The breaking point is now.
Ask any graduating senior — these few months, this final semester, is when things are finally beginning to fall into place for post-graduate life. It’s a scary time. There are a lot of decisions to be made, a lot of leaps into the metaphorical void, all of which involve a placing a great deal of trust in yourself, your mind and your abilities. It is, of course, far easier said than done.
Often, plans for after graduation must be made the year prior, especially if one intends to apply for a prestigious scholarship. That process begins anew every May. The Honors and Scholars Fellowship Office opens its doors for the next class of potential scholars — generally sophomores, juniors, seniors and recent graduates —applying for awards such as the Rhodes, the Marshall, the Gates Cambridge and more. That way, students have a head start to begin the nerve-wracking process of gathering letters of recommendation and writing personal essays.
Rewind to July 2018
English and political science double major Jess Wong was gearing up for her final year in college and staring down the road at the many forking paths she might explore once she graduated. Confident that she eventually wanted to obtain an MFA in creative writing, her English concentration, she also knew that she wouldn’t want to enter grad school right off the bat. She began to investigate options for a gap year.
Her search brought her to the Fellowship Office and to Corey Efron. Aware that she might have better prospects applying for political science-related fellowships, Jess was torn between the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program and the Fulbright Program, both of which would involve teaching English abroad — something she had also done for a first-grade class during her study abroad semester in Prague the previous autumn.
She explains, “[Efron] asked me why I wasn’t on his ‘list’ for Fulbright. I was like, ‘What list?’ He said, ‘My list? From the info sessions back in May?’ I think I just gave him a blank stare. Long story short, I was three months behind the other applicants and had to bust my butt to crank out personal statements and find letters of recommendation.”
Five or six drafts of personal statements later, she began putting together her application. She submitted it in early October, and the waiting game began.
Founded in 1946 by United States Senator J. William Fulbright, the program is one of the most prestigious and widely recognized in the world. It provides 8,000 grants each year to competitively selected applicants. Fifty-nine Fulbright alumni have won Nobel Prizes, 72 have been McArthur Fellows (known as the “Genius Grant”), and 82 have won Pulitzers. A hallmark of international exchange, the Fulbright Program and its participants help foster bilateral relationships between the United States and the international community through the interchange of education and culture.
If selected, Jess would be joining the ranks of Fulbright alumni such as Rita Dove, Sylvia Plath, Edward Albee and Philip Schultz.
Jess applied to teach English, but the Fulbright offers multiple types of awards. One can apply for a study or research grant, which generally involve either independent study or enrollment in an international graduate program. There are also English Teaching Awards (ETA), Jess’s ticket. These grantees are placed in schools oversees to aid local teachers in English instruction and to provide the presence of a native speaker in these classrooms. Finally, there are specialized programs: the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship and the Fulbright-Fogarty Award in Public Health.
Jess knew she wanted to be placed in East Asia. She is Chinese-American, and so at first, she was considering programs in China. However, depending on the country, some Fulbright grants require various levels of foreign language proficiency. China is one of these; an intermediate level of Mandarin is required no matter where in the country one is placed.
“My family is from this tiny town near Taishan,” she says, “and people there speak Taishanese (what we call Hoisan-wa) and Cantonese, on top of Mandarin. I never learned Mandarin.”
In her personal statement, she described how she researches the cultures of East Asia on her own in order to connect with her heritage. Her research led her to consider South Korea as a potential Fulbright destination.
“South Korea really intrigued me,” she says, “because it shares things with China, like language — Korean has Chinese loan words — and culture, but it’s so different at the same time.”
Jess received a notification that her application had been approved by the Fulbright screening committee in the U.S. She was now a semifinalist; her application was sent to Korea for final approval.
This liminal time, between when she was notified of her semifinalist status and when she would hear the final word from South Korea, was a very anxious one. “I could still get rejected past this point, if South Korea sees my application and says ‘No,’” she explains. “I’m so used to getting runner-up or honorable mention in everything I apply for.”
Two months later, in March, Jess traveled with a friend to Texas for spring break. They were on a hike when her phone buzzed with an email notification. In the car, she read the message: she was a finalist. The pieces had fallen into place. Her post-graduate path had finally been illuminated.
“I think I started screaming in the car and then immediately called my best friends, my sisters, and my parents,” she says. “I didn’t expect to be a finalist at all. Receiving the news was super validating for me.”
In July, Jess will travel to South Korea to be an English teaching assistant. She will live there for thirteen months and will be doing something she really loves: helping kids with their speaking, reading and writing skills. She is also excited to possibly volunteer in orphanages — “I’d love to spend some time with the kids and bring some games and books to interact with them” — and to explore larger cities, such as Seoul and Busan, as well as Jeju Island and other places off the beaten path.
Reflecting upon her time teaching English in Prague, Jess says, “I got to help the teacher craft lesson plans and grade homework and, of course, interact with the kids, who were so, so enthusiastic about English. I definitely fell in love with teaching and working with children, so Fulbright is a great fit for me.”
In hindsight, Jess is confident that her personal statements made a big difference in whether she and other applicants were accepted as finalists. “My background in writing is probably a huge factor in what got me to this point,” she says. “I think it’s helpful being in the creative writing concentration. I feel like I’ve learned how to be analytical and creatively problem solve. Having fellow English majors read my writing and give me critique is so invaluable; my English advisor, too, was instrumental.”