My best tips for your Fulbright-National Geographic Application!

My Application

I applied two years ago and my application didn’t move on to the semi-finals. As a favor to you just starting your application, let’s go through mine to see where you can do better.

My application

Here’s the summary of my proposal:

“I will undertake a series of animated film projects at schools and libraries in six locations in Sweden to discover how working together on common challenges builds social cohesion. The projects will intimately involve children in the narration, illustration, and animation of simple kids’ stories focused on environmental issues. The children will be drawn from all backgrounds, and I will tell a story of how these projects promote community building with immigrants and refugees.”
You can read more in depth here:
Personal statement
Statement of grant purpose

Now, let’s go through it step by step!

Writing style

David Braun from National Geographic said during a Q&A webinar: “The way you write is judged very harshly. Writing needs to be clear, crisp, no grammatical errors. Poor writing throws you in the non-select pile.”

David Braun 2
David Braun: Well, if you can’t even fulfill the most basic requirements, why should you expect my grace and esteem?!

So, read my application, and for the love of God, no matter what else you may do, don’t write like me. Let my application stand as an example of how not to write.

New

During at least 3 webinars, they stressed that they are looking for something very new: “fresh”, “unique”, “creative”, “inventive”, that “hasn’t been done before.”

My application was all about doing animations with kids, which definitely hasn’t been done before. So I advise you to pick something new, but make sure your level of ‘new’ stays far away from where my level of ‘new’ so clearly transgressed. Does that clear it up?

A kinder, trusting world

Vincent Pickett from the State Department said during two webinars that your application should “break down barriers”, help create a “peaceful, prosperous planet”, help “humanize each other”, and be “working for a future peaceful planet that we can all share.”

Vincent Pickett 1
Vincent Pickett says: why aren’t you good enough? Why don’t you think like me?

Read my application carefully, find all the times that I talked about these topics, and just … don’t do what I did.

Community engagement

During one webinar, they had fellowship alumni come in and give us their tips. They mentioned that some journalists will go to a foreign country, take a few pictures, and then run away. David Braun from National Geographic echoed that in a later webinar: “What will be the benefits for the community, and the wider world? You don’t want to just come in, photograph people, and leave.”

My project had the involvement of local kids baked into every step; it had the participation of their parents when each animation was finished. When I compared my project to all the previous projects, I would say that widespread community engagement was far more intrinsic to my project than any others. You can compare and decide for yourself.

So, engage the community; but just don’t overdo it.

Digital portfolio

My samples included videos of finished animations that I made with kids. Logical choice since that’s what my proposal was about. Because these videos are on YouTube, I’m able to access viewership statistics. I can even see what states viewers are from. I noticed that from October to December, there was not a single view of the pertinent videos from any of the states where are located the colleges at which the 11-member Fulbright-National Geographic review panel work.

So I don’t think they looked at my digital portfolio at all. Maybe at best they skimmed the first page of the grant proposal. Maybe they look at your name and decide they don’t want to read the rest; or maybe they look at where you’re from and give up from there. Who knows?

Passion

From at least two webinars: “Your passion should come through.”

I was passionate enough about my project that before I ever heard about this fellowship, I had already done it small-scale three times, twice in the US, once in Sweden. I found the classes and libraries to work with, I came up with the idea on my own, I found time while doing my PhD to pull the projects off, and I spent my own money drawn from a student budget for the plane ticket and rooming in Sweden.

Better make sure that your level of passion is about 100 times greater, maybe even 1000 times greater, because what I showed was paltry. Definitely not semi-final standards.

“Every moment of your life led to this”

The same fellowship alumni also said that you should demonstrate that “every moment of your life has been leading to this grant. All your life experiences added up to this. All they have to do is fund you to make something awesome happen.”

You can read my personal statement and decide for yourself whether my application fulfilled this criteria or not. But let’s be real. Because, who was that self-same fellowship alumni who blabbed that “every moment of your life has been leading to this grant?” Oh, well, it was a white American guy who’d grown up in Africa. And for his grant, he went traipsing back to Africa to make a movie about how the primitive natives live. And he didn’t even know the local languages – he had to hire a translator. But that’s okay! Because you know David Braun himself, the fellowship dictator, is another white guy who grew up in Africa. So why not?

David Braun pathetic
David Braun: everyone else sucks except for me and my colonialist self.

Feasible

On at least two webinars, they stressed that your project can’t be a fantasy. You have to demonstrate that it’s doable. I’ve done every step of my project before, multiple times, but that’s not good enough. I hope you who are applying now have something far better up your sleeve.

Language skills

They suggest speaking the language of your host country. I do, but that is after all not even semi-finalist standards. I probably needed to win the grand prize for the Sweden-wide “Best Swedish Essay” competition for them to consider me.

Be the best to tell the story

Vincent Pickett from the State Department says: your application has to make clear “how you fit into the story, and why you’re the best to tell it.”

In my case, I understand that the world is chock-full of Americans with Swedish backgrounds and another immigrant background, who make animations, work with kids, and have a background in environmental science, and speak Swedish; how could I ever have thought that I was the ‘best’ to tell the story?? Make sure that you do better.

Affiliation letter

Click here for mine.

Your affiliate must be ‘willing to work with you’, ‘help you carry out the project’, ‘connect you with resources or people’. And ‘if you have local contacts already, then weave them into the statement of grant purpose’. (Quotes from webinars).

My affiliate and I knew each other; we had worked together before on a small-scale pilot of the same project I proposed here … not good enough for semi-final standards.

Recommendations

Two of my three recommenders shared their letter with me.

Here’s the first one.

The second one I received as a google document, and unfortunately I didn’t think to save a copy and now it’s been deleted. But from what I remember of its contents: that I have a “careful, storytelling mind”. That this project is especially feasible because it will take place supported by the existing robust infrastructure of libraries and schools in Sweden; that my work writing in the local community newspaper had been very well-received, that it was entirely on a volunteer basis, and that my readers would email me and even take me out to lunch; something like I have a keen intellect and lots of curiosity; that the recommender herself received a prestigious media fellowship, and she’s married to a former Fulbrighter who now judges Fulbright applications, and with that background, she can still full-throatedly endorse me and my project.

So, to those of you applying now, make sure you show these example recommendation letters to whoever you’re asking; and tell them they’re going to have to step it up about 70 or more notches from here. Because this is not even semi-final standards!

How much time should you spend on your application?

Well, I spent five months. Five stupid months. Let me give you a few tips so you don’t feel as stupid as I do …

First, the fine fellowship judges aren’t actually going to look at your application, darling (see “Digital Portfolio” above).

Second, you can probably finish your application in a day. All you have to do is rush off some silly essay about how you’re planning to spend the fellowship money on a typical, post-college, backpacking trip “through the Caucuses” so that you can really find yourself.

Lens to choose

I picked the ‘Human Journey’ lens and emphasized that, but there was probably some overlap with a more environmental-focused lens. I thought that was okay based on what I heard in the webinars:

Vincent Pickett from the State Department: You need to cover one of the lenses, and they’re pretty broad, but you could cover 2 to 3. Sometimes, there’s “human journeys” happening in very “wild places”.

David Braun from National Geographic: Don’t sweat it too much. It’s pretty much the whole world and everything in it.

Honestly, don’t believe any thing that David Braun or Vincent Pickett say in these webinars.

If your country already had a fellow

Sweden did have a fellow, maybe 2 or 3 years ago; but she was only there for 3 months. During the webinars they said:

“It’s all about the project, first. If a project is proposed for the same country as a previous year, then make it a new topic at least.”

“Syrian refugees is a huge story, and affects millions. So [even if it’s been done before] you could for sure look at it differently. Maybe something that closes the loop, finishes the story, or takes it to a new level.” – Vincent Pickett from the State Department.

In retrospect, that was another lie they told. Or maybe the new State Department policy is that your application can’t say anything nice about Sweden, because it will inflame Trump, because Sweden is one of his favorite punching-bags; or maybe Sweden just told the Fulbright they don’t want any more applications about migration. Who knows?

So who does get these fellowships????

Oh, let me tell you. There was a girl who got to go to Kyrgyzstan. This is what her blog posts sounded like:

 

Oh, my God! Today, I rode in a taxi. Like, oh my God! And I got into the taxi all by myself. Like, oh my God! And guess what, there was a Muslim sitting on one side of me … and a Christian was, like, sitting on the other side of me … and oh, my God, no one killed each other because I was sitting right in between them … can you believe it? Like, oh my God … our taxi ride … oh my God, I just solved world peace.

Yeah, so that was one of the fellows. Sad to say, that’s not even an exaggeration. Literally, she wrote a series of super boring, trying-to-be-profound blog posts from Kyrgyzstan that any backpacker who’s traveled there at probably 1/10 the cost has already written about.

And then another fellow went to Taiwan. Let’s sample her blog posts:

Hehehehehehehehehehe … ! Oh my God … I’m here in Taiwan, and I’m supposed to be doing engaging with people  and there’s just one small problem … I don’t remember how to speak Taiwanese … hehehehehehehehehe …. ! So I’m sitting here on a bench with a stranger trying to practice ….. hehehehehehehehehehehe!

Now that you’ve seen some samples, just make sure to make yourself as stupid as possible in your application … that will give you the ticket in.

Final thoughts

vincent snotty0053
Vincent Pickett in peak imperialist form

Now you know what an application that doesn’t make it to the semi-finals looks like. Don’t make yours like mine.

I am so, so sorry for every second, and every thought, that I placed into my application. If I could take every moment back, I would.

I am so sorry that when one of my recommenders disappeared (she was getting married) about three weeks before the application was due, and was no longer answering emails, I biked around at night so I could find someone to give me her phone number, so I could interrupt her two days before her wedding and honeymoon with nagging about my application. I am so sorry for the effort, for the worry, that I gave to tracking her down — and that was just one tiny, tiny piece of trying to put this application together.

I am so sorry for the spreadsheet I made of dozens of libraries in Sweden, of the time I put in searching for libraries in different cities, running through the staff lists and gauging who I should contact, keeping notes on the seventy people I’d emailed, who responded, when they responded, what I told them in return.

I am sorry for the separate packet of notes I put together for each person who wrote me a recommendation.

I am sorry for the twenty pages of notes I took from the various websites with information: the site with the application checklist, the Sweden country Fulbright site, the site with the application tips, the site with the information on the three lenses, the general information site. And I am even sorrier for the I-don’t-know-how-much time it took me to watch seven webinars, most over an hour long, and take 31 pages of notes on them all together.

I am sorry for how I agonized over the website instructions, nitpicked over every sentence, and debated what to do when two sites indicated two different rules to follow; how I censored the number of emails I sent to the contact at the IIE so as not to annoy her too much. Why did I do all that?

I am so, so sorry that both times when submitting the application – both during the initial school submission and then the post-campus interview submission – I re-read every part of the application twice, just to check one last time that there wasn’t any word, any letter out of place. I regret that time and that concentration.

They give you no explanation.

I regret everything about this application.

Feeling ghosted – Animations with kids

I feel like I have very bad follow-through sometimes when it comes to my Science animations with kids program.

Sometimes, it’s my fault. Like at my last viewing party, about 30 parents, grandparents, aunts, everyone, showed up. I gave them all a little slip of paper with the URL of my website (the one you’re reading) and my YouTube channel, and my email, so they’d be able to find the films that their kids had made online.

But alas, I neglected something very evident … I forgot to collect their email addresses. So let’s just go ahead and assume that all the slips of paper I passed out are by now lost, crumpled in a bag somewhere, etc. And I have no way of contacting the parents. Kind of really sucks, because during the viewing party, I couldn’t get the sound to be loud enough, and we were in a big room, and I don’t think anyone at all understood what was happening in the movies.

These were the two movies the kids had made, by the way: A lesson on nurdles and When Anders, Dilsa, and Reza were mean.

But then some other times, it’s not my fault at all. Instead, I literally just get ghosted by the teachers I worked with. For example, the teacher I worked with at Wolf Meadow. The kids there made two such beautiful films: The grass is not trash and The desperate tale of the last tree snail.

At the very least, these films deserve to be championed by the people who were involved in making them. The kids were all fifth-graders who apparently don’t have emails or anything, so I don’t expect much from them. But my partner teacher! And the school principal! First, they said that we would have a viewing party for parents once the films were done. Well, when we actually reached that point, they cutely changed their minds … no, we can’t have a viewing party because only two of the five fifth-grade classes participated in this project, and if there’s a fifth-grade event happening, then a notice must be sent to all fifth-grade parents, and the parents of kids in the other three classes will be upset their kids didn’t participate. I mean, what kind of a lame excuse is that? No, actually, it’s very possible to just send a notice to the parents/families of the two fifth-grade classrooms I worked with. Gotta love rank inflexibility.

But I got over that, and my partner teacher said: oh, yeah, we’ll post the movies on the school website, and we’ll send an email to all the parents. Yeah, that is the very least you could do when your kids have just made two excellent animated films. Except even that never happened. I know, because the viewing counts never changed. I sent email reminders to my partner teacher and everything, but nothing. Can you believe it?

Then there was the time I was describing this project to a lady who’s part of a science communication network. She said, oh, the project sounds great. And she said, without me begging for it, that the science communication network she’s from run a blog, and would I like to write a blog post for them? Well, yes, I would. I emailed her twice after that to remind her, ask her about doing that, but of course she ghosted me, too, her and her exclusive little science communication club that people like me aren’t good enough to get into.

Then there was a man who ran in the same exclusive club circles. Let’s just call him Loser idiot stupid ugly moron. Well, me being me, I don’t learn my lessons the first time, so I was still panting after the exclusive club. Loser idiot stupid hateful moron tells me, and I quote: “This is so cool” [talking about the Animations with kids project] and “hope we find ways to cooperate” and “I was deeply moved, happy and proud” [while looking through my work] …. ahhh, shut up. He also blabbed a whole bunch about how he would talk to this and that person, and find partners for me, and he went into details! Like asking me, how much money will you need, and giving me ideas for film topics, and when would this happen? And he even did the thing, which is kind of rare, of answering my emails within a day. That honestly never happens.

Then after about a week of this, and me being really happy, he ghosted me, too. I hope he falls into a meat cleaver. He just stopped responding to all my emails, everything. If you ask me who I hate, his name will be the first mentioned.

 

GIS and Blender at once

Two of my favorite pieces of software are QGIS – used for making maps on a computer – and Blender 3D – used for 3D animations.

Both of these pieces of software, furthermore, are open-source. That means they are free for anyone to download.

Every time I make an animation with a group of kids, I make sure to tell them that Blender is a free software, anyone can download it, and that thousands of computer wizards across the world have contributed to making it free and available for all of us. And that maybe they can be one of those computer wizards one day.

I’ve always wanted to tell the kids about QGIS being free as well, and I finally got the opportunity. The story that underpins the second animation for this group of kids has a lot of geography in it, and mentions making maps on the computer. It was the perfect context for doing a whole lesson on QGIS with the older kids (fourth grade and up). I told them about how I first learned about latitude and longitude when I was in sixth grade; and that I didn’t really see what was all that special about it, until I went to college and I saw a presentation on the use of computer maps to track endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

The context of our geographic lesson was “nurdles”. I happened to see a story about “nurdles” on Twitter, and went with that. I made up some nurdles data, put it together using R and QGIS, and showed that to the kids. The person who wrote the nurdles story is a young Muslim woman in Texas, by the way. It feels good that the two of us are actually feeding into and supporting each other’s work in this way.

I re-created, as best I could, the computer map onto a poster-board map. I threw a gird over it. And I showed the kids how you would find the location of nurdles contamination on various points on the map.

map of coastline with latitude and longitude

I’m very proud of that lesson, because it actually involves a lot of Algebra, and whenever I remember learning it in school, or trying to teach it when I was a math teacher, it was always somewhat of a disaster. A lot of kids wouldn’t get it. But this time, I had volunteers come up and practice finding a latitude-longitude, and they all got it – except for the kid who wasn’t paying attention. They would find the lat/lon, and then stick a post-it note there with a datapoint about the number of nurdles at that site. I had a whole fake data collection campaign going on.

finding latitude and longitude

The computer mapping will continue to be a theme throughout the story, and it’s very cool to combine two of my favorite pieces of software together like this.

Five-year-olds computer animating

Is there a minimum age-limit when it comes to computer animation? Well, I’m sure there is for toddlers and babies, but in the summer camp I’m in, there’s three little kids that are entering kindergarten in September. They’re all five. They reach out their hand for me to hold if I chance to walk them from room to room. They skip a little bit as they go. They have little baby-kid voices. When I first heard how little some of the kids were at this camp, I thought: maybe I’ll just have the big kids animate, and the little kids can at least then watch the final movie. They’ll participate by being spectators.

But then I thought, what the heck. I’ll try it with them all. And the five-year-olds are doing really well. Two of them are a little hesitant, and stare at me with big adorable somewhat clueless smiles before they dare to touch any of the keys on the laptop. The third is super sharp and does the ‘G’, ‘S’, and ‘R’ keys of Blender 3D (‘go’, ‘size’, and ‘rotate’) like she’s a boss, and with the biggest, most excited smile, and the most eager look on her face.

five-year-old doing computer animation

Animating at a summer camp

I had written a dour and grim post about the futility of applying to grants, but before it went live, I actually received one.

Which means I was able to do one more ‘Animations with kids’ project in Concord before my run here ends (at least for the expected near future.) I am working with a group of 40 kids part of a summer camp in downtown Concord. I’m with them for over a month. The camp directors are very accommodating, and give me all the time I need. I can pull kids individually to work with whenever, so we are hopefully going to complete two films. It’s very exciting because it’s the first time I have ever been able to do two animations with the same group of kids. It means I get to see how they grow between their two turns at using Blender. So far, the second round of animating has been spectacular! Some of the kids are really like a young director, moving things around and making decisions and just in general being the boss of things. It’s great to see.

Oh, best of all, one of these kids will actually have animated with me three times 🙂 Because he was in Mrs. Bravo-Boyd’s second-grade class last year, which did “All about butterflies.” It was such a surprise when I saw him in front of me and realized who he was on my first day at the camp!

I’m realizing more and more, too, how important the component of the project is that requires them to record their voices as they read. We sometimes do a couple of takes together, and this batch of kids is really paying attention to how they sound. They’ll notice if their recording is too staccato, and ask to re-do it. They’ll notice if their voice wavers off as they get to the end of the sentence. I never had so many kids ask to re-do their recording, without prompting from me. And the expression in some of their voices is phenomenal.

Animating with young girl

animating with kids
Here they are watching “The grass is not trash”, that a fifth-grader class at Wolf Meadow made this past spring, so they get an idea of what the project is like.

Animations of geology

In the last few weeks, I made one of the coolest things I ever made in Blender: these planetary marbles rolling towards each other while swirling inside:

And before that, I made a volcano and a glacier.

I hope I’ll be able to use these in something creative.

Making people in Blender 3D

My first attempts at making people in Blender looked like this: a came up with a baby with a detachable head.

dearfor.png1319

She lost one of her cheeks, and she had no hands and non-moving arms. However, she’s still pretty cute, isn’t she?

Then I moved on to these teenagers:

Blender first peopleBlender first people

They’re pretty cute, too!

I then explored the world of stick figures:

Blender people stick figures

And finally, I tried making fully fleshed creatures. This is what I came up with:

Blender scary people

Some people think they look very scary. But you know what? Even though they don’t have fingers, they are still able to drink their hot tea.

I gave up on making people for a few years after that, but finally, I thought I’d try again and I came up with …

Blender people Agnes

Isn’t she absolutely lovely? I couldn’t believe my eyes when she was done. Her name is Agnes.

And the coolest part I’ve discovered, is that I just have to make a few tweaks to the face – nothing extreme at all – and I’ll come up with a whole new person. Like Eve coming from Adam’s rib, or however it goes.

So I tweaked Agnes’ cheeks, eyes, and hair just a bit, and I got Ebba:

Blender people thumbs up

A big give-away is the hair on the forehead – same pattern, though Ebba’s strands are longer. Ebba and Agnes are friends, here you see them standing together.

Here Agnes and Ebba look at a rose:

Blender people rose

Yes, they have fingers but no toes.

Then I made a girl with brown hair, a blue skirt, and a ribbon in her hair called Margaret. Margaret comes from Agnes. Her lips are fuller and nose is narrower, but they look quite a bit alike.

Blender people Madicken

And from her, I made a girl called Lisa. Notice the bangs and actually the whole hair style, down to the ribbon, is the same. Here Lisa is reading with a small girl called Elizabeth (the one in the polka-dot dress). I don’t actually remember who Elizabeth’s “parent” model was. It was probably Agnes, my original.

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And I made a lady called Deedra (in the blue hijab):

Blender people in the desert

Here you see Agnes, Elizabeth, Lisa, Ebba, and Deedra all standing together in “Ariana Grande singing about climate change.” No, none of them were meant to have demon eyes.

And here you see a progression of how one character “gives birth” into another:

Blender people progression

On the left, you see Snow-White. Well, Snow-White without black hair. I made her out of Margaret. Notice they have the same skin color, they have the exact same bangs. Snow-White’s mouth is a bit more pouty, maybe. And maybe her cheeks are fuller. Of course, the clothes are also different.

From Snow-White, I made the Hawaiian tree snail scientist who features in “The Desperate Tale of the Last Tree Snail.”  The fringe on the forehead is again a give-away. I changed the features quite a bit, but honestly, it’s not hard. You play just a tiny bit and get someone entirely new.

And finally, I took the tree snail scientist and made the mom that’s in “The grass is not trash.” I removed the bangs and maybe her eyes are a tad bigger.

I’m going to have a whole village soon enough!

blender people photo shoot