Featured Fellow: Bethynia Cardenas
Applying For And Winning A Fellowship:
Bethynia Cardenas on the Javits Fellowship
FELLOWSHIP I WON AND WHEN: I was a first year graduate student in the MFA Program in Cinema, at S.F. State. During the first year, I applied to several scholarships and fellowships, with the idea that I didn’t want to take out any more student loans. At that point, I wasn’t being offered Cal Grants or any subsidized funding.
The thing is, a year before I had started looking into scholarships and fellowships. So the research actually happened during the summer before my first year. And I started requesting large numbers of official transcripts from previous universities, just to have them on reserve. That way, if I found a new scholarship, I could make a miracle happen within a week. So my plan was to not only focus on national scholarships; everyone assumed that I wouldn’t get them, and reminded me they were a long shot. I still applied to those, but at the same time I applied to S.F. State local scholarships and fellowships that were open to graduate students.
My first strategy was to find out where there was a scholarship office at school. And there was a website. First I went to the Financial Aid website, where I saw a link to the Academic Honors and Scholarships website. I saw that there was a way to search. So I did all the key words, “graduate students,” “4.0” “Latina, “Hispanic,” “Cinema,” “Art,” “low income,” whatever I could find. And I put them on a spreadsheet with the deadlines, the requirements, and started asking for letters of recommendation.
At that point, the letters of recommendation were the most difficult challenge, because I couldn’t really ask for letters of recommendation from my new professors who they had only met me two weeks prior. So I had to go back—way, way back—to my undergraduate professors.
Luckily, I had really supportive undergraduate women faculty goddesses to help me. And they are the ones who gave me awesome recommendations for the Javits. And I think this paid off. Because even though it had been four years since I graduated, they remembered me and they remembered working with me. This was the toughest part, to be honest: getting other people on board, and being persistent enough and assertive enough to continue to remind them to send those letters in.
MY AREA OF ACADEMIC/PROFESSIONAL INTEREST: As an MFA in Cinema, my main focus is to develop my artistic voice, and to do that I want to develop narratives that deal with Latin America/Latino issues here in the US and abroad in places like Mexico.
THE SUBSTANCE OF MY FELLOWSHIP PROPOSAL: In my Javits statement, I proposed the idea of creating a cinematic voice that incorporated social issues and did it in a way that went beyond just the documentary. I wanted to use real events and historical events that would entertain and inspire people. Though the application, I explained my interest in cinema, especially Mexican cinema, and what it meant to me as a Mexican immigrant. So I talked about how cinema in Mexico educated me to become knowledgeable about the culture, about myself, and about issues in my community. I was especially interested in how cinema could be used as a tool to educate people about sexual norms and gender norms. I wrote about how film had created my own sense of sexuality in relation to traditional gender roles—but that it had nevertheless not reflected my own reality. This is what I explained to them.
LOW POINT IN THE APPLICATION PROCESS: The low point in the application was trying to write a personal statement that was powerful enough to convince them that they could invest in me, and that I would do good with the investment. Most important was the writing. After graduating from college I went on to a master’s in education where I wrote as objectively as possible. So to write about myself was very difficult. And also at that time I know of anyone who could help me edit or challenge me; there wasn’t anybody to help me look at my personal statement, help me correct grammar, choose words well, make it easily readable, and tell me where to stay away from the clichés and cut the B.S. So I had a good friend who was an English major and an editor of a newspaper, take a look at my personal statement and give me feedback. So “friends do help!” Keep your English major friends for life!
Writing the personal statement was really hard because I didn’t have a model. And at that time, I didn’t have confidence as a writer; I felt everything I wrote was a cliché of some sort. I tried to grab ideas from my statement of purpose for graduate school, but it didn’t really apply. It was too scholarly. It wasn’t personal enough. I wasn’t easily able to explain my vision of why it’s important to me to continue to study cinema and become a filmmaker. The reasons I want to become a filmmaker are extremely personal: having to do with my mother, my community, and my own sense of self. So to put that on a paper and make it a compelling narrative was quite a challenge.
It was my first semester as a graduate student, so the work load was intense. I would go to school four times a week from 9-5, and there were shoots that I had to go to on the weekends, and I was commuting from Hayward to San Francisco. So every spare moment was dedicated to the scholarships.
HIGH POINT IN THE APPLICATION PROCESS: The best point came after the first rejection letter when I received a very small local scholarship: it was maybe $500. ‘Wahoo! $500 less on the unsubsidized loan I had to pay back.’ After that it was like a drug. If all I had to do to get $500 was to sit in my house and write a paper, well, that’s a great paying job! Later on, it was a combination of rejection letters and acceptance letters. “Congratulations! You won” this and that. It was really encouraging to receive all these small awards; they were adding up to a big chunk of money.
My attitude about applying for scholarships was that I had seen all my friends from my undergraduate institution who I went to school with and hung out with being offered these fantastic fellowships at private universities—full rides. And at that point I became very conceited, I guess, and thought, “If they can do it, I can too. I deserve it, I work hard enough; I work better than they do.” So most of the time, I was just delusional. All I have to do is put it in the mailbox. I don’t care if people tell me I’m not going to get it; I’m going to get it. I’m going to prove them wrong. So it encouraged me to feel that yeah, I could be a successful applicant. So the first one unleashed the monster in me!
MISADVENTURE(S) DURING THE FELLOWSHIP: I was at the brink of not knowing what to do about the possibility of having to take out more loans. The Javits program didn’t tell me I had won until after the summer. I was about to start my second year of graduate school with another major loan to take out and I was really upset about that.
Because despite the fact that I had raised quite a bit of money through scholarships, I would still have had to take out loans, and I couldn’t’ see myself paying back $100,000, by the end of my education. So I was really questioning whether I should continue film school. It felt very selfish for me to go on this journey of self-discovery in cinema, when I was going to put my whole family in debt.
A week before school started, I got a wonderful letter from the Department of Education that said even though we couldn’t offer me funding, they wanted to acknowledge me as a “commended” Javits Scholar. They were only able to offer 60 people the scholarship that year, but they were proud of my success and what I had accomplished. Okay so I didn’t get the scholarship. Oh well, it’s not a big deal; it was long shot anyway. Two weeks after school started, I was working a part-time job and checking my email. I received another email from the Department of Education. It was very short: “Please call right away. Emergency! So I called and they offered me the fellowship. At that time, I thought the fellowship was only for $10,000 and I didn’t realize it was for three years. So when the Javits representative started to tell me the details of the fellowship, I flipped out! “You mean, I don’t have to work? I don’t have to worry about paying loans? I can live on the fellowship and make films with it? She said “Yes, it’s a full ride!”
This meant that I could fund my thesis film. If this was the case, I felt confident that I could write and direct and produce a film in Mexico City. So the fellowship encouraged me to do an international production. At that point there were no limits, no real excuses. The only thing that I had to worry about was saving the money. I really began to see how I could become an independent filmmaker, how I could budget my funds, organize and discipline myself and follow this path. For the first time, I felt like I was very privileged; all I had to do was concentrate on who I wanted to be as an artist and what I wanted to do. I didn’t have to work—in fact, I wasn’t allowed to work without permission. As an S.F. State graduate student, that’s just unheard of, really. I think this really pushed me to become the best student I could be, and to learn more about film in general.
BEST MOMENT DURING THE FELLOWSHIP: The best moment during the fellowship?—after the day you tell all your friends, and your mama, and she says, “What? What did you get? Okay, good—is yet to come. I’m halfway done with my film; I’m very proud of it. I’ve grown so much from the first film I made in Mexico. Working with professional actors and a talented crew, and having a major production experience: I think that was the best moment.
My thesis film Noche Sin Luna (Moonless Night) is a ten minute crime narrative that deals with a lot of issues that fascinate me about my culture. It deals with this assumed heterosexuality given to men, and with gender norms, and other subjects that have fascinated me since childhood. So it was a really exciting thing to work on. It was personal, but it incorporated my ideas, my thoughts, and my research into a creative product.
ADVICE TO APPLICANTS: Be delusional! Just be crazy enough to think that you can get it. The more that you apply to these programs, the better chance that you’re going to have to winning one, or two or more. Also, align yourself with people who are also interested in getting scholarships: they become your support network. I had a couple of friends in my own year that applied to the Javits too, and to other scholarships, and we would pass scholarships around. Like, “Hey, this is more for you; this is more for me. You should apply for this.” I think it’s very important to share knowledge with other people. I’m a big believer that something always good comes out of that.
And it doesn’t hurt to organize. I have a big binder of scholarships and they’re all categorized by the month they’re due. And make spreadsheets to help you keep on those deadlines. Seek school assistance, you know, come to see Joy. Bring the program announcement with you, and maybe she doesn’t know about it, but she’ll help you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask for help. If you don’t feel confident about your writing, you can always work on that: you can always make it better. These scholarship programs are important because they really want to help people who have personal experiences and their own vision of who they want to be.
WHY I’D DO IT AGAIN: I would do it again because it’s a challenge. It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve done since I’ve become a graduate student: putting myself out there and trying to convince people that my education and where I see myself in ten years is important enough for them to invest in. To me it’s a stepping stone to what I have to start doing as a filmmaker: I’m going to have to start asking people to invest in me, in my projects. So really, it’s good practice.
WHAT I’M DOING NOW: I am editing my final film to graduate. I am continuing to research fellowships and scholarships I could possibly apply to. And I’m moving more towards the grant proposal part of filmmaking. I’m looking to develop myself so that I can become an actual independent filmmaker. That’s what I’m doing.