“The Writing Wall”:
Applicants Share Their Experiences
These fellowship applicants share what the process of applying for a fellowship was like for them, and reflect on how writing fellowship essays is different from other kinds of writing they’ve done.
It’s really intense. It’s very painful at times. Because you know there’s something missing in your application, you know there’s something not quite the way you want it to be in your statement and your essays. But you don’t know how to jump from the starting point to the ending point. You don’t know how to change it. I think that’s the most frustrating of this part of the writing. It’s so personal. On two levels. Yes, you’re using part of your experience to make a case for yourself, to say, “Look what I’ve achieved. This is why I’m so different and unique.” But in order to tap into that, you really have to dig deep into your subconscious and your history, to pull that information and that sensibility out.
You also start realizing a lot of things about who you are and where you come from. I always think it’s always like a session with a psychologist, pulling and pulling and it drains you a lot, and revising drains you a lot. And you go home and there you go again: you’re alone, staring at yourself. And you get angry. You’re like, “Why is she making me do this again? It sounds about right. If they don’t want me the way I am, screw it.” But at the end, it’s not about getting the prize, the scholarship or fellowship. I know my project became a better project because of it and it prepared me to answer all these questions that people who were going to work with me on it were going to ask me.
So you start forgetting all the superficial excuses about why your project is important, you know, the theoretical perspective: why it’s important for society to see this project come to life. And you start thinking about why is this personal for me: “Why do I need to make this project, or propose this idea? What drives me to it?” And that’s the other level of how personal it gets. So revising, rewriting, and continuing to work until one in the morning. Painful, but it’s necessary in order for you to truly understand what you want to do.
My life (your life) experience is valuable to others. That was new information. No more hiding the secrets that shaped my worldview. Before writing for the Jacok K. Javits fellowship I had attempted writing personal statements for a scholarship and for assignments during my undergraduate studies. The approach was always the same. I wanted people to know that I had potential, but as I understood it, no potential had ever been realized. Writing about myself would sound like a list of accomplishments and then a list of goals that could only be attained if permitted by the reader—not at all revealing of my uncompromised determination to reach these goals no matter what, throughout my life.
Writing a personal/artist’s statement with Dr. Viveros was to be a new consideration of my life history, a consideration that allowed me to understand that my struggles were relevant. Surviving your life and then learning to understand what you can speak for is a revelation. Joy would extract the tragedy and the struggle, factors that I had considered part of the past and information to be quieted, and I would write about them. I wrote for six months about periods of my childhood, how I understood an event in a particular moment and how that experience is interpreted now.
The result of this process was a fresh viewpoint, or a circular narrative interrupted, and a new relevance as a result.
The word process will become very familiar to you. When I walked into the fellowship office at S.F. State I had no idea what I was getting myself into or even what a fellowship meant for that matter. In the end, the documents are very short, two pages for the personal statement. But this is not a two-page assignment. It is a life changing personal journey of which this document is the essence, your life and your contribution.
A week after submitting my application, I still have what my husband calls, "A Fellowship Hangover." This hangover is well-earned, and leaves you feeling both elated and exhausted.
What’s most challenging is the depth of the exploration. Dr. Viveros is instrumental in leading you into those depths. She understands that every project - every truly meaningful project - comes from a place that is difficult to reach, and requires the peeling back of layer upon layer of history, memory, and motivation. You find yourself, if you are determined and persistent, in a place of true feeling. Dr. Viveros then helps you to put this place into words.
It is not an easy process. Sometimes it was so overwhelming that I wanted to turn back. I purposefully took a lighter load of coursework in the semester leading to the Fulbright, and yet still felt myself struggling to the meet the demands of the application process. But to stay with it, to unearth yourself, is a process that is necessary, painful and rewarding. Once you've worked with Dr. Viveros and written a personal statement, or have stated your project proposal successfully, there is no going back: you have articulated your deepest self, and your highest ambition.
I think about all the re-writing, the different drafts that I had to do, and really dig into myself and what I wanted. Joy kept asking, “Why, why, what is the purpose, why do I want to do this? The question, “Why is it important to you personally?” kept coming up. So it really made me dig, and really know my purpose. I know I’m doing all these things, but what is the purpose for doing it?
It’s your desires, and you have to tell your story, and tell your desires. It’s finding my story and sharing it. Something did cross my mind: “If I do this, I’m actually going to have to share with people what my desires are”—you know, with the recommenders.
I guess there was frustration. All the work and the different little things that kept arising that I never thought I would have to do. Like translating (for the Fulbright, my letters of institutional affiliation), and video-editing (my creative arts submission), and finding an actual video to edit. And just so many little things that I didn’t know were going to be part of it. It wasn’t just writing the actual letter. You should definitely try it because even if nothing happens, the whole process, it’s a really good process to go through because you get to verbalize, to say what it is that you want. Making it concrete so that it becomes realized.
Writing for the Fulbright has been very intense but definitely worth it! It's a whole process. When I first started I didn't really have much of an idea of what my project would be; I just knew I had to go to Peru. By the time I was done, a marvelous project materialized. As an artist, my ideas are really abstract, sometimes I'm not sure what I'm trying to say: I just have this gut feeling. Writing for me takes time and effort, but putting the application together has really helped me turn a gut feeling into a finished project. I've also been able to understand and articulate what my purpose and ambitions are. And I am very grateful to my fellowship advisor, Joy, whose perfectionism and encouragement helped me to the finish line. We made a great team.
Despite the fact that I have a B.A. in journalism, it took me months of preparation, research and constant revisions to articulate a proposal suitable to compete on a national level. I took it for granted that I always felt comfortable writing papers for classes, or news articles for different publications. As a result, my first draft was hastily written and poorly demonstrating the ideas I had for my project. With the help of my adviser, Dr. Viveros, I realized that if I wanted to be a serious contender, I would need to cultivate my ideas into a cohesive multilayered proposal based on a concrete project, rather than relying on abstract concepts. I treated the process like a fulltime job and although I had two months before the proposal was due, I found myself writing and revising up until the very end.
The biggest challenge for me was formulating the substantive questions my project was proposing to ask/answer. I felt confident in my initial proposal due to my involvement in the subject matter on both a personal and professional level, but with every new revision Dr. Viveros continued to encourage me to dig deeper. The process was frustrating, but it ultimately allowed me to envision my project from a different perspective. I realized I needed to move away from the simple who/what/when/where/why type of questions and to begin exploring the deeper social relevance my subject matter was reflecting.
The whole process was painful, but extremely rewarding at the same time. I not only walked away feeling confident in my final draft, I also felt I became a better writer in the process. I don't think I would've been able to pull it off without the help of Dr. Viveros, and I certainly wouldn't have been able to do the work without a significant amount of preparation time. I would encourage candidates to start early, contact an adviser, and be prepared to write many—MANY—revisions.
Dr. Viveros warned me that applying for a fellowship is quite an undertaking and the workload would be equivalent to an additional class—she was absolutely right. Not only that, it was the most challenging thing on my schedule. With that said, working with Dr. Viveros will easily be one of the most influential experiences of my graduate education. She coached me in what I found to be the most challenging part of the process—accessing the appropriate tone for writing about my artistic process.
The way I was able to make breakthroughs was to write without a preconceived idea of who my reader was, that way I was able to tap into my own language and voice. I made brand new discoveries about my work, life, and about my capabilities in writing.
I have been incorporating a bit of this process in my academic writing and I think it’s much richer as a result. As a part of my studio practice, the free writing I do continues to yield new discoveries. I absolutely would recommend anyone to meet with Joy. Especially students in the arts, those that feel they are unable to write about the artistic process—give it a shot, take the experience seriously, and I think you’ll be very happily surprised.
I arrived at Dr. Viveros' office unaware of the revelatory journey that was before me. I confidently provided Joy with a draft of my doctoral research statement and graduate application essay that I revised previous to working with her. I was at ease; and with only a month to go before the deadline, I was certain that I would obtain her stamp of approval—that my doctoral graduate application essays were excellent, and ready for submission. Instead, Joy looked at me squarely and said, "You have a lot of work to do." I was terrified. Joy took a great deal of time to show me examples of other amazingly written fellowship essays and explain that I needed to anatomize my experience to convey how my personal, academic, professional experiences have compelled me to pursue my research goals. She encouraged me to reflect more on my personal narrative and synthesize how my past experience have informed and prepared me for my future work as a social work researcher and scholar.
I was daunted by the task of having to go within myself to pull out themes and create meaning. As the daughter of immigrant parents, my parents did not model this particularly well; they emphasized looking forward and not wasting time dwelling in the past! So, while uncomfortable, I took the time to journal and look at where I have been. I began to shed the academic jargon that I clung to, which I thought made me sound intelligent—as if I belong in academia. Through revisions, I began to rely less on clichés and began answering Joy's questions, "How did you get drawn to working with immigrant women?" I revised. She asked again, "How did your concerns about this population evolve, and how did your observations inform your analysis?" Joy's questions gave me permission to ask myself why pursuing my research mattered and encouraged me to share in a way that stretched my own self-awareness. Unexpectedly, this process repurposed my academic goals, to mean much more than I ever thought they would.
In the brief time that I worked with Dr. Viveros on my essay, I came to understand that fellowship writing is a unique process of writing your own history that requires a great deal of time and energy. Through Joy's guidance, I became a more efficient and transparent writer in demonstrating how my achievements are unique and prepare me for this next step professionally. I embraced this challenge and in the process became amazed with how affirming this process can be.
Applying for the Fulbright helped me see myself in a different light. The Fulbright Advisor worked with me (and God knows, she worked—she must've given me sixty hours of her time) on every tiny aspect of the application. I walked in there with a totally ridiculous and insincere blurb of why I wanted the grant, and walked out with two heartfelt essays and a restructured CV that make me look like an expert in my field.
To write a personal statement for a fellowship, you need to get to the heart of your aspirations, goals and strengths. This kind of writing is nearly impossible to do on your own. You need someone to bounce ideas off of—someone who will call you on your s#%& when you're being insincere, someone who will ask the right questions. Dr. Viveros is just that kind of person. Don't get me wrong—she'll work you to the bone, but she'll knock your application into shape. By the time you're done, you'll be impressed with yourself.
So you’re used to teachers fawning all over your “brilliant” writing and throwing A’s at your essays like rice at a wedding? Yeah, so was I; get over it, because that’s not gonna happen here. Running for cover under flowery, bombastic verbosity like you always do is so easy, and if anything you’re doing in regards to your fellowship application is easy in any way, shape or form, you’re not doing it right. As a matter of fact, write your first draft (meticulously, thoughtfully and ‘til 2 am when you’ve got class at 8 the next morning) right now; then print it and throw it away. Now write your next 3 drafts (at least) the same way and throw them away too. They’re nowhere NEAR good enough and it’ll save you the trouble later.
It’s not ALL doom and gloom though: first off, you ARE doing this for a purpose, you’re fine-tuning this friggin’ essay to within an inch of its life because you want it to help you get the opportunity to do something you REALLY wanna do (and if reminding yourself of that fact doesn’t motivate you at least a LITTLE bit, then maybe you don’t want whatever fellowship you’re applying for as much as you think you do and you really needn’t bother to waste your, or anybody else’s, time); second, if it’s as hard for you as it was for me, then maybe you’ve been resting a little too comfortably on your laurels (I know I was) and this will help you remember (and verbalize, specifically): 1) what IS so unique about you and your experience, why ONLY you can bring what you bring to the table (and you’re gonna have to dig deeper and be more specific than whatever answer you’re currently thinking of, guaranteed); and 2) in what ways both you AND others (especially others!!!) will benefit from you being awarded the fellowship in question (if it’s as hard for you as it is for me to NOT make things all about yourself, however innocently and unwittingly, then practicing the ‘others’ part is especially practical). You will be FORCED to make the writing in your fellowship essay(s) more authentic and personal, less superficial and clichéd, and knowing how to do that is just an overall plus in life, whether or not you get the grant you apply for.
I have this in the bag. I have a solid idea and the proposal I’ve put together reflects how unique my proposed research really is. I am a successful and accomplished A student. I’m going to win a fellowship and finally get my PhD.
Those thoughts swirled in my head as I approached Joy Viveros’ office to enquire about applying for fellowship applications. By the time I left her office, those affirmations turned to doubts and questions. Instead of feeling that I was ready to take on fellowship and PhD applications, I felt unprepared. In praising my proposal, had my professors, mentors, and advisors had been lying to me? I was ready to throw in the towel and call it a day.
The thing is, being good is simply not enough. To apply for and win a fellowship, you have to be the best. You can’t just be a star. It’s absolutely necessary to be the brightest star in the sky: to shine and glow so distinctly that fellowship committees have no choice but to read and choose your application to win a prestigious award.
It’s not an easy process. Nor is it fun. I personally try to avoid rewriting by spending hours meticulously writing a first draft so precisely that rewriting is mostly editing. But what I learned throughout the year it took me to put together a successful fellowship and PhD application is that there is no way of avoiding the painful and often demoralizing rewriting process. A revised draft might be good—good enough even for an A from most of your teachers—but to stand out for a fellowship award you have to be the best. You have to rewrite and revise that application until it sparkles as clearly as a colorless, flawless, perfectly cut diamond. There’s no way to jump ahead to avoid the pain of getting through this process. You have to work on your applications daily for at least a year to get an A on this project.
A year ago, I believed that fellowship grant writing was simple. After all, it was only a couple pages, and I had written personal statements in the past. I discovered that the process was challenging, frustrating, and rewarding.
I approached grant writing as I would any essay. It was a mistake! I painfully learned that grants have their own style and form. The writing is extremely technical and involves scrutinizing every sentence for syntax and word for definition. In addition, you have to make your point clearly and in a short amount of space. To make each sentence build upon each other, surprisingly, takes months of revisions. I found that as someone who was accustomed to writing academic papers with big words and labyrinthine phrases, the simplicity and clarity of grant writing was a challenge. Joy Viveros (the Fellowship Advisor) constantly challenged me to rethink every detail of my statement of purpose. She devoted countless hours to my application.
In the end, my writing improved tremendously (both in technique and in overall clarity of thought). Even if I do not get the grant, the process helped me to better master the art of writing. I loved the challenge, and I encourage everyone who loves learning to try it at some point.