Dear Young Storyteller and Novice Researcher,
Written by Maureen Nicol
You applied for Fulbright National Geographic Award 2018 competition.
You worked on the application tirelessly for six months. You had people who exposed your vulnerability to your peers. They critiqued your intimate personal essay that held your past, present and future.
You shared your photography with the world for the first time because yes, you take photos but are too frightened to share anything besides the photos of yourself on social media. You felt proud of the images that captured the stories of the people you encountered on your travels.
You read the fine print of the Fulbright application. The FAQs. The suggestions. Contacted previous Fulbright scholars. The Fulbright committee at your school, University of Texas at Austin said, “Wow! Your application is strong! Your mix of research, photographs and storytelling is so human and smart!”
So, after crafting a personal statement, composing a project proposal, writing a summary of skills, assembling letters of reference, creating a portfolio review and conducting country research for stakeholders, you hit submit. You were emotionally and intellectually exhausted. You dedicated countless hours and over a year to this project. You did it with a smile and felt really good about it. You drank a glass of Summer Water Rosé that tasted like the serenest summer day as you also swallowed the endless possibilities ahead.
You did not make any plans for 2018-2019 because you felt confident about your application. You believed your application was good and of course you would get selected to do research and photoethnography in Sierra Leone, Ghana and Kenya for nine months with the support of National Geographic and Fulbright. You had the experience, the passion and the curiosity to make your project happen and change the way people thought about Africa and its people through your photos and stories.
You hit submit on your application in August 2017. In January 2018, you received an email from Fulbright that began with, “I regret to inform you.” You did not continue reading. You marked the email as “trash.” You sent a text to your boyfriend and best friend that said, “I did not get Fulbright.” You felt confused. Then like a failure. Then angry. Then confused. And then sad. You made up reasons as to why they did not pick you. You emailed the Fulbright committee at UT Austin and the national Fulbright committee demanding answers as to why you were not selected. You needed to know.
The project proposal and application was one of the first times your professional career, personal passions, future, past and present all decoupaged into something you believed was truly beautiful and you felt as if the world disagreed when you were not selected. You questioned yourself.
You went to the chair of your department at UT Austin and cried as you said, “I (tears) did (more tears) not get (the most tears) get Fulbright.” She smiled and handed you box of Kleenex and bowl of Snickers.
She did not say, “You deserved it” or “That’s a shame” or “Their loss” like many other people you had told. She looked at you and said,
“You are a brilliant young researcher and storyteller and the world needs you. So how can you turn this rejection into something good? How can you apply your project to something else? How can you make your application even better for next year? Your application was filled with so much passion and emotion. So now you know this is the topic for you and even though Fulbright did not pick you, you were able to pick you. You were able to figure out your research. How lucky you are!”
You cried more because she was right and you did not know why you did not see it that way before meeting with her. She was right, you do have a passion for research that highlights people from the African diaspora that goes beyond Fulbright and a fellowship. You are this work - you will do this work now and in the future. This “failure” though devastating, still informed your future as it brought a stark relief what your passion truly is.
You can learn from a rejection after the hurt. You can win even when you fail because the learning experience is invaluable. It is never a zero sum game.
Hey young researcher and storyteller, you can experience failure and still trust you are still good enough.
You are good enough.
Maureen Nicol is a PhD student at University of Texas at Austin studying Early Childhood Education. Previous to being in the PhD program she taught for several years in D.C., Tanzania and New Orleans. Originally from the D.C/MD area, she now just calls the world home because traveling is one of her passions. Maureen enjoys being in nature, reading, eating her way through new places and connecting with people in a deeper way. In her research, work and everyday life she is motivated to know more about every person she meets because she believes the connections between people and the new understandings that develop through these curiosities is what builds compassion and love for others. Maureen proudly identifies as first generation, Black woman in America. Her dog, Toulouse, parents and two sisters keep her laughing and keep her humble.