Archive for the ‘Q & A’s with Winners-Tips & Adventures’ Category
Mohamad was born to Palestinian refugees in the United Arab Emirates. His family was under the constant threat of deportation back to the refugee camp in Lebanon where they had come from. His parents, lacking strong educations themselves, could not help Mohamad with his school work, but always served as his role models and inspiration.
Growing up, Mohamad spent his summers visiting family in the Beddawi refugee camp in Lebanon, where resources for health care were inadequate. He watched family members struggle with ailments that should have been easily curable, but instead persisted and grew worse. This experience motivated Mohamad to pursue an education in bioengineering, however he felt limited by the range of education options available to him. A world of education options opened up to him when, his senior year, after a ten-year waiting process, his family’s application to the United States was approved. Mohamad was able to pursue a degree in bioengineering at UC Irvine where President Obama distinguished him during a commencement address as someone who knows, “what it means to dream.”
At UC Irvine, he worked on building diagnostic devices for rural areas by designing computers that run on air instead of electricity. Later, he investigated the robustness of bacterial genetic circuits with respect to noise. Recently, Mohamad received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, recognizing him as one of the future leaders in his field.
Mohamad is now pursuing a PhD in bioengineering at Caltech. The long-term goal of his scientific career is to develop tools for non-invasive modulation of brain circuitry, which would allow scientists to understand and treat neurological and psychiatric diseases that involve the dysfunction of local neural circuits. Biography by Mohamad Abedi as posted in the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation’s Meet the Fellows section.
What was your major at UCI, and how did you learn about the SOROS and the NSF?
When I first transferred from Irvine Valley College to UCI, I wasn’t really sure of what I wanted to do. I was leaning, mostly, toward medical school. But, as I took more classes, I realized I really enjoyed physics and chemistry classes, which led me to think that if I went to medical school I wouldn’t be able to focus on these topics.
I decided to come into UCI as a mechanical engineer major and transferred into that field. Then, I had another change of plans and ended up majoring in biomedical engineering. This way, I could also satisfy the part of me who wanted to be a doctor.
How did I hear about the SOROS fellowship?
When I was at UCI, I worked in a couple of labs doing research. I remember talking to professor Chang Liu and Elliot Hui about applying to graduate school and they recommended that I apply to fellowships and talk to other graduate students about options. I learned about the NSF and I also learned about the SOROS fellowship through them.
Did you visit the SOP office?
I did, when I wanted examples of NSF essays.
Tell us about the SOROS. How did you write a competitive application and sell your case?
The SOROS is a unique fellowship. I would say that they are looking for funding people as opposed to funding ideas. The NSF funds you based on an idea, mostly.
When it comes to the SOROS fellowship, you have to be an immigrant or the son or daughter of an immigrant.
However, what they really look for is more than an immigration story. They want you to show that you are a person who holds great potential to contribute to the United States as an immigrant. They also want to learn about the certain ways in which the United States helped you. In short, in the telling of this story, they want to know that the help an immigrant student received in the United States was life-changing and would not have been possible anywhere else. They also want to attract students who have a clear path to becoming future leaders in their fields.
What is your immigrant story? Where is your family from?
It’s complicated. My family and I are Palestinian refugees.I came to the U.S. as a teenager. I was 17. In the beginning, I stayed with my aunt. A bit later, my sister joined, who is younger than me. As we got more financially stable, another family member would join. My family followed me later. As a virtue of being a refugee, we lived in Lebanon and we applied to come to the US. It was a very long process and toward the end, we got accepted to emigrate here.
How did you craft your story? The SOROS looks for students who value the US Constitution and demonstrate potential for creativity and leadership. What did you tell them that you wanted to do with your life?
One major factor in my case as a refugee was that in other countries, I always felt I was a second-class citizen or even lower. In these countries, we didn’t get a lot of opportunities. This was totally different when I came to the U.S. Here, I was treated as a U.S citizen, even though I wasn’t one at that point.
I was given a lot of opportunities here to be creative and to focus on school. One of the most important benefits was that the US allowed me to be involved in research, which is an opportunity I wouldn’t have received anywhere else. The incredible opportunities I was given in the U.S. have been a major part of my story, and have influenced the path I pursued, and continue to follow today.
How did the SOROS connect with the NSF project and what did you do for the NSF?
Between applying to the SOROS and the NSF there was a year. When I applied for NSF I was still at UCI. The project that I proposed then was inspired by the research I had done as an undergraduate student. But when I started graduate school I started pursuing a different project.
The one that I proposed for the SOROS fellowship was mainly focused on engineering cells in the brain, a project that was linked to the brain initiative launched by President Obama.
Tell me about the brain initiative that President Obama proposed.
A couple of years ago, the President directed funding of a billion or more (it is roughly half a billion per year and it has been going since 2013) to research the human brain. President Obama launched this initiative referencing that we understand the galaxies around us better than we do our brains. The White House wanted to pave the way towards understanding the brain by driving research towards developing new tools to study the human brain.
What graduate school are you attending?
I am pursuing a PhD in Bio-Engineering at Caltech. I didn’t go too far. I like it here. I’m in the middle of my 3rd year.
What are you working on right now?
Recently, I published a paper that details my work and what I’ll work on in the future.
I’m working on developing proteins that respond to temperature changes. We are creating medicinal proteins intended to heal the body. Currently, people use light to communicate with brain cells, specifically, with neurons. The problem is that to get the light into your brain you have to drill a hole in your skull. The alternative is that you can use ultrasound to focus on a specific region of the brain and heat it without damaging the brain cells. But you also need a receiver that you can install in your cells so that they can respond to heat signals and that is where my work comes in. Through the use of an ultrasound, you don’t have to drill and the light reaches within the brain.
What advice would give a student considering the SOROS and the NSF?
If you are in a STEM field, participate in research. In my case, I ended up liking it so much that I changed my career to be a researcher, which was not my initial goal. Through the process of research, you start learning to be independent; you learn how to solve problems.
Then, if you decide that research is what you want to do, fellowships become important because you can otherwise be limited to work on projects that a professor is working on, especially when the funding is coming from that professor.
On the other hand, if you have a fellowship, like the NSF or the SOROS, you have more freedom of choice regarding which school, which lab and which project you want to work with. It gives you a lot of freedom to do what you care about, which is the biggest plus you get out of these scholarships. This is the case for the NSF.
What is unique about the SOROS is that they really care about people, which is not very common for other fellowships. When you become a SOROS fellow, they fly you every year, for 2 years, to New York where you get to meet with other fellows and discuss major issues with them. You meet people from a lot of different fields. I got to meet musicians, people that work in the business field, people who work in clinical medicine, and many others. It is a great opportunity to meet all these different people who come from all these different fields.
All of us have something in common. We all came to this country as immigrants, and we are all more or less on the path to help advance the field that we are in in this country, which is something really nice and I don’t think could be possible through any of the other fellowship.
How many years have you been flying to New York to meet with the SOROS team?
I’ve been a SOROS fellow for 3 years, and they pay for your expenses to go to New York and stay there for a weekend. It’s usually a combination of fun activities, skill-development, and networking. The aspect of making connections is very nice.
The year before, the U.S. Surgeon General, who is also a SOROS, sat with us and we got to discuss health issues affecting Americans. These are incredible opportunities to meet people that you would otherwise not have the opportunity to meet. These conversations allow you to meet amazing people on a personal level, interact, and build connections.
They book us all in one hotel; they plan every day and they have a schedule, including food, workshops, and talks.
How big is the group?
The way it works is that every year they invite the class that won the fellowship that year and the year before so that’s why I went last year and the year before. Next year, I won’t get a paid invitation. I will have to pay for it myself, but every 10 years or so they have a big conference where everybody is invited.
How does the SOROS conference appeal to the distinct fields? What do you have in common besides being immigrants?
What we all share in common is that regardless of your discipline, SOROS recipients are ambitious, self-driven people who are goal-oriented. They have tall plans and are working to achieve them. These traits, we all share in common, and we appreciate them in others, regardless of the field.
These are more than networking opportunities. You actually become friends. So if they are close to you, you can meet with them regularly in LA, for example, and whenever I fly somewhere, if I know there is a SOROS fellow, I email them or Facebook chat, “I’m around. Do you want to meet up?”
There is a very strong networking component to the SOROS.
What countries or world regions are represented in your class?
A big variety: Middle East, Iran, Egypt, in my case, United Arab Emirates, Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, China, Taiwan, India, South America.
What did you have to do to apply for the SOROS?
You write 2 essay. One, of your work and your plans for the future, and the other, is about your American experience, your immigration story and why U.S. values are important to you and how you have used those values and opportunities to charge ahead.
Once you send this in, if you are selected, you attend a personal interview, either in New York or LA. They fly you there, and you are interviewed by previous Soros fellows and other people.
When I interviewed, the panel had previous SOROS winners and the Mayor of L.A. was one of the people who interviewed me. From the 70 candidates, they pick 30 to win the fellowship.
What was the interview like? What questions did they ask?
You go through 2 interviews. Each interviewing committee has 4 or 5 interviewers. Questions include: which research are you working on; what do you do in your free time; what’s important to you, other than work.
They are looking for certain type of people. They really want to find out who you are as a whole.
They tailor questions based on your background, and they are really interested in understanding your goals and they ask you lots of personal questions.
Do you remember those?
Yes. They asked, “you told us about your research, you are busy all the time, but do you have something else in your life or do you only do research?” This is the point where they look to see if you are a well-rounded person and that question surprised me.
I told them, I do spend most of my time in lab because for me the lab is fun. It never feels like an obligation. Some people find fun in sports or movies which I do participate in. But for me, working in the lab and interacting with my colleagues is fun, and what I do for fun.
What sense did you get from the interview process? What are they looking for?
They really want people who are showing strong potential in whatever field they are in. They don’t really care about specific types of research. What they care about is that you are a person who in the future will make the fellowship’s name and reputation more prestigious. The more successful you become, the more prestigious the SOROS becomes. They look for the people who have the potential to become successful, to become leaders in whatever they are doing.
It’s not enough to have an immigrant story. It’s important to show how that story affected you and informed the person that you are today. And if that person shows promise, then that’s the person they want to keep as a SOROS fellow.
How has the SOROS process changed you?
I think the biggest advantage, other than the money, is the amazing people I would have never had the chance to meet in my life. These meetings give you new perspectives. They inspire you because they show you what other people are doing with this opportunity and their personal drive. We help each other out to reach these goals. We encourage each other to stay motivated, to stay inspired and to stay connected.
What would you tell a student who is preparing to apply for the SOROS. What should they definitely cover in their essays?
Show that being in the U.S. has helped you become the person that you are. Connect your story to how these opportunties have developed a patriotic spirit for the U.S., that you are on the path to success because of the U.S. and in turn, your success will help the U.S become a better country.
The SOROS is a patriotic fellowship that is interested in making this country better.
They want to see people who have the potential to be successful so in the application and interview it is important to focus on the bigger picture and demonstrate that what you are working on could be useful and impactful for the country as a whole.
Show them that you have a clear path of where you want to be in the future. They don’t want people who are unsure. They want people who have a goal, are driven and know what they need to do to reach that goal.
How did you convince them that you are going to be successful? What are the values of America that you love and that push you to be the best that you can be? How will you give back and be a contributive member of U.S. society?
The first question relates to the American dream. It doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you put in the effort and the work, opportunities will be open to you and you will be able to reach what you want.
In other countries, in order to be successful, you have to come from a big family name, or you have to be rich. Over here, when I came to the U.S. my name didn’t mean anything and I wasn’t financially in a good place, but because I was putting in the work and I had a vision, doors opened for me, either through fellowships, scholarships, or assistance. Doors will be open to you to reach your goal as long as you put in the work for it.
The second part, how I convinced them that my project will be impactful, it is very important to have strong letters of recommendation. I can talk all day about who I am and what I plan to do, but it is through the letters verifying that, that the committee can start to see it. When professors write letters making comments like, “I know this person; I’ve seen his work; I know that he will be x y z in the future,” this is really important.
And in my case something else that helped me during graduation from Irvine, was that president Obama during his commencement speech, one of the people he mentioned was my name, Mohammad Abedi came as a refugee and now he is working on his Ph.D. getting an endorsement from the president, saying I got here as a refugee and now he’s going to do great things, helped me a lot in my application for the SOROS.
How did President Obama learn about you?
When the president decided he was coming he had people contact UCI for recommendations. He wanted to mention names. They asked people for profiles and biographies and sent them back to the White House and the White House contacted me a day before to verify information. They said there is no guarantee that he is going to talk about me. When I went to the graduation, I wasn’t even sure. It was great when he mentioned my name.
Any other advice you’d give students thinking about fellowships?
It isn’t only about the grades. Doing research is important, learning how to be a good writer is important. Also important is to seek help, ask for help. There are a lot of nice people who have a lot of information and are very willing to help, but you have to seek them out. Be active about the things that are important. When I wrote my application, I sent it to tons of people; whoever was willing to read my application. Many people write their applications and they are either shy or they don’t want to share it. Get as much feedback as possible.
What is next for you? What do you want to do after you get your degree?
I’m working on completing a Phd so I can start a career as a tenure-track professor. I would love to stay in California. I love the weather here.
Mohamad is available to answer questions about his journey, experiences and life accomplishments. He can be reached at email@example.com
President Obama mentions Mohamad’s accomplishments during his commencement speech.
Kenneth Lai graduated from UCI magna cum laude in 2014 with a B.A. in English Literature and a B.A. in Classics, additionally receiving the Chancellor’s Award of Distinction. He completed two UROP projects (2012–2014) under the guidance of James Steintrager. The subject of the former project (H.P. Lovecraft) was the topic of his UTeach classes (2013–2014). After graduating, Kenneth moved to Finland as a Fulbright student at the University of Helsinki to complete his M.A. in Religious Studies and is currently working on a teaching degree in the subjects of English, Latin, and Religion for Finnish public education. In the future, Kenneth hopes to pursue a PhD exploring the missionary practices of Manichaeism, an ancient religion that was practiced from the Roman Empire in the west to Tang China in the east and which now, because of the religion’s wide geographical spread, demands the equal cooperation of western and eastern scholars.
Tell me a little bit about your UCI experience. You were awarded a Fulbright and were a finalist for the Marshall. How did you connect with these opportunities?
I started as an English major and later wanted to learn Greek, so I learned Ancient Greek. My professors told me I was a good classicist, so I ended up double-majoring in English and Classics and graduated Magna Cum Laude. It was really cool because, in my year, we had Obama.
I understand you joined the Campuswide Honors Program and through them, you learned about the Fulbright and SOP.
Yes. I got to know about the CHP in my freshman year, and they exposed me to a lot of scholarship opportunities.
You learn a lot from CHP because the advisors are great and they fill you in on everything. I had Mary Gillis. She has this great memory and really personalizes the process, and I think all the advisors there do that as well. You just learn a lot by being in that environment. Students can be more scholarly-oriented in the honors’ program, and that’s what I have always enjoyed. I have always found it nice to connect with students who appreciate the same.
There are a lot of perks of being in the CHP. In general, it makes you very curious about things.
I think I may have learned about the Fulbright then. They definitely encouraged me to visit SOP.
What was your experience with SOP? Did you come into the office to get feedback for your Fulbright and Marshall applications?
I came in all the time. I was probably an annoying visitor. I went through the applications; I studied them and received good advice from Michelle Tsai.
CHP told me to go to SOP, so I made an appointment and started the application process. I remember it took me a long time.
Tell me about your Fulbright experience.
I was drawn to the Fulbright because I had heard so much about it and I wanted an opportunity to do a Masters somewhere. One of the many Fulbright opportunities is that they allow you to use a Masters Program as a Fulbright project.
How did you narrow down what you would do for your Masters Program?
I wanted to broaden my experience to see if English or Classics, my two undergraduate majors, were the right options for me or another field that I was interested in. I looked for a field that would harmonize the abilities and language skills I developed in either discipline and found the perfect match in Religious Studies.
The Fulbright website lists many options you can pursue, and since I was interested in Finland, I looked into it and found out that there is a strong partnership between the Fulbright program and the University of Helsinki.
In fact, I learned later that Fulbright in Finland was one of the first Fulbright programs to launch, and they have been winning a lot of awards because they have created lots of different Fulbright opportunities, not just for students, but also for teachers in mid-careers who want to gain expertise in a different subject.
Once in Finland, who advised you academically?
It was actually Antti Marjanen. He’s been my main research advisor in Finland and my research project was in partnership with him. Initially, I looked into the Nag Hammadi Library, an Egyptian collection of early-Christian manuscripts discovered in 1945. I’ve since been interested in Manichaeism, an ancient Iranian religion with several key discoveries dating back to the 1890’s up until most recently the 1980’s, with some discoveries in Egypt.
There is quite an active archeological society in Finland, and I’ve been really interested in following the different groups they have here: the Nordic Coptic Network and the Finish Egyptological Society, among others. There are a lot of research networks in Europe and lots of opportunities available for doing archeological studies as well as primary research.
My research is not archaeological in nature but many of my colleagues are archaeologists in background and at least some archaeology is always needed in ancient history research
Tell me about your experience in Finland. Were you well-prepared for it? Was there something that surprised you? What was a day in your life like?
I would say that I was rather prepared for the research part. But, I was completely unprepared for the living part because, as a native Californian, I had never experienced a proper winter before, so I was shocked to see snow.
Regarding adapting to the country, the Fulbright program in Finland prepared me well for the whole living process. They had a one-week seminar where they took us through how to set up a bank account, how to use the libraries in different locations, and how to contact different people. We were even introduced to some basic Finnish, which wasn’t entirely necessary because most Finnish people speak English and especially, in academia, their English is quite good.
I was unprepared regarding how to look for research material. In Finland, there is a long bureaucratic process before you can access research sources.
This was the biggest challenge for most of us, trying to contact the right people who had access to the materials we needed to look at. For example, at the national library it took us a couple of months to get access to some papyri that we needed.
In another case, a library had moved and lost some manuscripts, which was very unfortunate. The confusing part is that they don’t notify you online that they no longer have those manuscripts. That was the biggest challenge, knowing where your primary sources are. But I think this applies more to the humanities and social sciences than other fields.
Where did you live? Were there others with you? Was this more of a solitary journey?
None of it was really solitary. They have a buddy system. So, Fulbright alumni who are living in Finland partner up with incoming Fulbrighters and guide you through the whole process. In my case, I had 2 Fulbright buddies. One of them picked me up from the airport, and the other one had the responsibility of showing me around Helsinki. The Fulbright office had even arranged for an apartment to be set up for me, and it was very close to the university so I pretty much didn’t have to worry about anything when I got there. They had everything set up.
How would you describe your relationship with your mentor. Was it enjoyable? Did you learn a lot?
I would describe the process as a bit slow. I’m glad that my Fulbright period was a bit longer, (I’m completing a Masters), than the regular 10-month research stay. It is very difficult to develop a relationship with an advisor when you have a short time. Nordic people have a reputation for being a bit slow in terms of getting to know someone. In my case, it took me about a year before I got to know my advisor, but once that happened, it’s been a really fruitful relationship.
Now, we regularly read Coptic together. We participate in a reading group at the university, and we also read Greek, Latin, and Arabic together. He has even invited me to his cottage, where he even smoked the salmon himself, which was amazing. After the period of a year, I can say that I feel we’ve become good friends and good research partners.
How long will you stay in Finland?
I’m still there. I’m thinking about staying in Finland and doing a PhD. I’m currently living with my Finnish girlfriend who is now visiting California with me. She actually studies in the same university with me.
How did you craft your Fulbright application? How did you sell your case and what strategies did you use to get yours awarded?
The process was very long and arduous. There are lots of things you have to do and lots of recommendations. I went through many drafts including different motivation essays and research proposals.
I got to know my recommenders well. My undergraduate thesis advisor, James Steintrager, was a big role model for me. He was actually a Fulbright scholar himself.
As a student, how do you know what professor has completed a Fulbright? How do you find out?
I just happened to ask, and it turned out that my professor was one. In fact, many professors do complete Fulbright programs. Through word of mouth, if you ask your advisor in your department, they probably know who’s done a Fulbright.
How did you describe your project and what you wanted to do?
I described it as looking through primary sources that had been studied by my advisor and seeking to develop an American and Nordic collaborative effort. I think that’s the thing they are interested in: how you can connect different countries and, in my case, there was already an active Nordic community across national borders, interested in my topic.
How did your research contribute to a cultural exchange?
It helps when your research has an element of cultural ambassadorship. I included that in my project because I believe that’s the way that research should be done. Especially when it’s a very closed field like mine, 4th-century, Egyptian literature. The topic is not something that lots of people study, so it helps to have a mindset that you are working alongside different partners in your area.
Why does is Finnish government invested in this topic? Why is Finland interested in Egyptian literature?
The Finnish government cares about this topic because they have a Coptic collection in Finland, including papyri and parchment that remain unpublished. My advisor and other colleagues have been working on related Coptic material in early Christianity since the 80s. It’s something that has boosted Finland into an international reputation.
The Finnish government has been investing in this and similar projects since the 80s.The reason? I think that Europeans tend to have a different mentality from Americans. They don’t think, what is the benefit of this? They sort of think, what can we learn? Is there something to be learned?
That’s the litmus test they use when it comes to research in Finland, is the research valuable to those who are interested in it?
What skills are required to work with papyri and other related primary sources?
We are looking into unpublished papyri and there is a lot of interest in it because anyone in the field can learn from this finding. In order to study it, you need the material to be published. Yet, before you can study it you need to have very good language skills to unpack the content in the sources. For this reason, the project has always received investment and funding.
How many languages do you speak that are related to your research with primary works?
Manichaean texts are studied in a number of languages. I am able to read Ancient Greek, Latin, middle Iranian/Persian languages, Arabic, Hebrew, Coptic, and classical Chinese and have a fair grasp of French, German, and Italian. Many of these languages, I’ve been learning in the past years and during the Fulbright period. You have to know the ancient languages fairly well in order to understand the ancient primary sources.
How do you find the time to learn so many languages? What’s your process?
You surround yourself with people who are interested in the languages and you read literature with them. The nature of the texts is that they are written in such a way that reflect the way that in the ancient world there wasn’t this idea of one person speaking this one language, but rather, people spoke many different languages. One text might be in three different languages and they might be studied in three different languages. So you may have French commentary, a German commentary, and an English commentary. You sit down with a Hebrew text, Arabic text, and a Coptic text and you read the English, French, and German commentaries together and then in my case, you might have someone discuss it in Finnish, so you many have several different languages going on at the same time when you read one text. Once you get into this groove, you start picking up the language. You might also start studying some of the languages. I picked up Arabic and Hebrew. Once you learn one, the language family becomes a bit easier to grasp.
Much of it is self-taught. In my case, the Master’s program exposed me to some courses where I could learn some of these languages. The focus of my Master’s program is on the comparative study of emergent (Rabbinic) Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There were thus teachers in Coptic, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Akkadian, several ancient languages so I had those classes available and I had reading groups at the university as well as my own independent learning.
How does this connect to the application for the Marshall?
For the Marshall, I was using my English Literature background. For that application, I focused on Early Republic history. Specifically, American and British literature. So I was focusing on reading about early nationalism in the Early Republic of America. I was thinking of transatlantic studies, reading British and American literature comparatively, and trying to see what kinds of economic theories could emerge by reading these sources side by side.
What were you hoping to do?
The Marshall allows you choose from 2 Master’s programs that are each, one year long, or 1 Master’s program that is two years long. I was interested in the first option because my thinking was that I could expand my research knowledge in the field of English literature. So I was hoping to begin to do more theory-oriented research related to Britain and America at Warrick, then move to the University of Oxford from where I could look more closely at British literature in the early 19th century.
Did you apply to both at the same time?
You were awarded the Fulbright and were a Finalist for the Marshall. What tips would you give students who want to pursue a Marshall?
The Marshall was another post-war creation. Read their website and learn about the beginnings of the Marshall scholarship and the special relationship between the US and the UK. Understanding the history of this relationship is critical to consider when applying. In fact, they ask you to describe what the special relationship is in one of their essays.
Some of my friends have gotten the Marshall through different universities and what I’ve noticed they are interested in is the relationship between America and the UK. What are you adding to the special relationship? How does your research probe and challenge the special relationship? In my case, I didn’t especially develop my research topic to suit this, but I was working on my undergrad thesis trying to find a way to relate it to the question.
I found this research field in transatlantic literature, exchange, and proto-nationalism and was hoping to connect my findings to the modern relation between British and American writings and the British and American political system. This is something that they are very interested in.
The Marshall, although better funded than the Fulbright, would have required that I move to 2 different cities within one year. It is designed for people committed to British-American related fields.
I wanted more of an international experience. In the ancient world, things were very messy. There wasn’t one location or one language.
The Fulbright worked out much better for the type of work I wanted to do. I was able to get that international feeling just being among different scholars and learning a language that wasn’t English. Being exposed to different languages is something I really value. I would have gone for the Fulbright had both opportunities manifested at the same time.
With the Marshall, they want you to stay in the UK.
What advice would you give students who are contemplating a Masters through a Fulbright?
Master’s program: Look for opportunities that interest you. I was drawn to the pan-Nordic emphasis of this Master’s program, which include universities in Norwary, Sweden, Denmark and Finland and you travel to each university for 1 week for a contact seminar. I was interested in meeting different professors, developing a relationship with them and exploring if their research was compatible with mine so I could pursue a Ph.D with them afterward.
Doing research: look at what’s unique about the country. Regarding Finland, not many people know that there is this papyri in Finland; you wouldn’t think to look here, but there is a lot to be published in Finland. Look for unique sources or unique circumstances. Some of my colleagues want to come here specifically to study the Arctic or to do Cardiac Research in the Finnish population because they are a rather close society; they have a rather uniform gene pool. Something like this gives a uniqueness to your research approach.
Generally, whether you are going for a Masters or a research-oriented project, the biggest thing is thinking of being a cultural ambassador. What are you adding to the local research community and the community in general?
I noticed that all the Fulbrighters when they got there, were interested in Finnish culture. We all had some language background or were interested in learning it while we were there. We were interested in the culture, technology, anything that was Finnish. We generally had an idea of what we were interested in.
That’s the biggest thing. You have to be interested in the country and the culture.
Why is it important to focus on connections?
It comes from this idea that the Fulbright comes from a post-war setting. So, there is something that is nationalistic about it. The people who work at the Fulbright center do want to see something that relates America and their respective country. It might be a bit of an old argument but it does still apply.
I think it’s still about prestige and about uniting researchers in different countries with each other. If you think about how after the war, countries were so divided, through the Fulbright process, you can rebuild relationships. We are more advanced now, but the idea of understanding, and collaboration is still something they want to work on.
For you, what came first, the region or the topic?
I think they came at the same time. I was already interested in a couple of topics and in religious studies, in particular. When I found my advisor, I explored my advisor’s interests to see if they would be a good fit.
You mentioned earlier that the Fulbright experience is about a relationship, about collaborating. What have you brought to Finland as a contribution?
At this point, I’ve taken up a teaching degree in Finland. I’m studying to be a teacher in English, Latin and Religious Studies for secondary school. I want to contribute as someone who specializes in these fields, as someone who has done some research here and teach high school students within a realm of relatively good expertise.
Also, learning Finnish is another contribution. I would like to contribute to different publications in the language by collaborating with Finnish researchers. More specifically, I would like to publish in American journals alongside Finnish collaborators.
I’m still working on these contributions. They are not fully accomplished yet, but I’ll continually work on them.
If I were to ask you, how has the Fulbright process changed you? Have you grown as a result of this experience in Finand?
Yes. I’ve become a better researcher; I’ve become more aware of international relations, and I’ve become aware of Europe in general. I’ve come to value my time at UCI more than I had expected. I think this is because while being in Finland, I’ve become aware of the different institutional settings and how universities work in America versus in Europe and the role of politics in these settings. The EU was rather elusory to me while I was in America, even though I had worked in German and French and had even received a scholarship from the European Studies Department at UCI. Being here you learn so much about every country. You see the U.S. in a different light, not only in light of the recent election, but reading about your own country while being abroad is also a learning experience. You see first hand, how the outside world processes your country’s politics.
Do you feel like being abroad made you more patriotic and brought you closer to America or distanced you?
I think I’ve become more of both. I’m more well-informed and in general, it’s made me a better American. I can better compare the history of America vs. other countries and I’ve had many opportunities to talk about this. I’ve met many Europeans who are interested in learning about how Americans think of their own country in light of recent events.
Especially as an Asian-American, it is shocking for Europeans to think of Americans as not being white, male and fat. I get that all the time. Most people think I’m Chinese. They start talking to me in an Asian language that they’ve learned. I tell them, I’m American, actually. I do speak Mandarin, though. It’s an educational process for Europeans as well. Thanks to the program, they get to meet many different types of Americans.
What is next for you?
In the end I would say, research. I find research to be very rewarding. It is hard work, sometimes solitary work and you can also meet a lot of people. In the end, we share the research with people so it’s never completely solitary. It’s as solitary as you want to make it, I would say. Some people work alone and it’s detrimental to their social life. But, if you take it upon yourself to connect with others then it becomes a very cooperative, rewarding work. This applies to whether you are working as a researcher or a teacher. I see myself teaching in Finland, and I would be satisfied either way, working in research or as a teacher. After all, in Finland, a teacher is a researcher. You have to have a Masters degree to teach in Finland.
Do you have any final words of encouragement for prospective candidates?
Many students seem too daunted by the prestige and the long application process of big scholarships that they disqualify themselves before applying. Just go for it. The road is long, but the journey is well worth the trials. Listen closely to your advisors and, most importantly, stay curious.
I want to say that I’m really grateful for SOP. They gave me a lot of confidence through the preparation process and the interview drills. They gave me so much information about what I had to do. So I’m very grateful that SOP is there in UCI and that you guys are so dedicated to helping students out.
If you would like to learn more about Kenneth’s research and experiences, he can be contacted at kenneth.w.p.lai at gmail.com
Jacqueline Rodriguez is the daughter of Salvadoran working class immigrants. Both her parents fled El Salvador during the Civil War and settled in Los Angeles, California where Jacqueline was born. At age 5 Jacqueline’s mother died of cancer and her dad, with the help of her grandmother, raised her. Today her father is a big-rig truck driver and her stepmother is a homemaker. It was her parent’s immigrant narrative that shaped Jacqueline’s perspective, academic interests, and career aspirations. She became the first in her family to graduate from college and is the product of public higher education. Jacqueline holds an associate’s degree from Mount San Antonio Community College, a bachelor’s degree from UC Irvine, and a master’s degree in education policy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
While at UC Irvine she was a student coordinator for the Early Academic Outreach Program where she mentored students in low-income high schools to help prepare them for college. She was also a research assistant for Dr. Maria Rendon’s study on the mobility prospects of second-generation Latino males in Los Angeles, helping analyze neighborhood effects, family dynamics, peer ties, education, and social and financial support. She studied abroad in Greece and Cyprus and was involved in student-led organizations on campus. She ultimately received dual degrees in Sociology and Chicano/Latino Studies and went on to become commencement speaker alongside President Barack Obama in 2014.
Currently, she lives in Washington D.C. and is an associate consultant for Manhattan Strategy Group where she manages federal projects for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (U.S. Department of Education) that support disconnected youth and adults in obtaining the necessary knowledge and skills for employment and economic advancement in a 21st century global economy. Jacqueline plans to continue pursuing a career in the workforce and economic development but is looking to ultimately do so internationally, for a Latin American government, ideally her parents’ country of El Salvador. In doing so, she plans to eventually pursue a master’s in public policy with a focus in international development. While in graduate school she plans to apply for Fulbright once again to conduct research on job training and security measures for disconnected youth in El Salvador.
What was the journey leading up to your Fulbright Finalist ETA position?
I was an undergraduate at UCI, where I double-majored in Sociology and Chicano Studies. When I was applying for the Fulbright, I applied for the Venezuela program to teach English. At the moment, I was very interested in educational development in Latin America and international education policy and that led me to apply to the Fulbright, ETA. While I did not receive the Fulbright scholarship, I did become a semi-finalist so I’m really quite familiar with the process. Through the application process, the SOP office was very helpful. Michelle was especially helpful.
What do you think are the ingredients of a successful application? You made it to semi-finalist status. What was the process like for you?
A lot of times when students apply for grants, they start to tailor their resumes and statements to fit the prompts. I think those steps are important, but if you start to notice that you are tailoring too much or struggling to put things together, I think that’s a good indicator that your purpose or reasoning for applying may need some work.
To write a successful application, you have to have a very clear vision of why you want to do a particular work, whether it is research or the ETA.
For example, some of the questions you should ask yourself are:
What is it about this particular country that calls you to teach English there or do a research project? The answer cannot be abstract in any way or general. I think what makes a really good statement is for you to have a really strong connection to that country. If you say, for example, “oh, I want to improve the educational development there for different socio-economic reasons in Latin America,” that statement may not be enough because it could apply to many different Latin American countries. The better question to ask yourself is, why would I want to contribute to, let’s say, Argentina, specifically? What is your connection to that country? Have you been studying it? Does it connect to something else you’ve been doing? Did you study abroad in the region? I think having that connection is really important. With that said, I think you should start the process way in advance before you apply.
What I hear you say, is that the Fulbright application for the ETA is not something you can do on the spot without preparation in other areas of our life. You have to have build other related experiences and expertise.
Exactly, I think it’s something that maybe you’ve already been working on. It’s more like, “I would like to do this, in order to continue doing the work I started here,” which is different than seeing an ETA as a personal opportunity to go travel.
That has to be tricky, especially when you are applying to teach English and so many students are applying to do the same. How do you make your case stronger than somebody else’s?
You could start building your case by connecting it to a course you took where you studied the issues. You could also connect it to a study abroad experience. For example, you studied abroad in Vietnam and became aware of water issues, and then took a course on it. I think that’s already a good path for it. This could be used to show, “I’m already familiar with this.” You can also network with organizations and highlight that connection.
And this is something that someone might not put together. You might think, I can teach English. But does the student think beyond and into the cultural collaboration and contribution component? What else does the student bring to the country?
Exactly. It’s not only being a U.S. ambassador but also how would you benefit that country by being able to provide English language abilities. It is definitely important to cultivate a certain type of relationship.
Jacqueline, why did you originally choose Venezuela?
I think I chose it because in some of my Latin American classes I had studied the economic challenges there, specifically in terms of their default. I had also studied educational policy there. These classes drew my interest in that country and so I built my case, stating I wanted more hands-on experience to understand and work in educational policy in the classroom and teach English at an elementary level.
How in-depth did you study the locale and the student body? How did you craft your statement?
I think that’s where I fell short. I didn’t have enough time. By the time I started gaining more interest, I had not spent enough time to develop a deeper relationship. I think it would have been really good for me to reach out to organizations early on, study the work that they were doing in the classroom, and maintain that contact.
On the other hand, it’s really hard to get specific on a locale, because you don’t know where the Fulbright might place you. They might place you in a rural setting or they might place you in a capital city. It’s a gamble.
You pick the country, and you say, this is where I want to go and for these reasons, but you really can’t say, “I want to specifically do this type of work in the city,” because if anything, you could jeopardize yourself by saying that in your application. You don’t know where they are going to place you.
It’s tricky in that you have to demonstrate in-depth knowledge of the country and its issues but, at the same time, you want to make sure you are not focusing too much on a specific area or region within the country because you might be limiting yourself for other opportunities.
How important is it to have relatable experiences teaching in under-resourced areas?
That’s another important piece of advice that I received from other people. You want to be very strategic in explaining what skills you would use to thrive and carry out your work in a very challenging environment.
You could end up in a place where there are lack of resources or teachers that don’t show up, or you may have a complete lack of understanding for an educational culture, so you have to be able to convincingly explain how you could, in a situation that might be very tough, still persevere and maintain your mission, focus and efforts. What related experiences can you pull from?
I have a friend who did the Fulbright in Colombia. His application was really good because not only did he demonstrate the different types of international experiences he had with specific student-age groups, but he also demonstrated he had experiences working in under-resourced, low-income type of environments. He was able to provide teaching and instruction to students, under duress, and he also demonstrated he was resourceful. I think that’s key to the Fulbright ETA. You have to be able to demonstrate that.
When you received the semi-finalist news, did they share why you were a semi-finalist and not a winner?
So, there are 3 different reviews. The first one is from UCI, seeing if they want to endorse you and push your application forward. Once it’s pushed forward, the U.S. reviews your application. That’s another application pool. Then, the U.S. selects candidates depending on the country. I believe it was 20 applicants for Venezuela. Next, the U.S. sends those 20 applicant materials to Venezuela, and then Venezuela has the final decision, which also depends on how many spots they have available. In my case, there were only two. Finally, Venezuela then chooses from the 2. I was a semi-finalist.
So by the time you become a semi-finalist, the U.S. has approved you. This is why they say becoming a semi-finalist is a really big honor, because the U.S. has selected you.
After Venezuela makes its final decision, you don’t know why they selected the way they did.
Did you use all the time and work spent on crafting this application to apply for other things, like graduate school?
Definitely. The Fulbright application process is extremely rigorous. It definitely helped me with other application processes, in terms of getting acquainted with how to craft my own personal statement, but specifically, the statement of work. I definitely applied to graduate school. I applied for an educational policy program and I completed a 2-year Masters program in Education Policy.
Currently, I’m living in D.C. and work for a federal contractor overseeing different department of education initiatives. I’m still really interested to taking these experiences to an international arena, specifically in Latin America. At some point, I might try to pursue the Fulbright but in a research capacity.
Are there any final tips you’d like to share that can be useful to a student who wants to teach through the ETA Fulbright program?
Besides having a direct connection and showing how you can be resourceful under stressful circumstances, I think overall, having a passion and vision for being a Fulbrighter. What does Fulbright really mean to you? How are you going to exemplify that as a U.S. ambassador? Understanding the mission and believing in it is really important.
What was your source of inspiration for applying?
I took a class with a professor who knew my interest. He told me about it, and encouraged me to look into it given my international interest and my background.
Did you know who to ask for letters?
By the time you are becoming a Fulbright or are in the running for it, you should know who to ask for a letter of recommendation. You’ve been involved in work or doing research with certain professors.
In your opinion, how early should students learn about the Fulbright opportunities so that they have enough time to craft themselves as competitive candidates, rather than say, I haven’t done enough to make me a strong candidate for these fellowships.
I’m so glad you are bringing this up because this was kind of my struggle, especially coming out of a first generation background, working-class student. I was obviously not aware of any of these opportunities and for most of my college experience that’s what it was like. It was me hearing it from professors, or me, rebuscandole, searching for opportunities on my own.
I think it would be really important for freshmen to access this information, and equally important, for those who disseminate it, to be mindful of their audience. Where are you advertising these fellowships? What classrooms, what groups? Are you preaching to the choir? It’s beneficial for elite students to access this information. But what about the students who normally would not be exposed to knowledge of all these opportunities while they could be very well-deserving of them?
Imagine who they could become if they were to be empowered with information on how to become great candidates early on. They could start crafting their own profiles from the beginning to become really competitive Fulbright candidates.
Sometimes we don’t have access to these opportunities until it’s too late in the game. I, personally, always felt like I had to play catch-up as a first-gen student.
Where should Fulbright be promoted on campus to reach minority candidates?
Going to student services and talking to transfers, first gen, foster students would be a great place to start. Exposing them to opportunities to build themselves is really important. I know one of the things I was always told in my application, although flattering, was, “your story is just so compelling, Jackie.” And although I was flattered, I didn’t just want to be the student with a compelling story. I wanted to be the student who was seen as someone who had also done all these other amazing things. Minority students are usually caught playing catch up, so they are not usually exposed to these other opportunities they can venture into it.
In retrospect, what advice do you have for first-gen students who want to apply for fellowships later on?
Get involved in as many things as possible that can help develop your interests. If some organization intrigues you, get involved and volunteer, participate in internships, go to talks, for example, professors always have panel talks. UCI has many community organizations and student cultural houses. I would try to tap into all of those and try to find out what else interests me. Little by little, try to get as well informed as possible. What are the different opportunities available? Ask professors and also, cold email professors.
As first generation students, I think there is a lot to say for having great mentors. I think mentors can really help first generation students successfully transition into higher education. First-gen students are really scared to approach mentors and professors and I think we should be more encouraged to do that. By this I mean, what to say, how to ask them for a meeting to talk about common interests and find out more about specific topics and fields. Many professors would be willing to meet with you. This helped me as well. Having the right people by my side and reaching out to the right mentors.
I was able to find out about research opportunities by talking with professors and getting involved in student organizations. By sophomore year, you should be really intentional. Ask yourself, what is the profile and image I’m creating for myself in an academic sense?
I would tell them that crafting your image early on is super important. Ask yourself, who am I? What is my selling point? What are my interests?
What did you have to overcome? Why is your story compelling and why do you think you were chosen to become a commencement speaker when Obama was here?
For the 2014 Graduation, I’d say I fit into the immigrant narrative. My parents were Salvadoran refugees, and then coming from a working class family, I was a first-generation student who attended community college first and then transferred to UCI. Here, I got involved in the early academic outreach program, which provides college counseling to low-income high school students. I also became involved in different student organizations on campus, different scholars programs and I did research with professors. I then went on to pursue my graduate degree and got accepted to NYU and Columbia but due to tuition, I was not able to go there. I did attend the University of Illinois and they offered me a full ride, so I think it was not only my background but also the fact I was a child of the California public education system. I went to a community college, then to a UC institution. This is something that California wants to promote as the norm rather than the exception.
If you’d like to contact Jacqueline to find out more, she can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
To view Jacqueline’s commencement speech, please click on the video below:
Eliza graduated from UCI in 2014 with a B.A. in International Studies and minor in Spanish. She also earned a Certificate in Contemporary Latin American from the Pontifical Catholic University in Santiago. Upon graduation, Eliza participated in the UCDC program in Washington D.C., interning at a small non-profit working in youth service learning programs. Following UCDC, she spent ten months on a Fulbright grant in Nicaragua, researching factors that influence civic engagement among Nicaraguan youth. Eliza now works in Washington D.C. in the field of international education, gaining experience working with the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program. She hopes to apply to a graduate program in International Relations next year, and continue to find opportunities to live and work abroad.
What did you study at UCI and how did it inspire you to pursue a Fulbright?
I graduated from UCI in 2014, and as an undergraduate I majored in international studies with a Spanish minor. I spent my junior year studying abroad in Chile, and that was really the experience that set off my interest in international relations and living abroad. The time in Chile really inspired me to pursue a Fulbright.
How was your Chile experience influential?
While I was abroad in Chile, I took classes at a local university and I was also working on my senior thesis on Peruvian immigration to Chile. One of my Campuswide Honors Program advisors said I should consider applying to the Fulbright. So I looked into it, and realized that my experience studying abroad in a Latin American region could boost my application and chances, so I looked into those possibilities, and ultimately decided to apply for a Fulbright doing research in Nicaragua.
It was really my study abroad that inspired me to pursue it and so I spent a summer after graduation in D.C. doing an internship with a nonprofit in UCDC, and then I spent 10 months in Nicaragua involved in civic engagement. I soon found out that doing research in Nicaragua would be quite different from my study abroad experience. In Nicaragua, it would just be me, and it definitely was a more independent experience.
Tell me a little bit about how you described your project when applying for the Fulbright. How did you build a case for travel? Why go on location to Nicaragua and what did you want to accomplish there?
I picked the region before I picked the project. I had been in Chile before and in the context of Latin America, I would say that Chile is on a different economic spectrum. There are so many variances within Latin American countries and so I looked for a unique country that would offer me a more viable and realistic option to be awarded the Fulbright.
Some countries can be quite competitive. I looked into possibilities regarding research, with an eye for specific themes that interested me, like civic engagement. This topic is at the center of important debates in central America, and within Nicaragua, and so I crafted my project around that topic. I decided to look into the process for obtaining national ID cards, which Nicaraguans use for voting, opening bank accounts and applying for employment. One of the most interesting aspects to me was exploring the reasons behind the Nicaraguan early voting age of 16.
I wanted to explore that a little more. Why was their voting age so young? During my study abroad experience, the study abroad director in Chile was important in inspiring my proposal. He was the one I would talk to regarding how to choose a country, and weigh out the pros and cons because every country in the Fulbright program is a little different. They have different requirements. Given my academic background and experiences, Nicaragua seemed like the most viable option.
This was a professor in Chile who helped you brainstorm and prepare the background study for research in Nicaragua?
He was my director of study abroad. He was actually a UCSB professor who was doing a 2-year contract as the director of the Chile program. He was really helpful, as was my thesis advisor at UCI who was immensely helpful as well. He was especially good at asking questions: what does this mean? Can you clarify this?
My honors’ advisor, too, offered guidance and support and was one of the individuals who helped write the letters of rec, and helped plant the seed.
So, when did the seed get planted? Was it at UCI? Was it in Chile?
I was in the Campuswide Honors Program when I was an undergraduate and I remember the end of my sophomore year hearing about 2 people in the honors program who had gotten a Fulbright. And I thought, that seems interesting, and then it didn’t cross my mind for a while until I was in Chile for my senior year when my honors’ advisor contacted me and said, have you considered a Fulbright?
How did SOP help you navigate the application process?
The process is pretty long. I looked through the website to find all the different resources. The pre-application deadline was in April and the campus deadline was August, so at first, I was pretty overwhelmed.
I found that the SOP online resources were so helpful. I spent a whole summer dedicated full-time to applying for the Fulbright, which led to the endorsement interview on campus in August.
SOP has a lot of resources on their website, and they are really on top of things. It was a grueling process but SOP was really good about having me submit multiple drafts of my project statement, personal statement and even my letters of recommendation were carefully read. They even suggested that I ask the director of the Honors Program to write a letter on my behalf. They discussed strategies for asking the right recommenders to increase my chances.
I believe that the endorsements were ultimately what allowed me to get the Fulbright. I cannot imagine applying at-large. I think I would be so overwhelmed and not know where to begin.
Tell me a little bit more about your experiences in Nicaragua. What happened when you first arrived? Where did you stay? What was a day in your life like? Who did you meet?
It was a little bit overwhelming at first. I stayed in the capital of Managua. When I applied for the Fulbright, I had to get a letter of affiliation from the host organization. If you are granted the award, these would be the organizations on the ground that would support you on location. My host institution was the Martin Luther King Institute at the Polytechnic University. They were really my main point of contact from day 1.
They actually picked me up at the airport. They brought me to their office, gave me my office space, and introduced me to the staff. I think that people don’t realize that a 10-month grant may sound like a long time, but it’s not. When you are actually there, it goes by so fast, especially when you are trying to execute a full-blown project.
How did you break down the project into doable parts? What role did the host organization play?
The first 3 months were really spent establishing contacts. My host reached out on my behalf telling the community, we have someone doing a research project; she’d love to set up an interview, and so for the first half, I interviewed with local civic organizations working in the electoral process and committed to transparency. I interviewed them asking them a lot of questions about the purpose of the national ID card for Nicaraguans; what was it used for? What are the obstacles to obtaining this? What are some issues behind it?
The importance of getting multiple perspectives
I always tried to make sure to interview people from different backgrounds because it definitely was more of a controversial topic, so I had to make sure that I was capturing different backgrounds. I interviewed a few young people from different political parties and actually from the Sandinista party, which is the party in power, and got to hear their perspective. And then, I interviewed a couple of other people from different political parties and understood what the different views were in respect to youth voting and the level of engagement and factors that might affect people’s engagement in society.
Then, the second half was more of a focus group approach, so I worked with a local contact and she was great because she worked with a lot of youth groups–young adults from ages 16 to their early 20’s–and we held a series of focus groups where I asked them questions, such as, what does it mean to be young in Nicaragua? What was your process for obtaining the national ID card?
Some of them shared their personal experiences with going and obtaining these cards and getting their right to vote. I found that the focus groups gave them a chance to interact with their peers in a more informal setting as opposed to 1-1 interviews that can be a little intimidating.
What did you learn as a result of this project?
I came into the project at an interesting time. Soon after I started, I found out that the president had actually changed the constitution and introduced new dynamics. In short, the impact of the ID card had to do with the region. Among the challenges for obtaining one, research showed that there were economic barriers; it actually cost money to get the card. Spending a whole day to get the card, taking time out of work, and when people live day to day, they don’t think about political engagement, so economics were a big factor. This, in turn, played into a lot of other categories. You may not have access to higher education, for example. There are so many layers to it.
Were there other Fulbrighters in the area?
There were 2 others that also went during my year, but they were in different regions. One went north of the capital, to Matagalpa, to do research on coffee farming; the other was way off in the Atlantic coast. We were all in different regions, but I did get to see them once or twice during a briefing or when they came to the capital for a conference. We met for coffee and talked about our research.
How comfortable are you with Spanish?
I’m fluent. It definitely helped to go to Chile for a year. I became fluent in Chilean Spanish and in Nicaragua, people were surprised. The stereotype is that Americans don’t speak very good Spanish, so they would ask, where are you from? Are you from Spain?
Having that experience in Chile and being confident in Spanish was so helpful in Nicaragua because there are situations when you have to be on your toes and having that local language adds an extra layer of comfort.
Did you feel safe?
Yes. I would tell students, you have to be aware of your surroundings. Managua is a big city, but I never had any issues. The biggest thing was talking to locals, especially other women. They would tell me, it’s okay to go here. They would give me advice on taking a taxi, for example, or what places to avoid after dark or general advice. I never felt unsafe but I also knew how to be cautious.
What advice would you give someone contemplating doing a Fulbright in South or Central America?
I talked a lot about research, but the Fulbright, more than anything, is a cultural exchange. They are looking for an individual who is open-minded, flexible, open to other cultures, who can engage with other cultures and can be a cultural ambassador to the US because the Fulbright program is funded by the Department of State.
It is seen almost as a citizen-diplomacy program. I would tell students, even if you don’t necessarily have experience in South America think of ways in which you can show how you’d be a good cultural ambassador. I think that’s what’s really important and maybe if they consider teaching, and they have teaching experience, bringing that experience to light, that would help. Or if they are looking at research, and they’ve done research on a certain topic, even if it’s in another region, it can still be relevant to South America. I would bring that up, too.
How can you convey in a personal statement, research proposal or teaching statement that you are all these things, open-minded, culturally aware, diverse, how does that come across?
I think there are two components to the Fulbright. I can’t speak as much to the ETA, since I did research, but I definitely would say, don’t discredit your personal statement. That’s really your place to tell your narrative. You start with sharing your experiences that demonstrate your cultural adaptability and your interest in the program because the Fulbright is not like any other program where you get a grant and focus on what it can do for you.
They are really looking for that mutual exchange. In my personal statement, I shared a lot about my experience in Chile, where I went, how I learned a lot, but I also discussed what I shared with locals there and emphasized that I built lasting friendships after my time in Chile. That’s what they are looking for, too. They are looking for someone who builds lasting connections.
Have you stayed in touch with people in Nicaragua?
I have. My host institution actually publishes a magazine and it’s all in Spanish but they write their abstract in English and they still send me pieces to translate from Spanish into English. They recently wrote a card inviting Angelina Jolie to their institution because they are interested in her work as a UN Peace Ambassador, and the mission of the institute I affiliated with was trying to create a culture of peace, so I translated that letter for them.
When you returned how did you connect with the DC opportunity?
When I did UCDC the summer after graduation, I was bitten by the DC bug. I wanted to move out here for work, and I actually found my current position through a staffing agency. My current position was supposed to be a month contract and luckily, they hired me full-time.
Are you working with the Fulbright program?
I’ve been back in D.C. for about a year and half. I’m actually working for the Institute of International Education. The program focuses on senior level professors and professionals who are going to exchanges abroad. The interesting aspect of this job is that it allows me to work on it from the other side. I’m with the scholar program.
The student program is based in the New York office, but the DC office works with the scholars, and I’m actually working on programs with the Europe-Eurasia region, which is a new region for me. I’ve had so much experience with Latin America, and I’m now learning about all these countries in Europe and the priorities for those countries as far as research and teaching, so it’s been a really interesting and growing experience.
How would you say the student and the scholar Fulbright programs differ?
I would say the student program is everything leading up to the Ph.D. and so the student program can be anything from recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree to still doing their dissertation and so they tend to be earlier on in their career. The scholar program is everything from recently received the Ph.D., onward, so we have everything from post-doctoral scholars to scholars distinguished in their fields and there are so many awards in the scholars program; some are teaching, some are doing research and some a combination of both which they can do through a visiting professorship at a university to an institution. Fulbright offers lots of opportunities for exchange.
It has definitely been life-transformative for me, and I encourage everyone to apply.
Eliza documented her Fulbright experience in Nicaragua. Click here to read her blog.
For questions about Eliza’s Fulbright experience in Nicaragua, she can be contacted at email@example.com
Nathan Gamarra graduated from UCI magna cum laude in 2013 with a B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. At UCI he worked in the training lab of Dr. Luis Mota-Bravo identifying patterns of antibiotic resistance in bacteria isolated from local oceans and worked towards developing new assays to rapidly detect antibiotics in environmental samples. In the summer of 2011, Nathan did research at Stanford University as part of the Amgen Scholars program. There he studied the biochemical mechanisms of RNA enzymes in the Herschlag lab. After returning to UCI, he joined Dr. Sheryl Tsai’s lab where he studied the molecular mechanisms of fungal enzymes that synthesize important antibiotics and toxins. Nathan is continuing his interest in enzyme mechanism in graduate school, where he is studying the mechanics of ATP-dependent chromatin remodeling enzymes at UC San Francisco. As an undergraduate, Nathan presented posters at several research conferences winning awards at the AAAS conference in 2011 and 2012. In addition to an NSF graduate research fellowship, he was also the recipient of the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research and the Laurence Mehlman Memorial Scholarship.
Below, we caught up with Nathan to learn about his studies after UCI. He shared invaluable tips on good choices he made early on that helped him become a very competitive candidate for the NSF.
How did you learn about the NSF?
Two ways: I went to an SOP information session on different scholarships.
I was also involved in a Minority Science Program (MSP) through the Ayala School of Biological Sciences at UCI. They are fantastic. This program supports students doing undergraduate research, and through them, I learned more about the NSF.
What role did the Minority Science Program play in applying to the NSF?
Dr. Marlene de la Cruz is the Associate Director, and Dr. Luis Mota-Bravo, is the Director of Outreach. They are the two people who run the program there, and they are funded by the National Institute of Health.
Their job is to get people from underrepresented backgrounds into Ph.D programs. So, the program is really geared towards getting people to that goal, and I credit them for all they’ve done to get me there.
When did you first hear about them?
They had sent me an email in my freshman year telling me that I should look into the MSP. I knew UCI was a research-focused university, so I was interested in finding out more and I went to one of their meetings. They told us about research and all the different possibilities that we could pursue. At the time, I was really interested in doing research as an undergraduate, so they set me up with a training lab, and that’s where I learned basic techniques, protocols and things like that.
From there, I worked in other research labs and expanded my experiences. Later, I applied for graduate school.
How many of your peers ended up taking advantage of the NSF or applying for it?
Very few, unfortunately. Many people are intimidated about applying to the NSF in their senior year. The problem is that the application is due at the end of October, right before graduate school applications are due in December. It is also a very competitive fellowship.
Lots of people who would have been very qualified for the NSF, did not apply because they were focused on classes and bunch of other things, but I felt like the application was very similar to a graduate school application, and I knew that I would be applying to graduate school so I essentially decided I was going to do it and it turned out that it worked, and it helped a lot in terms of getting to the schools that I got into.
When you started at UCI did you know that this is what you wanted to do?
No. I knew coming into UCI that I wanted to do something science-related, and I liked biology and chemistry as well. I was deciding between doing something medically-related and something more research-based.
I really liked the courses I was taking and I was interested in the academic aspect of things. Starting with the MSP research program led me down a path that ultimately worked out really well for me.
What are the steps involved in applying for the NSF?
You have your basic application, which includes, letters of rec, transcripts and you also have to write 2 statements. One is a personal one, and the other is a research proposal. The personal statement should address your background, how you got interested in doing science and research, and ultimately, it should touch on your career aspirations and what you’ve done to get there.
The other component is the research proposal. When you are applying as an undergraduate, it can be an intimidating process, but one that is worth it. You have to come up with a project proposal, explain how you would do it, address the results you expect to get, and if you don’t get what you expect, explain what you would do then. This second part is important to address.
It’s important to do as best as you can, but the people who are reviewing your research proposal, they understand that undergraduates don’t have that much experience. They are looking to see if you are actually thinking about what you are doing. The most important thing about your research at this point is that you can communicate what you intend to do. Looking back over it now, my research proposal is definitely not the ideal proposal.
Better to Apply to the NSF as an Undergraduate than as a Graduate Student
I think it is very important to apply as an undergraduate for the NSF fellowship if you are serious about going to graduate school. Having funding early makes your life significantly easier in graduate school since you don’t have to worry about applying for fellowships when you start your program. Applying early also helps your chances as many people don’t apply as an undergraduate. Even if you don’t get the fellowship, it is good practice for applying for the fellowship in graduate school and, since the NSF application is very similar to the graduate school application, it will make that application process a lot easier. Also if you don’t get the fellowship, there is a good chance of getting an honorable mention which will significantly improve your chances of getting the fellowship when you apply as a graduate student. This is really important since you have a limited amount of times you can apply as a grad student.
What graduate program did you decide on?
I am a Ph.D. student at UC San Francisco. Here, the first thing you do as a graduate student is apply for the NSF fellowship. This can be a very stressful process while you are taking classes and working in the lab. For me, having the funding made my transition to graduate school much easier.
If you have any interest in applying for graduate school, you should apply right away. Also, there is a limited number of times you can apply. I think if you apply during your undergraduate program, then you get a second opportunity once you get into a graduate program. All around, I think it’s a really good move for any student going into graduate school in the sciences to apply for the NSF.
Did you look for a mentor or coach to guide the research aspect of your proposal?
Yes, the 2 people in the minority science program coached me. I was working in an undergraduate research lab, (by the way, anyone applying should have worked in, at least, one research lab), and the professor I worked under there, she helped me formulate the research, which was based on my undergraduate project.
What advice would you give a freshman contemplating the sciences and wanting to become a competitive NSF candidate? What do you wish you had known when you first started at UCI and what advice do you have to offer?
Do research early and often and through as many opportunities as you can.
The number one thing that got me the fellowship and got me into graduate school was research experience. That’s one of the great things about UCI, is that it is so welcoming to students who want to do undergraduate research.
I think the biggest barrier as a freshman is intimidation, not knowing things, worrying about not fitting into a lab culture, but you find as soon as you start doing it, that people know and understand where you are. Most people, considering how diverse UCI is, have probably been in your shoes, and so they know that you will find a good lab and good mentors by just seeking them out; there are so many opportunities at UCI, that’s the best thing.
The specific research area does not matter that much. The most important thing is experiencing the lab culture and developing your network of people and research. Through that, you can start finding out if science is what you want to do.
How did you get involved with your first research project? Where did you look for opportunities?
I was super lucky. The MSP was really helpful in terms of helping me through that first barrier, which is getting a lab. The way that they do it is that they have their own training lab where they teach you to do very basic things and get you comfortable, and then after that, you can ask the professor to work in their lab and that’s what I ended up doing.
In addition to the MSP is there another program on campus that can help students prepare for research?
In addition to MSP, there is also, Camp at UCI, which is the California Alliance for Minority Participation. The three-week CAMP Summer Science Academy (CSSA) is a residential program that prepares incoming freshmen for the transition from high school to UCI. To learn more about this program click here.
CAMP is based out of engineering school and they support students across science disciplines. They also help you find people who can help you get into a research lab.
Advice to Freshmen going into the Sciences
I would suggest for the first quarter focus on your classes and on doing well.
The first quarter is a hard transition, but after a quarter or two, once you are comfortable with the academics, just find whatever way you can to get involved with research.
Go to these programs, which were, for me, super helpful. Work with the SOP program. Even if you don’t participate in MSP or CAMP, when you take classes that interest you, talk to professors and ask them if you can work with them. Most professors will be more than happy to help and have you in their lab. Or if they can’t, they may know of other labs that can hook you up with.
Other students found research tips by going online and googling a particular professor.
I didn’t participate in UROP, but lots of my friends did, and it is another great resource.
The Number One thing is Research-Use the Summers to Get Involved
Another thing I credit with my success is my summer research project in the biological sciences. Pretty much every university has an undergraduate research program that you can apply to, and they will pay for you to come out and do research in their lab for the summer.
It’s a really great experience to do research that is normally outside of what you do and most importantly, it is a great opportunity to get a letter of recommendation from someone outside of your university, which I think was a huge deal for me.
I did my undergraduate research program at Stanford for a summer.
It was a great experience. But, like the stress associated with applying to the NSF, some people stress out about applying to summer research programs, but if you get a chance to participate, you will learn invaluable training and you will build a network.
In my case, my Stanford experience got me a letter of recommendation from a professor at Stanford.
Prospective graduate programs definitely noticed. Whenever I interviewed for a graduate school, they asked about my time at Stanford and there were several people knew the professor and commented on the letter he wrote for me. The told me, good job! So it’s a huge plus to do that as well.
How competitive are summer research opportunities?
They can be competitive, but most summer research programs are really interested in supporting people who may not come from perfect backgrounds. They are really committed to increasing diversity and bringing underrepresented students into research and graduate programs.
I encourage everyone to apply.
The other great thing is that those summer research applications are really simple, one or two letters of recommendation and a short personal statement.
Do you pay out of pocket to fly?
The program I applied to paid for everything. The vast majority of programs do. If you apply to the bigger schools most will cover that. In short, this is a huge plus to your CV and applications.
What would you say to a student worried about maintaining a good GPA, and juggling lab, and research work? How to do all the extras and stay a strong student?
I mean, it’s super tough. It won’t be easy the first year.
As far as prioritizing, grades should come first.
I think you want to get things done in research but if you don’t have the grades, research will not matter. It is important, but you need the best grades you can get to get access to good things. Good grades will open more opportunities than maybe extra hours doing a small amount of research.
I would say grades first, but research is also very important.
During the quarters when I took really tough classes, I would come in at least 3 hours less per week because I knew I needed to work on my assignments. Most mentors will understand that your number one priority is classes at that point.
If you can get a project done and publish that would be amazing.
I didn’t do that but I know several people did and that counted for so much for them. However, if your priority is to get into graduate school and fellowships, having the best grades possible is the most important first step.
How did you decide on San Francisco?
It was a tough choice. I applied to many different schools and got into all of them. All the places that I applied to were equally strong in my research field, which made it very difficult to decide. I’d say a very big part in my decision was the location. San Francisco is a cool place to live. I think a big part of your decision should include considering where you see yourself enjoying your life. Having a place that you enjoy living is irreplaceable. It’s the whole experience. Equally important is the atmosphere of the graduate program and how well they support their students. UCSF is an incredibly collaborative and supportive place to work. You get a good feel for this when you interview at different Schools. Graduate school takes a long time to complete, so if you are going to spend 5 years living somewhere, it might as well be a place that you like.
If you would like to contact Nathan for any information on his experiences, please email him at: Nathan.firstname.lastname@example.org
John Naviaux graduated with the Chancellor’s Award of Distinction from UC Irvine in 2012 after receiving a B.S in Environmental Science and a B.A in Business Economics. He worked on a variety of projects while at Irvine that included the economics of urban bus pollution, the study of graviton decay at the Large Hadron Collider, and the optimization of electrode design in microbial fuel cells. After graduating, John spent a year abroad in Norway as a Fulbright Scholar studying mercury pollution in the Arctic. He received a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship upon returning and is currently in Caltech’s environmental engineering PhD program working on the chemistry of storing CO2 in the ocean as a means to combat climate change. In the future, John hopes to continue his research and work in environmental policy.
Recently, we caught up with John Naviaux to ask him about his experiences after winning both the Fulbright in Norway, and the NSF. Below, are his thoughts, experiences and tips on how to apply and how to enjoy these unique experiences. He hopes that those contemplating either a Fulbright in research or the NSF will find his story helpful. He is also available to answer questions regarding his experiences. Please see below.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your experiences with SOP.
Of course. Anything for UCI and the SOP office.
What Scholarships Did you Win? How did you Learn About Them?
Fulbright and NSF. Both, with the help of the SOP office. I learned about them because the scholarship office was sending out targeted emails. I was also part of the UCI CHP Honors Program, and they were also sending out emails telling us we should apply for these scholarships, and reminding us that we had a valuable resource in SOP.
How did you Work Together with SOP to figure Out Which Fellowships you Should Pursue?
I was contacted by someone in SOP who told me, “with your GPA and your honors background, you should apply to these opportunities.” I went in, and talked to them and they said they had a number of scholarships. We went over a few. The Rhodes scholarship, for example; I didn’t apply to that one. Rhodes requires 6-8 letters of recommendation, and I only really had personal relationships with 3-4 professors who would be able to write strong letters.
Then, there was the Fulbright and the NSF. Talking with SOP, we discussed what I had the best shot of winning. We went over my goals, and how my resume backed those up.
After going back and forth, SOP recommended the Fulbright and the NSF. Along the way, I figured out that a lot of the scholarships have similar requirements. So, while I was initially interested in the Fulbright, I realized that I could write about my research experience and propose projects and future goals that would work well if I decided to apply for the NSF.
So I decided to pursue both. I went to the SOP office and we started working on my personal statement. I ended writing almost the same personal statement for the NSF. With SOP’s suggestions and the work I had invested in the Fulbright application, I was able to adjust my applications, and incorporate tips that would be better for each.
So, Did you Apply at the Same Time?
I applied to both during the same year. That was part of the pitch that the scholarship office had: that all these things require similar applications, but not exactly the same, so I ended up working with one of my professors to have a different proposed project for the NSF than the one for the Fulbright, but the statement of purpose was very similar, with a similar research background and so I was able to change small things to apply for both.
Were you a Junior or a Senior at the Time of Application?
I was a senior when I applied. Part of the reason I applied then was that I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do after graduating. I thought grad school was a possibility, and this is what I’m doing now, but I wasn’t sure at the time and I wanted to apply to a lot of different opportunities and see what would work out. The SOP office pointed out that I could use my application to apply for graduate school, which was great, too.
SOP’s advice was invaluable in telling me, this works for this, this doesn’t for this one, and reiterating by going back and forth what would make for the strongest application and how. They suggested to me, change this, change that. It was worth it. I was able to adjust my statements to write winning applications.
How Did you Juggle the Fulbright and the NSF? Was there a Conflict of Timing?
Yes, but it ended up not being a problem. I found out about Fulbright, NSF and grad school all within a week of each other. They all want you to commit, so I talked with the different schools and the NSF director at each school along with the acceptance committee at each school and told them:
Look, I have all these things. I really want to do the Fulbright abroad in Norway. What can I do about this?
None of these schools had a problem at all. They said, not a problem we will just defer your admittance until you get back. The NSF is a 5-year scholarship, but only 3 of the years are paid and 2 of the years are for deferring, so it worked out because I was able to defer for the first year because of the Fulbright. I also accepted the NSF, and accepted Caltech as my graduate school of choice. They fund you the first year there so I was able to defer again and once the school funding ran out, I was able to start the NSF funding.
I was surprised by how easy the transitions were, and it really was because all these different academic communities are very supportive of these scholarships, and they want the students to have these things, so they were willing to work with me a lot in order for me to participate in all these different opportunities that did conflict in time, but worked out in the end.
Every school told me, yes, please go on your Fulbright. Come back. We will have a spot waiting for you. There was really no issue at all, especially for graduate school. They value their students having these experiences.
So, What did you do for your Fulbright? Where did you go? What was your experience like, and for how long?
My Fulbright was 10 months long, and I went to Norway. I stayed in the middle section of Norway working with a professor who was studying the presence of mercury in the environment, which worked well because I was interested in the Arctic environment. One of the things that was intimidating to me was that you are supposed to come up with a research project. Other Fulbrighters that I knew did have specific research projects. But for me, I was an economics undergrad who later added an earth science focus, so I knew I wanted to do earth science-related things. To get started, I looked at countries that I was interested in, and one of them was Norway. I looked at what the faculty were doing there, and found this professor and started thinking of a project that would be suitable to my interests. I learned he was researching mercury pollution in the environment. I thought, this is perfect. I thought of Norway, specifically, because it is in the Arctic. I would have easy access to the Arctic and that was what I was interested in. I was able to work with this professor and come up with an idea as opposed to coming in with a project that I wanted to do from the very beginning.
Where Did you Stay? Did you have any Language Barriers?
This question relates to why I decided on Norway. When it comes to the Fulbright, there are tons of countries you can apply to that have language requirements and others don’t. For me, I only speak English so that really cut out a bunch of countries. Like Germany and France, where you have to be fluent in those languages. Of English-speaking countries or with no language requirements there were: the UK, Australia, New Zealand and some Scandinavian countries. Editor’s Note: SOP maintains a list of countries with no language requirements that include other geographical regions.
When it came to choosing, I was systematic about the countries that I applied to. In terms of the UK, I looked at the number of applicants that applied vs the number of spots available, and for the UK there is something like 10 spots for 300 plus applicants. I also wasn’t interested in Australia or New Zealand. I looked at Scandinavian countries and they had a much smaller applicant pool per number of spots. The idea of going there, and the best odds for actually getting the scholarship influenced my decision.
They didn’t have a language requirement and as it turns out, once I knew that I had the Fulbright, I contacted the university and they were able to get me international student housing.
Did you have enough money from the award to pay for everything that you needed?
I did. It varies based on the country so my stipend was probably not as generous in terms of cost of living that perhaps helps students in South American countries, but I did not have a problem and neither did the other Fulbrighters in the area. We had food and housing and transportation was all paid for, and the only times I spent any of my own money was doing extra trips. Even then, it was easy to budget without spending my own money.
How long did it take you to adjust to Norway? Did you make friends right away? What was it like to adapt to a new society?
It was not difficult for me to adapt, partly because the Fulbright office is big on connecting you with other Fulbrighters, so the student body, and the location are two things to consider when applying and choosing a Fulbright location. I was in one of the universities where there were plenty of people who were my age and shared similar interests. And I was connected to the Fulbright organization and I learned there were 2 other Fulbrighters in my city. I got there and had an automatic network of Fulbrighters, and we did Fulbright events there. I’m still really good friends with them. I went to one of their weddings recently.
Meeting local students was also easy because I was in a university area. A contrasting story to mine: there was an English-teaching Fulbrighter who stayed in a really small town of like 200 people and it was harder to acclimate and get around. Someone’s experience will definitely be based on where they are in a certain country. When people ask me, what I should consider? I tell them:
You should consider what you want to do research-wise, but you should also consider the experience of the area that you are going to be in.
What was expected of you in terms of hours of work, and research projects, were you supposed to come up with something material by the time you concluded? Was a final presentation expected?
The Fulbright is very much a cultural exchange (in addition to the English-teaching or research exchange), so I am not sure how it is for other countries, but for the Norwegian experience, we had to write a mid-term report after 5 months. This was a 1-page statement saying, this is what we’ve done, and this is how we are adjusting. They had no pressure on having any set work done, or any kind of deliverable. With that said, conferences were encouraged and some were exclusive to Fulbright students. At the end of the year, all Fulbrighters get together and get to present on what they‘ve been up to. These presentations could be travel, cultural, or research-based. So it was not stressful to get these extras done.
Do you feel that you became a better researcher or gained more depth with your topic? Were you taught well by your mentors there?
Yes, I would say it was an incredibly valuable experience. I learned a lot about the specific topic of mercury in the Arctic. I also found it valuable to conduct research outside of the U.S. It was interesting to learn how different cultures deal with research and how they present in different research styles. It was also valuable trying to translate myself into another language because as a primary English speaker I had not done that before.
What did you notice as the biggest difference between research in Norway and research in the US?
To be honest the biggest difference was work/life balance. It’s kind of common in the US to have a 60 plus hour week. The stipend for similar work in Norway is not $30,000.
In Norway a graduate student is treated as a regular full-time researcher holding a 9-5 type job and the stipend is around $80,000. There are costs of living adjustments but research is treated as a full-time job and they are paid much more. I did not make that salary when I was in Norway. I got the US stipend.
It was interesting to see that the quality of research is very high, outputting a lot, while working significantly less. They really value productivity while you are at work, and once you are not, you no longer need to be at work.
I was also exposed to different styles of presenting. In the US when you present your research it is very much a pitch: this is why your findings are great and amazing. In Norway the style is more, here are the facts. How effective you think my facts are is up to the audience. Just being exposed to all of this was very interesting.
When you wrapped up the Fulbright you moved into the NSF opportunity. How did the transition take place?
I accepted the NSF at the same time I accepted the Fulbright. I was able to postpone it until grad school. It was really easy. Every year, they send you a message: please update your NSF status, so when I started grad school at Caltech I filled out the update and pressed the button to activate my status. And that was it.
So once the NSF gives you the funding for graduate school, are there specific research expectations due to them?
No. It is pretty much a blank check. When completing their application, you have to come up with a research project and plan. It does not have to be related at all with what you will end up doing. When I applied to the NSF, I was working in a microbial cell lab at UCI.
So my project/pitch was based on doing more research in this area. What I’m doing is important. What I plan to do in the future is this. But, once I got to Caltech I decided, okay, I’m not planning on that anymore but NSF does not care about that. Once you have proven that you are capable of thinking of a strong research idea and writing out a plan for it, once you get the award, they trust you will continue coming up with new research ideas that are not necessarily the same as the one you originally proposed.
Each year I write a quick paragraph or so updating the NSF on what I’ve done in the previous year. For my first year in Caltech, I wasn’t doing much research so for my update I told them I’ve been taking classes and started new projects. So now that I’m doing more research my updates are more research related. I’m working on ocean chemistry now. I’m still getting paid by the NSF, but it’s not related to my application at all. There is no expectation that it has to be.
What do you want to do with your degree?
For graduate school, I chose the California Institute of Technology. I’m getting my Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Engineering. I had several ideas that potentially interest me. Part of my research is doing ocean chemistry for CO2 capture. The idea is coming up with a way to take out CO2 out of the environment to combat global warming.
We are trying to start up a company based on the work we‘ve done to capture CO2 and put it into the ocean and store it there without changing the ocean chemistry. We are setting this up. We are exploring the possibility of a start-up company that works on this topic, which is a popular thing to do. There is also another possibility of working for government research labs or major companies. My approach so far is to see what opportunities come up.
How influential would you say that the Fulbright and the NSF have been to your development?
The NSF is invaluable. If you are a student and you have an NSF you can work pretty much at any university. Any university would want you as a student and any professor will work with you because you are free. As soon as you say that you have an NSF in your application all doors are open to you and you can do whatever you want with whoever you want. There are different professors who might turn away a student because the reality of funding in the academic world. “I’d like to work with you but, I can’t pay you.” But with the NSF you are paid for 3 years, so if you have your own research ideas a professor would support you because you are free or you’ll hop onto their project and they’ll love that because you are free. So, the NSF allowed me to switch between professors without any problems at all.
The Fulbright was also valuable in making your application stand out more. I would consider the Fulbright as an invaluable life experience. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That was one of the best 10 months of my life. It was probably not a huge research contributor because I’m doing different research. But, it reinforced the idea that this was the field of study that I was interested in. I was developing my interests in environmental health safety kind of research.
What Tips would you share with a Student Contemplating the Fulbright or the NSF?
Go for it. It may be intimidating to apply to multiple scholarships, but with a small amount of extra work I was able to apply to multiple opportunities. You don’t have anything to lose by applying. The worst thing that can happen is that you write your strongest application yet. You can always use it to apply for other opportunities, including graduate school. If you get it, then you’ll have an amazing experience living and studying in another country. Also, with the NSF you can do whatever you want, research-wise. Some Fulbrighters don’t go to graduate school, so it is not a requirement. Still, being paid to live and work in another country can be an incredible experience.
What Tips can you Offer for the Application Process?
Regarding the personal statement, I would listen to you guys in the scholarship office. I struggle a lot with personal statements. I had to rewrite mine like 10 times. Writing personal statements is a different experience for me. It is not how I write.
The other parts of the process depend on the student. I was pragmatic about the whole thing. For example, I can only speak English; I want to research in environmental science; I want the best options to get in. I looked at acceptance ratios and studied my chances to get in. I struggled between Norway and Sweden because both had interesting environmental programs, but I went with Norway because my chances to gain acceptance were higher. I knew that if I applied to Sweden and I didn’t get it, I would have kicked myself for missing a study abroad opportunity. If I didn’t go with the option that gave me the best chance, I would be very sad. Not everyone wants to be that pragmatic, though. Some people have a dream: I want to go to place x, and this is why. To them I would say, go for your dream. My goal was to study abroad in an environmental field. I looked at Norway’s universities and the faculty there and looked for what was most interesting to me.
What about Professor’s Letters?
Plan ahead! Once I knew I wanted to pursue this, I started cultivating relations with professors more intentionally. Since I was working with professors doing research already, that was one letter. A summer before I had worked with another so that was another letter. For my third, I started going to my organic chemistry professor’s office hours. Talking to her more about what I wanted to do and explaining my back story. I told her, I’m interested in doing this would you be willing to write a letter if we get to know each other and she agreed.
SOP’s help worked very nicely for me and my application process. Once I knew I wanted to apply it got easier. But it was intimidating to think about starting some of these applications because you always think you are not the best and you probably won’t get it so, why bother. I’m not sure how you overcome that hurdle. But I’m glad I did.
If you would like to contact John for advice on completing a Fulbright in Norway or the NSF process, he can be reached by email: email@example.com