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Exercising the Fellowships Application Muscle: An Interview with Doctoral Student Jeana Morrison

By Erica Levi Zelinger

March 3, 2015

For the last three weeks, Jeaná Morrison has been meeting with a Brazilian conversation partner – an au pair from Brazil who lives in Jenkintown – to sit down and practice her Portuguese. They discuss life in Brazil vs. life in America, family, and career goals.

Jeaná sought out this conversation network through Drexel’s English Learning Center, all part of her goal to obtain the Boren Fellowship to Brazil, where the 34-year old doctoral student in education wants to research Brazil’s rather new affirmative action policies in higher ed.

Jeaná is no stranger to seeking out opportunities to further her education: She was accepted into the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, which is part of the TRIO Program, a government initiative that provides low-income and underrepresented college students with research opportunities and preparation for PhD programs. She also worked for Upward Bound, another TRIO Program, which offers college prep services to low-income high school students. Encouraged by a mentor at her alma mater Temple, the Philadelphia-raised Jeaná immediately contacted the Fellowships Office when she arrived at Drexel.

She knew her research would have an international focus, and the Fellowships staff helped her narrow the awards that would allow her to do research abroad. Only she hadn’t decided on her research agenda yet, so she held off a year and stayed in touch with them. 

“Applying for fellowships is not an easy thing,” she says. “[The Fellowships Office] does a really good job of letting people know you need to build in time. You don’t realize how critical this is. Unless you are the 1 percent who plan for everything, but that isn’t me. Rona was super, super helpful with essay revisions and giving me feedback.”

Receiving the Boren Fellowship would provide Jeaná with the funding to travel to Brazil for up to 10 months in 2016 and conduct both research and Portuguese language study. 

But more than that, the application process has given Jeaná valuable lessons about planning for her future.

“Filling out the application is the easy part. It’s the essays that are the challenge. The first is your plan of study – what it will look like when you get there. Then there’s the one about your future. You’ve got this language component. You’ve got the research. But what will you do next? How does it connect with what you are going to do moving forward. I had to really think. And that is good practice.” 

She adds, “Applying for fellowships has allowed me to continue to think about my research plan. That process is super helpful as a doctoral student – people are always asking about what you are studying. It helps you hone in on an answer – I’ve gotten more succinct and more exact.”

And Jeaná credits the Fellowships Office for their helpfulness and support, adding, “They are a staff of three women so no woman should be deterred.” 

Education is already a gendered field and as a female scholar, she recognizes she will have to advocate for pay equal to her male colleagues.

“I will have to bust my butt to get more money to do the kind of international research that I want to do,” she recognizes. “That teaches me that although I may not make as much as those men, I’m still going to work hard. If I’m going to do it – I’m going to do it right.” 

And that is what is so impressive about Jeaná: her dedication to making this plan of education work.  She’s the only black female in a cohort of five in her PhD program and with many remote faculty, she doesn’t have a lot of black female professors to connect with in person.

Her advice for others applying for fellowships? 

“Just go for it,” she says proudly. “There are so many people applying. I’m one of thousands of applications they’ll receive. But take your shot. You might be that one. Don’t be afraid to do it.”

Applying for fellowships is a skill, says Jeaná. And since Jeaná also plans to apply for Fulbright, it is one worth forming. 

“I’ve been developing the muscle to cater my plan to specific fellowships.

Ultimately I will have to write a dissertation proposal so now I have a plan for that. And I’ve been in school all my life. It is something I like. I am not getting a PhD because it is something that someone told me to do. Now that I’m getting closer to the actual dissertation research, I think, ‘wow, I’m here. It’s a sense of accomplishment. It feels good. It’s been great.’”