign language with which to communicate. Through the movement of hands, she watched as Cambodians saw and “heard” each other with a new level of appreciation.

Daniel Koehler wanted to understand what happens when a person in remote Botswana leaves the village to live in the city. A film maker, he captured powerful moments of interpersonal engagement that shows just how complex of a transition it is to make.

Mimi Onuoha wanted to know if our cell phone data somehow tells stories about us. She convinced 50 Londoners to give her all their data, and she created maps to “show” stories about their lives. The data takes the form of jagged lines overlayed on a city map, and they intertwine according to the real-life events of people.

Michael Waldrep wanted to traverse the edge of one of the fastest expanding cities in the world: Mexico City. Working around the rim, where urban meets countryside, he showed that a city boundary is hard to find. He also learned that social norms, living conditions, and governance change a lot according to how close a person lives to the perimeter.

What insights will stick with you, even if you hadn’t won a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellowship?

I asked a National Geographic photographer, Aaron Huey, to go to coffee. No, it’s not easy to connect with such people. We have a mutual friend who’d turned me on to his work a few years ago. His Notes from Svanetia was the kind of story I imagined telling during my fellowship, and I wanted to understand what went into making it. (Bonus Tip: Network like crazy.)

Huey told me what it takes for a story idea to go from concept to completion. It’s important, he said, to have a “vision” ahead of time. The editors plug-in and help make that happen. National Geographic is not a magic wand that goes, poof, and your project becomes a beautiful finished story. You are the pixie (and the pixel) dust. Your project needs to show them a vision. Close your eyes and picture National Geographic’s yellow border…what does your project look like inside of it? Keep in mind that fellowship projects aren’t guaranteed print publication. They are geared towards the website, so make sure you’re thinking of the yellow border in digital terms.

Later, I asked Huey what it’s like being a photographer in the digital age. It seemed to me there was a glut of photographers vying for a limited number of assignments.

“Photographing for National Geographic is easy. Just take perfect pictures and blow their minds every time. If I do that, I don’t have to worry.”

I nearly shot coffee out my nose. Is that all? Easy.

True, Huey’s portfolio is impressive. He delivers the goods every time. But in his answer, I glimpsed the confidence it takes to deliver a winning pitch to National Geographic and the Fulbright Program. The selection committee needs to feel confident in you, that you will deliver on your proposal. By choosing you, they’ll turn down someone else’s killer project. Make them confident in that decision.

If you’ve gone this far, don’t stop now. Go all the way. It’s the only way to ride life to perfect laughter. Do it.

To learn more about my project, click on any of the following:

   wordpress    Curated "Dispatch" of all the week's news.   

Comments

  1. Alexandra Christy
    Tri-State NYC/NJ
    October 26, 2015, 12:10 pm

    Ryan, how goes it? I just tried to click the link for the Facebook, Insta and Twitter feeds, but got “Page Not Found!” Hmm, Thoughts? The WP site is fine. I’ll keep trying to get in another way but any advice welcome. Is this at my end? I really am just making contact now that the application is in (what a bear!) and I have caught up with all the rest of my life that was on hold. Eager to follow up. Leave crumbs!

  2. Ryan Bell
    October 8, 2015, 3:42 am

    Awesome to hear from everybody. The countdown is on…T-minus 6 days. But don’t worry. You CAN do it. Just repeat after me: “Take perfect pictures. Blow their minds.” I hope to meet you next spring.

    Regards from Russia,
    Ryan

  3. Alexandra Christy
    At the moment, Montana (Polson)
    September 26, 2015, 12:13 pm

    Thank you so much for this. Very fun to read and very helpful. Super liked the addition of the Ira Glass tutorial and for your laying out the importance of letting our passion come through. Good luck with your project; I’ll be following along.

  4. Nick D.
    SF Bay Area
    September 25, 2015, 8:05 pm

    Great advice and inspiration – thanks for sharing! Good luck on your project, and I’ll be following along.

  5. Sandy Brown Jensen
    Eugene, Oregon
    September 25, 2015, 2:07 pm

    Ryan,
    Thanks so much for this detailed and encouraging post! I have been working on my application for MONTHS! And I mean four to five hour work sessions at a time. I made a special three week trip up into my country of choice, networking like crazy and gathering story ideas. I’ve torn my portfolio website apart and rebuilt it. I’ve harassed my letter writers until they yelled uncle–and I’m still not done integrating all the great feedback I’ve gotten from my reviewers. Aargh! When will it be done? (Oct. 13 is when!)
    I have invested almost a full year in designing and writing this grant application knowing full well the chances of me getting it are pretty low. But, “you cannot win if you do not play”!
    I have been following all of you Nat Geo/Fulbright bloggers with great interest.
    Thanks so much for reaching out and paying it forward. You are heard!
    Sandy Brown Jensen
    Mind on Fire Digital Storytelling
    mindonfire.us

  6. Brianna Wilkins
    Phoenix, AZ
    September 25, 2015, 12:32 am

    Thank you! What a great article and exactly what I needed to read tonight. I look forward to reading more about your research and your journey!