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!

Main point

This application is a scam. Point-blank. You are asked to spend months and months of preparation entrusting all your highest dreams and hopes to David Braun and Vincent Pickett, both of whom spend their time acting like they are so, so sad because there’s never any application that really, truly will “humanize each other”, and will be “working for a future peaceful planet that we can all share.”

That, it turns out, is just a bunch of highfalutin, fancy prose from these two. In reality, they want the girl who’s going to go backpacking through Kyrgyzstan, hyperventilating because she rode in a taxi, and they want the white guy to go tell the story about Africa.

This fellowship is nothing more and nothing less than you entrusting your highest dreams, and an awful lot of your time, to a panel that will ignore you, not read your application (see below), and be totally careless with those dreams.

They are the prime example of a Trump-like autocrat. They want all the power — all your time, all your effort, all your ideas. They give you nothing in return. And they want you to sit back and accept their decisions mutely, and treat them as though they are almighty deities with all the right wisdom and all the right decisions

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: If you can’t fulfill the most basic requirements, don’t 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 are you not impressive?

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.”

You know what, I give up. When I compared my 2017 project to all the previous projects, I concluded that widespread community engagement was far more intrinsic to my project than any others.

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

“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: sad because applicants are so unimpressive and it makes him worry for humanity

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.

So don’t do this.

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  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 form

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.

No need to listen to “life wisdom” advice

I think they are most usually 100% fake. I just read a blog post with 50 tips for living your best life.

At one point, he (or she?) advises us to: decide your goals for the next five years, and then achieve them in 2 years!

And just a little bit later, his next tip is: don’t obsess about the outcome!

Um, you actually can’t do both of things at the same time. What a loser.

In general, I most especially hate those people who say things like: if you really want something, then you’ll make it happen! Just don’t give up.

I think the people who say that 1) are pretending they achieved something big when it really wasn’t and 2) are mis-allocating credit for their own determination that ought to be better attributed to luck.

 

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.

 

I learned something new about writing grants

First, the “something old”: what did I already know about writing grants? It’s miserable and soul-sucking and the work of the devil.

And the “something new”? I learned that you should make yourself the ‘Founder and Executive Director’ of something, it doesn’t matter what, in fact, it can be something stupid and just hot air, just as long as you style yourself in that way.

Then make sure you talk about how your mission is to “understand, heal, and grow.”

And that you want to “connect allies.”

Also, wiggle your eyebrows around and look sad and innocent and appealing and angelic.

I mean, I get that these are all well-meaning people, but I’ve always been suspicious when people start spouting off the latest craze-words. Why don’t they notice how unoriginal they are coming across? But they get all the grants, so I guess no one seems to notice. It’s just me that’s annoyed about it.

Books I didn’t finish

I’ve decided that one New Year’s resolution should be the prevalence of grumpiness and bitterness throughout my days, that way I can ensure one resolution will come true.

To start: I keep a list of books that I’ve read, but let me also keep a list of books that were so bad I just gave up on them:

Juliet takes a breath, Gabby Rivera – I got to hear this author talk as part of a panel, and she seemed really cool, and her book sounded really cool, so I got it from the library. Now the first chapter or two were really good and well-written, but after that, things just fell apart. It was boring, and not making sense, and characters were just popping in and out. Now, surprises are fun in books, but this book did not have surprises – it just jerked you around sloppily because the organization of the writing didn’t make sense. So I put it down. Have you ever noticed that some books are very nicely and creatively written for the first two pages, but after that they fall down a hole (Twilight books, for example.) It’s like the author was ordered to go back and make the introduction especially well-crafted, so that no one would notice the rest of the book is just bad? This was one of them.

Gabby Rivera
Gabby Rivera is the one in the blue hat, and she’s really interesting in person. The other authors were Sarah Dessen and Lilliam Rivera.

A wrinkle in time, Madeleine L’engle – I’ve read quite a few of this author’s books that I liked, and since the ‘Wrinkle in time’ movie was coming out, I thought I should read it. However, how is it people like this book? It’s kind of ridiculous. I gave up about 70 or 100 pages in, after they’ve been flying on birds for a long time, and just happen to land on a planet, and they see a big dark cloud coming, and get scared. I mean, there is no sense of puzzle pieces fitting together. There’s just, oh, let’s land on this planet and make up something dangerous before we can get off it.

Six of crows, Leigh Bardugo – I saw a very intelligent girl rave about this book, so I thought, let me read it! Must be really good. Except it was not. I gave up after a chapter or two. I just had a sense of a very disjointed piece of work, that was unrelenting dark and humorless, and I just didn’t care if the main character got ambushed by rival gangs or not, and I really didn’t feel like reading scenes of violence just for the sake of the violence, with nothing else going on.

 

Failures

Failure #1. I have a PhD in science, tons of skills both technical and creative, and tons of experience, but I was rejected from a 3-month internship. Yes, that stung. They contacted me for an interview, and because of the time difference, I was dragged out of bed before dawn to prepare for it. I wish they had just not contacted me at all, then I could have gone along blithely assuming they’d just never bothered to inspect my application at all.

Failure #2. I thought I could come home to rural NC for a while and make animations with local kids, like this. If I may say so myself, this is a super-cool project where the kids do art, computer stuff, learn some science, and read all at once. And I do it for free. What kind of a teacher wouldn’t want that? Turns out all of them (nearly) where I live.

People says: “just go out and create your own opportunities!” Give me a break. I taught myself how to animate, and I came up with this project, and it is totally aligned with all the ‘STEAM’ and ‘STEM’ rhetoric going around. And then I go chase after teachers. And hardly anyone responds. So don’t come telling me about “creating opportunities”. I have found that you have to work extremely hard just to make 1 inch of progress—extremely hard as in you end up with a headache and are so tired you fall asleep without brushing your teeth and don’t have time to go the grocery store—just for moving forward one inch! At some point you realize it’s not worth it.

I am surprised at the lack of response. I had originally intended to make “Mr. Turtle” videos with kids in another place. Well, that place blew me off, so I couldn’t end up going. But before it blew me off, I emailed 50 libraries to potentially work with, and 13 responded. That’s not a great percentage, but at least it showed persistence would pay off.

Plus, as far as North Carolina is concerned, I have already done this project here twice. Once with a teacher whose husband worked in my university department; and once at the local library. So I thought surely if I emailed teachers in the town where I grew up and graduated high school from, at least some would bite. I think I’ve probably emailed 30 people and only 3 emailed back. One said ‘no thanks’. Okay. The second is a “maybe”, the third said she had to check with administrators and probably has since forgotten. The one “maybe” made me deliriously happy (for a day, until I realized it wasn’t heralding a change in fortunes). Some of the teachers I emailed are ones that taught my younger brothers. I mentioned that in my emails. You’d think they would answer me. You would be mistaken.

Now, today, with the Supreme Court hearing, it appears that the entire nation has decided to join me in failure, so I guess I can’t feel too exclusive and special.

People and their word

During our wrap-up in Washington DC, we had several interesting panels. One of them was about science videos. I asked two of them afterwards (a person from NPR and a person from PBS) if I could send them some of my science animations to get their feedback. There was a third person there, a lady from Vox, but she just looked so annoyed as I approached her that I didn’t bother.

The two others said they’d be happy to provide feedback. That was a month ago. An email to each and a follow-up, and I’ve heard nothing. Of course, you know in the back of your head that could happen, but when you meet someone in person and their nodding their head “yes” and smiling at you, you kind of have some more faith.

When people try giving advice, they love to tell you: reach out to everyone! People LOVE talking about themselves! People are SO flattered that you’d want their opinion. People would love to get back to you.

Who are these people and why are they trying to kid themselves and everyone else?

In the end, someone connected me to someone else who works at Pixar. We all three had an hour-long Skype chat (this person at least kept his word.) He looked at my animations and gave me lots of feedback. It was great, I got so many good tips and advice, I just feel like such a loser though and like I don’t know how to do anything.