Angela Shoemaker is currently on a Fulbright grant working on a documentary concerning Muslim youth culture, integration and issues of identity within Dutch society. She is based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands until June 2010 and is in the process of getting her masters degree in photography from Ohio University.

Being funded to work on a long-term documentary project of your choice in a foreign country – seriously, could it get any better?!

That is the wonderful gift of the Fulbright grant. In a time when internships are becoming fewer and jobs even harder to find, applying for grants is a great alternative. Through the Fulbright grant you are able to create a large body of work, form contacts overseas and gain experience working in a foreign country. 

There are thousands of people all over the United States, from every field of study imaginable; feverishly working on their applications as the deadline quickly approaches. For those of you applying this year, I thought I’d offer a few tips from my experience that I hope are helpful.

An American flag sits on the ridge overlooking a mountiantop removal site in Kayford, WV. The place where the flag sits used to be the lowest point in the area but now it is the highest. Appalachian culture and tradition is on the verge of extinction as large coal companies destroy the region at the rate of 100 tons of coal every two seconds.  (Angela Shoemaker)

The core purpose of the Fulbright grant is to promote international understanding through learning, so the topic you choose should highlight issues within the country from a fresh perspective and in a positive light. Not that you have to set out to produce a tourism ad but your proposal should emphasize the very best in what you hope to accomplish with your project. Of course, your research may lead you down a different path but focus on that after you get the grant. No country is going to support a project that sets out to make it look bad. 

Generally, the selection process has two parts. First, your proposal must be approved by the American Fulbright selection committee and then by the selection committee in the country you apply to. What surprised me was the American side rates your proposal based solely on your work sample while the country you apply to may or may not see the sample and bases their decision on your written proposal. (This was the case for me.) I mention this to show that both are equally important so take great care while working on all aspects of your application.

Kelsey Clay, 8, plays outside her home in Dry Creek, West Virginia where she and her three sisters live with their grandmother. Kelsey and her older sister suffer from asthma, which they believe is caused by dust from the coal silo dangerously close to their school. Massey coal company, which is also responsible for a 2.8 billion gallon coal sludge impoundment just up hill from the school, is likely to build a second silo only 300 feet from the school.  (Angela Shoemaker)

I asked a fellow grantee in the Netherlands, Morgan Levy, from Nevada City, CA, what she thought about the application process. Here is her insight on the writing portion of the grant. 

“Basically, Fulbright rewards grant writing skills. It doesn’t matter who you are, what school you graduated from, or what kind of project you are proposing – you just need to make what you do (no matter how outlandish) sound well-earned, reasonable and “sexy.” Even if sexy means just the most exciting thing in your life!” (Levy is in the Netherlands comparing water management practices in Dutch and California deltas through the Technische Universiteit Delft.

Levy suggests getting a do-it-yourself grant writing book or taking a look at grant proposals written by non-profits to get an understanding of the structure of “how people ask for what they want;” paying attention to things like timelines, places, money, goals, etc.

When working on my proposal, I scoured the Internet for examples of successful Fulbright grants to determine how mine stacked up and see if they included details I hadn’t thought of. This grant proposal is probably the most concise two pages you will ever write. Make sure every word of every sentence counts and check for any redundancy. Formulate a well thought out project description and give supporting evidence as to why it’s relevant now and why people should care.

Young girls from Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo play together in the children’s play area at Vive La Casa in Buffalo, New York. The children speak different languages but are still able to communicate and play together while their families wait to be admitted into Canada. Vive La Casa is the largest refugee shelter along the United States-Canadian border. Since its foundation in 1984, Vive has assisted over 63,000 refugees from 106 countries attempting to gain citizenship in Canada.   (Angela Shoemaker)

An invaluable addition to your application is the letter of support from a person or organization within the country you are applying to. Having a solid contact abroad can make all the difference. It reassures the selection committee you will be successful in completing your project by providing a certain amount of accountability. Keep trying if you don’t already have a letter!

I contacted several authors of the research material I had been reading and was lucky to find a sponsor that way. The person sponsoring me is a professor who is an expert on Islam in Western culture and has written several books on the subject. Not all sponsors have to be directly affiliated with a University. Consider a local photographer or photo agency for sponsorship.

For photographers and other visual or performing artists, the application has an additional work sample requirement in application. The only instruction for submitting photographic work is, “A maximum of 20 photographs.” There are no rules as to what you may enter so it’s completely open to your interpretation. I have no idea how others have organized their submission but for me it made since to separate the work into two different essays.

The first was an essay on immigrants seeking asylum in Canada because they were being deported from the United States. The second was on mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. I chose these pieces to show I am capable of working on longer projects and have the ability to gain access to closed communities – which I reaffirmed in my written proposal because it relates to my current project.

I’ve also heard of people submitting one large body of work on a single topic. It’s really up to you and what you feel represents your ability the best. Submitting singles is probably fine too but I would recommend submitting at least one story or essay to show you can work on a long-term project.

The American selection committee brings in “specialists” in photography to look at your work so you should choose your images with the same care and consideration you use when applying to contests and internships. Get advice from people whose opinion you trust. Edit tightly and throw out any weak or redundant images.

For those of you currently in the application process I wish you much luck and success! The hardest step is completing the application and you should feel proud for applying to a nationally competitive grant like the Fulbright. Feel free to contact me with any questions you may have.

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