Students of Color: CURF is here for us too

Winning a Fulbright was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. It was March, and I had been anxiously checking my email every hour, even though I wasn’t expecting to get the Fulbright notification email for another week. I was planning an event with a friend at a café, and all of a sudden an email notification from Fulbright popped up. The subject line said “Congratulations on Your Fulbright U.S. Student Award” and I immediately freaked out. I began gasping and choking out my words in excitement to my friend, “Oh my God, oh my God!” I had done it. After spending hours upon hours reading, writing, and reaching out to professors through email across the Atlantic Ocean, my hard work had paid off. I was being paid to live in Paris, France for nine months to conduct my dissertation research. And that opportunity begins in just a few short weeks!

If that story sounds enticing, I encourage you to apply for a Fulbright Grant or a different fellowship through CURF. When I saw that Penn News had published an article with picture of all of this year’s Fulbright recipients, I was disappointed to see that I was the only Black student among the group. I know that CURF has issues with graduate students not knowing that CURF is here to serve them too, I also know that Black students have unique challenges related to accessing institutional resources. I am here to state that CURF is a department with kind, dedicated, and whip smart people who want to see all students succeed. Lauren Orr, the Fulbright Program Coordinator, was my first point of contact after I decided I wanted to win a Fulbright grant last May. When I expressed that France was likely too competitive for me to win, and that I might be better off applying elsewhere, she encouraged me to apply for the country that was best suited to my research -- France. I was also concerned that since I had not yet begun the strenuous process of finding an overseas advisor and fully developing my project, I was already too far behind. Lauren assured me that students spoke with her at my stage – the genesis – and had gone on to win. I’m so glad that I listened to her. I left her office with my head held high, convinced that I could win a Fulbright to study in Paris if I worked hard enough.

This post applies to any student who wants to go after a competitive fellowship, but I especially want to encourage students of color. I am a sociologist, and research appeals to me when looking for evidence for social problems. Numerous studies show that we face barriers and experience stress that other groups in higher education do not. Because we look at images of people winning competitive awards and do not see ourselves, we may count ourselves out. If you take nothing else from this message, let it be this: never count yourself out. Before you apply, you are already at “no” because you haven’t applied. Go for the “yes”. Go for it and know that your success will also encourage other students who come after you. Go for it because CURF is an office dedicated to assisting you every step of the way. It is my hope that next spring, many more students of color will experience the same flood of joy and pride that I did when I received that email – and have their picture posted in Penn News.

Sonita Moss is a doctoral candidate in the sociology department. Her dissertation research focuses on the contemporary experience of Black Americans living in Paris, France. She is a 2017-2018 Fulbright U.S. Research Grant Finalist.