Tips for the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

There’s a long answer and a short answer to the question How do you become a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow? The short answer is, plain and simply, that I don’t really know. 

But no one reads a post for the short answer. So here’s the long answer, but first, a disclaimer: I can’t tell anyone how to get the fellowship. In fact, I officially began my tenure as a FB-NatGeo fellow two weeks ago. To even write this post feels a bit like hubris, because I’m giving advice on something I haven’t fully (or even halfway) experienced. 

But like I said, I've gotten a lot of emails with questions. So I’m going to use this post to very cautiously offer a few nuggets of information that I think might be helpful. These opinions are solely my own—I don’t speak for the Fulbright Program, or the IIE, or the ECA, or National Geographic, or the Department of State (those are some of the entities that will be looking at your applications, by the way). I’ll leave the comments on this post open for the time being, so if you have any questions feel free to leave a comment or send me a tweet (@thistimeitsmimi).

Onwards (be prepared, this is quite long):

So what’s this fellowship all about? 

The fellowship is a chance for Americans to leave the States for 9 months and tell a compelling story using new media/technology. The only requirements are that you propose something interesting, engage with the themes (see the website to learn more about them), come up with a project takes places in up to three countries outside of the US, and that you have a college degree by the time you begin the fellowship. Obviously you’ll have to fill out an admittedly long and grueling application, but its still a great opportunity. 


What do I get from it?

It's a chance to work, fully-funded, on a project that you care about for a full 9 months, which is not too shabby of a deal. You also get a materials stipend, as well as guidance/mentorship from National Geographic. And of course, you are posting content on the National Geographic website that can take a variety of forms. 


So the project belongs to National Geographic?

No, not at all. It’s your own project, you retain all rights to it. Once the fellowship is over, you can do whatever you please with it. National Geographic does have the rights over anything that you post on their site, and they can distribute that and use it across any of their platforms. But it’s up to you to choose what it is you're posting, and what aspects and perspectives of your project you’re sharing. The particulars on that are something I’ll be ironing out over the year, so tune in here and at my soon-to-be-functioning project page to see what that ends up looking like. 

Nat Geo also gets the right of first refusal on anything that you write about the project, so you'll have to pitch your ideas to them before you pitch to any other media. Having said that, if they do refuse, you can distribute your content wherever you like. 


What’s the deal with the affiliations? 

As part of the application, you need to either submit a list of affiliations who have agreed to work with you or get an official letter of affiliation from an institution. Institution can be interpreted broadly—it can be a person, university, organization, non-profit, really anything or anyone that can provide you with some sort of support for the project. When I applied, I submitted a list of affiliations, and it was only after I was chosen that I had to provide an official letter of affiliation (for the curious, my affiliation is with the very cool IED department of the Royal College of Art).  


What should I put in my portfolio/Statement of Grant Purpose/Personal statement?

Okay, so this is how I thought of it when I was applying. The best project you can propose is one that is creative and explores a story while still being demonstrative of your particular skillset and interests. So when I was applying, I thought of the application as a chance to do these five things:

  1. Pitch a project

  2. Convey why the project you’re proposing is important

  3. Explain why all relevant parties should be interested in it 

  4. Show why YOU are the one who is best equipped to tell the story you want to tell

  5. Describe how you intend to carry it out effectively

Everything the application asks of you is really just supporting those five aims. The SoGP is about laying out the logistics and explaining why it’s important; the personal statement is about explaining your personal investment in the project and  showing why you’re the right person; the work sample is about proving that you can do the things that you’re proposing by showing things you’ve done in the past. 


No, but really, let's talk about that work sample. I don’t have a background in film/documentary/photography. Can I still apply? 

Here’s all I can say: this certainly isn’t a documentary or photography fellowship. Yes, one of the current fellows happens to be making a documentary for his project, but that doesn’t mean that you have to have made one before in order to do this. It also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t propose a documentary if that’s your strength—it’s the application as a whole that matters, and if your project is best served by a documentary, then there you go.

But no, you don’t need to have been a photographer or filmmaker all your life. It certainly helps if you have some idea of and familiarity with digital tools and creative ways to tell your story, and if you don’t have any background in that, then you'll need to think a little bit more about the story and how you can tell it in a way that fits that nebulous phrase of "digital storytelling". But it’s not just about the technology; it’s about the whole package. Creativity and a compelling project are the most important things. And you do get some guidance from Nat Geo along the way on materials, tools, and how to tell your story, so there’s a bit of room for flexibility. 


What do you think of _______ project idea that I have? 

Hmm, I don’t know. Has it been done before? Can you do it? Does it fit into the themes? Is it interesting? If your idea answers those questions in the right ways, you’re probably off to a good start. I’m not one of the judges, so unfortunately I’m not well-equipped to tell anyone if their idea is good or bad. 


How come you can choose up to three countries but all of the finalists from this year are only going to one country?

As part of the Statement of Grant Purpose, you have to outline the logistics for your project. And as someone who was initially planning to go to three countries, I’ll point out that as difficult as it is to come up with a cogent project in one country and spin up the affiliations to support it, it’s three times as hard to do it for three countries. In addition, nine months is not a very long time, so if you’re going to be going to multiple places, you’ve really got to think about if you can realistically do all the things you want to do in the necessarily shorter amount of time you’ll have in each. 

Having said that, you should absolutely propose a project that takes place in more than one country if it makes sense for you. Don’t shy away from it if it’s what you want to do, it works well, and you can justify why you’re doing it. 


But Mimi, what’s YOUR project? And how can I learn more about it? 

Best question of the day! My project falls in the fields of digital ethnography, art, mapping, urban spaces and online/offline interactions. It’s all about where people in the city of London go, and how and whether those people get opportunities to interact with those who are different than them; I’m exploring these issues  in the context of the city and of the web.

More specifically, I’ll be gathering together a demographically diverse group of Londoners and using their mobile/computer browsing history and personal geolocation information to create visualizations/maps that show where each of these individuals travels online and offline. With this information, I'l be able to make inquiries into if the structural realities of urban offline spaces are replicated online. I'll be supplementing this with qualitative insights from my participants, and hopefully I'll be doing a few mini-projects along the way that tease out other interesting threads that emerge from the project.

If you want to be kept in the loop (and you should, because it's a fun loop), there are three things you can do: 

  1. Follow me on Twitter. Very easy way to stay connected to all the things I'll be doing. 

  2. Return happily and frequently to this very site, where I'll be writing longform entries on the same topics the project covers. 

  3. Visit my soon-to-be-functioning project tumblr. It's not much now, but soon it'll be the place where I throw up all types of research, findings, and progress on the project. 

In the future, the fourth very exciting thing you’ll be able to do is check out the page on National Geographic where all of us will be posting about our projects. Unfortunately, that space is not currently set up yet, but once it is I’ll both update this post and share the link on Twitter. 


Any final tips?

I'd tentatively suggest choosing countries that weren't covered this year, but not if doing so would mean changing a crazy good project that you've already got planned. And think of your audience--your two big sells are Fulbright and Nat-Geo, so keep that in mind. 

Okay, that’s all I’ve got. I’ll leave the comments open on this post, so like I said, leave a comment or shoot me a tweet if you’ve got questions. 

Good luck to you all!