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

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


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. 

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.

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