31 October 2009

2009-10-31: Annie's application II


I spent a quiet day at Tasty Bites finishing my application for the Annie's Homegrown Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship. Though my morale flagged somewhat when I reviewed my unsuccessful applications from last year, I managed to write what I think was a good Personal Statement about my career motivations and my views on sustainable agriculture. I e-mailed the application uneventfully and spent the evening at home doing... more writing! (Blog writing. I won't start on the next fellowship application until next week.)

Main text:

At least this morning I didn't wake up too late but still tired and say "Ugh, I should get going to Makoka." Instead, I woke up too late but still tired and said "Ugh, I should get working on my scholarship application."

Despite the fact that all I had to do today was sit in a cafe and type, it still took me a while to get out of the house. My goal for today was to convince the Annie's Homegrown Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship Committee to give me money. I had already written a complete draft of the application, but the Personal Statement was still similar to the one I wrote last year, and last year they didn't give me a dime, so revisions were in order.

* * * * *

Goodness, Zomba was lively this morning. A beautiful sunny Saturday in October is the perfect day for weddings, golf tournaments, and many other things, all of which seemed to be happening in town. The golf course is on my way to Tasty Bites, and indeed it was crawling with golfers today, as Mrs Mkandawiri had said it would be. No sign of the president, though - perhaps he was at Gymkhana Club drinking a toast to the eventual victor.

(When I say "golf course" you probably think of manicured emerald lawns. Erase that image from your mind. Zomba's golf course is not watered during the dry season, so in October it is scruffy brown grass scattered with dead leaves.)

A wedding convoy drove past, horns honking in rhythm, newlyweds waving triumphantly from a black convertible. The groom wore a charcoal-coloured suit, and the bride a white gown and a white pearl headdress. Following their car was a minibus containing the wedding party, which I thought looked funny - one doesn't normally see a minibus full of suits and ties. Although traditional marriage ceremonies are still sometimes practised in Malawi, Western-style weddings are very common, especially in towns and cities.

Even Tasty Bites was busier than usual. It is just across the river from the golf course, and the waiter explained that spectators from the golf tournament had been stopping by for refreshments. Knowing my habit of staying all day with my laptop, he told me "If lunchtime is very busy, maybe we ask you to give your table to someone else."

Aw, rats. I wanted to be able to settle down and spend six uninterrupted hours begging for money. But of course I said OK, ordered my usual egg and chips, and got to work.

* * * * *

I started out by writing a cover letter and converting all my finished documents to PDFs, so that they were ready to send. Now, the last and hardest task remained: writing the personal statement. Annie's wanted to know, in three pages or less: why I'd chosen my field of study; what I thought "sustainable agriculture" meant; my future plans; and the expected impact of my work. I found it a little hard to tie these ideas together coherently. The beginning was not so hard:

From my early childhood in Australia, the plants around me have provided the context for my life. ItÕs no surprise that I developed an enduring interest in agriculture when I was helping my mother shell broad-beans at age five, helping my grandfather tackle ferocious brambles at age ten, and honing mango-harvesting skills at age fifteen. How can one not be interested in agriculture? IsnÕt that like not being interested in breathing?

In the process of writing the rest of the essay, I dug out some of last year's applications to see if I could recycle ideas from them. (Last year I applied for six fellowships - each application carefuly wrought and polished, and approved by my professors - but got nothing). I opened my personal statement from last year's Switzer Environmental Fellowship, searching for a particular paragraph, and ended up reading the whole thing from beginning to end. It was really good! Interesting, articulate, touching - I had worked so hard on it. And they utterly rejected me; I didn't even get an interview. This was disheartening. I wanted to cry. What's the point? Did I really want to spend a hundred hours again this year accomplishing nothing?

"You can't give up," I told myself, "you don't have a choice." Well, I suppose accumulating debt is a choice, though not a very appealing one.

* * * * *

I wrangled with the personal statement all afternoon (fortunately no one asked me to give up my table), and when five o'clock came around, I was finishing the final paragraphs. Whew, I would still have time to get to the Internet cafe before six.

I felt pretty good about it - the statement was exactly the right length, answered their questions coherently, and seemed crisper than last year's. I felt odd not to have described my actual research in more detail, but they really didn't ask for it; perhaps that had been my mistake last year. I tried to sum up by saying:

Improving the long-term productivity of agriculture through the application of ecological principles is not only intellectually compelling for me, but personally compelling as well. I always feel this acutely when I walk down the long dirt road to Makoka Research Station, with laughing, chattering schoolchildren following in my wake. I find myself thinking about their future: I hope that they never go hungry. I hope their parents have enough money to pay their school fees. I hope their young country gives them opportunities for prosperity when they grow up. Fundamentally, this all depends upon agriculture Ð productive, profitable, socially just, ecologically sensible agriculture.

All right, time to go! I paid my bill for one egg & chips, one piece of chocolate cake, and two cups of tea. I hurried across town to All Seasons, reached their door by 5:40, and by 5:45 my application was sent.

Well, that was a bit anticlimactic. Since the application was submitted not through a webpage but just as an e-mail with attachments, I didn't get a confirmation of any kind; my days of hard work just disappeared into the cyber-void. And I wouldn't hear a word from the Annie's Scholarship Committee for six months. It was time to forget about Annie's and start thinking about the next challenge.

* * * * *

As soon as I got home, I started looking at the material for my next fellowship application: the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Dissertation Fellowship, due November 16. Unlike the Annie's scholarship, which is cheerfully informal and open-ended, the AAUW Dissertation Fellowship is a Prestigious Fellowship That Makes You Jump Through Many Hoops. I didn't apply last year, so I'll have to start from scratch; a lot more essay-writing (and rewriting) awaits me in the near future. I will start working on the AAUW application next week. For now, a break.

I spent the rest of the evening tenaciously ploughing through some overdue blog entries. Since I had already spent the entire day writing, I was rather tired of it, but a blogger's gotta do what a blogger's got to do.

All right, that's enough writing about writing. I just hope my dream about the Annie's scholarship will come true!

Chichewa word of the day: mphaka = cat; aphaka = cats
(note: the "h" is not pronounced; it sounds like "mpaka.")


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