The art of the application: How one ASU researcher and activist became a Ford Fellow

Distinguished Graduate Fellowships initiative helps Sarra Tekola in her pursuit of a Ford Foundation Fellowship

January 14, 2019

For this installment of ASU Now’s "culture of pursuit" series, we interview Sarra Tekola, recent awardee of the highly competitive and distinguished Ford Foundation Fellowship. 

The Ford Foundation awards research-funding fellowships to both predoctoral and postdoctoral researchers. Tekola is a PhD student in the School of Sustainability. She took advantage of ASU’s support of Ford Fellowship applicants via the Graduate College's Distinguished Graduate Fellowships Initiative, developed in partnership with the Office of National Scholarship Advisement at Barrett.  Tekola attended information sessions and writing workshops, in addition to other rigorous pursuits in the process of strategically writing, reviewing, revising, and, then redoing the whole process over again and again, until her Ford application was perfect.  Ford Fellow Sarra Tekola lectures on climate justice with her group, Women of Color Speak Out, at the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle. Photo by FB @Renotography, IG @_Renotography Download Full Image

Here, Tekola shares her advice on what it takes to produce a winning application for a competitive fellowship that hovers around a 5 percent success rate.

Question: What motivated you to apply for an award as competitive and distinguished as a Ford Foundation Fellowship?

Answer: Before applying to graduate school, I checked out the fellowships available to me, and most of them didn’t really fit because my research is so interdisciplinary. Really, it’s the first of its kind— the topic that I’m studying is colonization in western culture and how it effects climate change. So, for example, my research spans through sociology, psychology, geography, political ecology, and I’m in the discipline of sustainability. Most of the other fellowships wouldn’t be able to understand or handle all of that. So, when I read the Ford Fellowship description — of what they were looking for — I really felt like that was me. I knew I had to apply for it because there wasn’t another fellowship that applied to my work like it did.

Q: When did you apply, and how did you win?

A: I applied twice, actually. The first time I applied was in my first year of graduate school. I heard about the fellowship the first time two weeks before it was due. The goals of the fellowship just really spoke to me — and not just because of my research. I do a lot of work within communities of color and underrepresented communities. Ford not only values that work, but they actually require it.  Ford requires that you work with marginalized communities, that you show engagement with these populations. Well, I knew I had that part down as far as the essays went.

There were three essays that I had to write. But, for the research essay part of the application, I didn’t really have my research nailed down yet in my first year. But, I put something together anyway, and I managed to get honorable mention. That encouraged me. I knew that I was on to something but that I had to get my research nailed down. I also knew that if I took more time to write, I’d have a better chance. So, I applied again in my second year. But, this time I started my application in August — the deadline is in December. I spent months writing and rewriting. I revised all of the essays that I had written the first time. I went back and looked at the feedback that the reviewers had given me, and I incorporated their feedback into my new essays. I completely changed my research essay.

And, then, the Graduate College offered an info session on Ford. I attended that. And, there was a lot of interest expressed at that info session. Then, they offered a writing workshop for the Ford Fellowship, and I attended that, as well. Also, there were some Ford reviewers who were also professors at ASU. I kind of hounded them down, emailed them, and got them to look over my essays. I also got both of my advisors in my committee to look over my essays. So, I really did it differently my second time around and gave the application the attention it deserved, and I think that’s why this time around I got a different result.

Q: Is there anything that you wish you would’ve known at the beginning of your application process?

A: Well, for the first time I applied, really knowing how much time it takes to do it right. It takes months. Over those months that I wrote my second application, I kept coming back to it over and over and adding new things and changing things. Also, I think it’s necessary to go out and find at least five researchers or professionals to look over your essays. The Graduate College will help with this through their workshops — and it’s really helpful. But you should also take ownership, as well, and go out find researchers and professionals to help. Each of my reviewers pointed out different things in different ways.  I had people from different disciplines that gave varying perspectives, and I think that helped, as well. 

Q: If you had one piece of advice for your fellow graduate students and postdoc researchers regarding their current and future careers, what would it be?

A: You should have a drive to always be looking for fellowships, always be looking for opportunities. It’s part of the quest for knowledge. When you’re in graduate school or in a post-doc fellowship, it’s not enough just to work on your research.  You need to always be looking for ways to expand your opportunities. I’m always applying to fellowships, research experiences, conferences, other opportunities. A lot of these opportunities are only available while you’re attending or working in graduate school. So, my advice is to always be looking for opportunities and applying to get those opportunities. 

Q: Do you have an idea of what you’d like to do once you receive your doctorate?

A: I’m looking into teaching. I definitely want to make sure that I stay rooted in community and stay accessible to support marginalized communities. Coming from my own background, I’m a first-generation college student. I went through community college, and I couldn’t have gotten here without the support programs and the mentors that I had. So, I want to make sure that I also support that. I’m looking into either teaching at a community college and possibly creating my own non-profit based around community-based participatory research. Or, I’d be interested in working at a university that deals with the publish or perish issue in a way that doesn’t disconnect professors from community.  If I could find a forward-thinking university that valued my community work equally to my publications, then that’s what I’d want to do. Otherwise, it’ll probably some sort of combination of community college and non-profit or government work.

Q: How do you deal with career-related stress and anxiety?

A: Well, for me, I probably take a different approach from most Ford Fellows and academics. I really don’t stress about academics, per se. For me, it’s really more about the impact. One of the things that’s really important to me is staying rooted in community. I don’t want to lose touch with community because I want to stay relevant. Sometimes I see scientists get caught in the lab so much that they forget how to impact communities. But staying in touch with community also helps me with stress because I always know that just as I take care of community, community takes care of me. They’re there for me when I’m stressed. And, also, career-wise, being connected in a lot of different ways with different communities has helped my career. I know people in government, people in non-profits, other sectors — because of all of the work that I do outside of academia. They help with the career support that I need, and that helps with stress, too. So, staying rooted in community is how I deal with stress.

Graduate Fellowships Advisor, Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarships Advisement

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Letting in the light: ASU, artist James Turrell to partner on masterwork in the desert

January 14, 2019

Collaboration will make Roden Crater — a creation of light and perception inside a dormant volcano — accessible to many in the future, will add academic component

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.

One of the most important large-scale artworks in the world sits in the desert of northern Arizona, where artist James Turrell has spent decades shaping the landscape into an immersive observatory.

His creation, Roden Crater, is a masterwork of light and perception inside a dormant volcano.

A new and innovative partnership between Turrell and Arizona State University will help complete the artist’s magnum opus on the edge of the Painted Desert, making it accessible to many more people in the future and developing an academic component for Turrell to share his artistic vision and inspire transdisciplinary approaches to creativity. The enterprise seeks to raise at least $200 million to preserve Turrell’s legacy by building infrastructure at the site, including a visitor center, and ensure conservation of one of the nation’s most renowned cultural assets.

ASU and the Skystone Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money and operates Roden Crater, are in the midst of a yearlong planning process, funded by an anonymous gift of $1.8 million, to determine the scope of the project and pilot academic programs. An online course is now being developed with Turrell, and four lab courses are under way this spring in which ASU students will visit the site.

Video by Klaus Obermeyer/

Turrell’s work at Roden Crater is a fusion of art, engineering, astronomy, architecture and neuroscience, and that approach is a natural fit with ASU, according to Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“This one project is one of the best examples of an interdisciplinary exploration that we have,” he said.

“It’s a remarkable artistic and aesthetic expression, a remarkable feat of engineering, a remarkably reflective and contemplative space in a world that seems to be very hurried. It takes you out of your normal routine and puts you into a transformational space to experience the world.”

Tepper, who is helping lead the yearlong planning process, said that when completed, the project will be the first significant academic enterprise built around a singular piece of art.

“We saw all the ways it could connect with so many of our disciplines: sustainability, archeology, geology, astronomy, tourism, landscape architecture,” he said.

The project evolved after Turrell invited ASU President Michael Crow to the site last year to discuss a partnership. Michael Govan, president of the Skystone Foundation, is the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Last year, ASU entered into a partnership with LACMA to increase diversity among museum professionals.

Tepper said that Turrell is interested in accelerating completion of his project, creating new opportunities for teaching and learning, and ensuring access for future generations of visitors. The goal is for the ASU Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising unit of ASU, to help raise at least $200 million to complete the artistic vision within the crater and to build the infrastructure to support visitors in the future. 

The site, which is about a half-hour drive from Flagstaff, is on a dirt road. Inside the crater, which is a volcanic cinder cone, one will have a chance to experience a number of tunnels, rooms and spaces that are mind-altering in their impact.

“It’s been designed to the quarter inch, with each of the 23 spaces envisioned with full awareness of how it’s physically oriented to the cosmos and what is trying to be captured,” Tepper said.

Turrell, 75, who was born in California, is a pilot. He spent years flying around the Southwest to find the perfect site for his project and bought the site in the volcanic field near Sunset Crater in the late 1970s. He has been working on it ever since.

One of the installations at Roden Crater is a 900-foot-long tunnel that acts as a pinhole camera that visitors walk through. The experience is “mind-bending,” according to Kelly Fielder, a master’s degree student in the youth theater program in the Herberger Institute. She was among a handful of students who visited the site last fall in the inaugural lab class.

“I wish more words existed so I could use them to convey what it’s like,” she said.

“You’re walking along this really long tunnel and finally you reach this moment when you realize that you’ve been looking at the sky the whole time but you didn’t understand that until you reach a certain point. For me, it was almost a spiritual experience.”

In another viewing experience, visitors lie down to view the rim of the crater and then gaze upward.

“And then, you start to perceive the sky the way it actually exists and not the way our mind interprets it and you realize the sky is really a big oval on top of you,” Fielder said.

The true experience of Roden Crater is not so much the earth, the structures or the architectural interventions James has created inside, according to Olga Viso, a senior adviser to Tepper who is the liaison between ASU and the Skystone Foundation. She is a renowned independent curator and arts consultant who has known Turrell for years.

“As James likes to say, the work is really about you seeing yourself seeing,” she said.

“He’s creating conditions that allow you to pause, to sense, to isolate specific experiences like understanding the amplification of your own voice or of tracing the path or arc of the sun or moon across the landscape.”

Viso said that one of the planned installations will be a spherical space that, at certain times of the day, will project the adjacent Painted Desert into the crater, bringing this breathtaking exterior landscape inside and into the viewer’s field of perception.

The course that Fielder took was called “Volcanic Arts and Sciences,” taught by Lance Gharavi, a professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, and Ed Garnero, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“The class was all about finding the intersection between volcanic sciences and art and blending those to create a showcase performance that we will be performing in February,” Fielder said. “It was an interesting experience in combining different areas of art and science.”

That’s the kind of innovative collaboration that Roden Crater will inspire, Tepper said.

“That’s why James is interested in working with ASU — he wants this artwork to not be exclusive but to be generative of ideas and open to people who otherwise might not experience it, and open to people in other fields,” he said.

The academic work has been exciting for Turrell, Viso noted.

“He’s said it’s a fantastic learning experience ...” she said. “Working closely with an academic institution and with students is pushing him into areas of inquiry that he hadn’t anticipated.”

Viso is involved in working out details of what the site might look like, with a visitor and discovery center that educates participants on Turrell’s body of work as well as the volcanic, geologic and human history of the region. She said the hope is that Roden Crater will also boost tourism and provide economic development opportunities in the area, drawing visitors from around the world.

One of the field lab classes under way this semester is called “Indigenous Stories and Sky Science,” which is significant because the crater is located in the ancestral homelands of a variety of indigenous groups, including the Hopi and Navajo peoples. The course is taught by Wanda Dalla Costa, Institute Professor in the Herberger Institute, an architect and a member of the Saddle Lake First Nation in Alberta, Canada.

“James Turrell is one of the masters who’s not an architect but is an influential figure in architecture because it’s all about the perception, which is what we’re aiming to create in the best-case scenario,” she said.

“He’s very interested in seeing where the synergies are between what he’s done with light and perception and land art and the indigenous worldview.”

Dalla Costa teaches through an indigenous lens, which means collaborating with people from the local community. Her course will include talks by a Navajo math professor who teaches about the Navajo science of astronomy and an archeologist who is from the Hopi reservation, among others.

“They will help us navigate and mediate those sensitive cultural-knowledge boundaries, because it’s really important for me to get this right,” she said.

“We’ll ask ourselves, ‘Whose story is this, and how do we make it have value for the community?’”

Like all the field labs, her class will visit Roden Crater, but to give context, she’ll take the class to other locations in the Navajo and Hopi communities as well. The work will culminate in an exhibition.

“A lot of what we’re studying is representation and how we’re doing a service to contemporary representation and how we can make that authentic,” she said. “I think our exhibition will be an exploration and communication on how we’ve had this science here for a long time.”

While completion of Roden Crater is likely several years away, Viso said that this is a good time for the ASU community to be reminded of the power of Turrell’s work by visiting “Air Apparent,” just northeast of Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4 on the Tempe campus. The work, part of Turrell’s Skyspace series, was installed in 2012 and is open to the public 24 hours a day.

“Air Apparent” is best enjoyed at sunrise and sunset, when the changing effects of light can be observed over time, Viso said.

“James is trying to show us that the sky, the earth, humanity and everything around us are in a constant state of evolution and transformation.”

Top photo: Alpha (East) Tunnel looking toward the East Portal at Roden Crater. Copyright James Turrell/Photo by Klaus Obermeyer

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News