Fellowships and Heartbreak

The last time I got my heart broken, I mean, broken broken was March 2018. I will never forget it, although I can’t access those feelings anymore, I remember what devastation felt like. I felt the world spin around me, I cried uncontrollably, I couldn’t breathe, and no matter what I did it felt like the pain would never go away.

In November 2018 and 2019 I submitted an application to the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. (You should definitely look into this if you’re a first generation immigrant or an American emigrant). I had never heard of the program before but a friend recommended the fellowship and once I started reading about their mission and values I fell in love with the program. I thought to myself “yup, this the one, let’s get it.”

As I read through the bios of all the previous winners and their amazing accomplishments from Rhodes, Fulbrights, first author science papers, CEOs, New York Times best sellers, I started comparing my story to their stories and to put it lightly, at best, I didn’t feel good enough. I felt like I didn’t have a good story to share and that I hadn’t accomplished nearly as many things as they had. The first time I applied, in hindsight, I recognize that I applied from a place of insecurity. Hoping and praying I’d get accepted to validate that I am good enough, that I was just as much of a bad a#! as the selected fellows.

But my second application? Boyyyyyyyyyyyyyy, YOU COULDN’T TELL ME NOTHIN.

rejection letter

I started early. I talked to my friends and family and did a lot of soul searching to find my authentic story,and what I wanted to center my application around. My letters of recommendation were bullet proof, you couldn’t have paid anyone to write a stronger recommendation on my behalf. EVERYONE was rooting for me, my advisor, first mentors, Fulbright family, I mean I had a VILLAGE. And when I didn’t even get selected for an INTERVIEW, I ain’t even make it to semi-finals, everyone, my whole team FELT it. This was the last year I was eligible to apply because if you know ANYTHING about me you know I’d be working on my third application if I could! LOL.

So THIS rejection – hurt. Low key, reading this felt like “Dear Chiamaka,  thank you for sharing all you’ve got to give, but it’s still not good enough.” I mean, it felt like straight up heartbreak. And my colleagues would say “well you don’t need the funding, you already have Fulbright, you’ve done this, you’ve done that.” And what people fail to realize time and time again, is these types of fellowships, that resonate with us, especially  as underrepresented students, it’s not about the award or being seen, it is 100% personal. It’s about the community and the values, what these programs represent. It’s about telling our stories and sharing our struggles and how we overcome them to make the world a better place for the next generation. I mean c’mon son, I’m in a fully funded Ph.D. program, I don’t NEED any additional funding, I just wanted to be apart of this group, period.

So I cried, hard. I mean, I took a couple of days and then my mom collected me ALL the way together and said [listen, what’s meant for you is yours. You weren’t selected for Soros because it’s not meant for you. That would change your journey and your trajectory in a way that you don’t know or understand but you don’t need to. Trust that whatever manifests and unfolds in your present experience is what’s meant for you. So when you don’t win something, you should celebrate! Because you’re still on the path that’s meant for YOU]. *Mic drop* I mean what else can one do but accept that as the truth? Hindsight is 2020 and I cannot tell you how many times things I viewed as failures ended up working out in ways I could never have even dreamed of!

Hell, my journey to my Ph.D. program was exactly that. Over 30 rejected applications which ultimately resulted in me joining an amazing lab as a technician which got me the only two publications I have, then a free Master’s degree in an equally supportive lab which was literally the catalyst to me winning a Fulbright and living one of the BEST years of my life abroad to then join a lab as a Ph.D. student that I absolutely love. I was the first student to join my advisor’s lab; had I started my Ph.D. one fraction of a second earlier, he wouldn’t have even been at the University of Michigan. Anyway, I’m sure y’all can think of a million and one examples of where things worked out for the best when it didn’t feel that way in the moment.

So, why am I writing this blog? Well, today the 2020 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows were announched. You know it’s funny, not winning this fellowship legit felt like a break up. I’d been working on this application for so long that every google drive, every USB, every journal, everywhere I turned there were remnants of my application prep, a bitter reminder of my failure. But, when they announced the winners today, I surprisingly felt okay. Like, I felt good. I felt… good enough. I felt complete and whole. I felt like “I don’t need this fellowship. It would have been a lovely accessory, but I’m a winner by nature.”  And man, what a liberating feeling. To feel good enough, to feel empowered by yourself.

So I’m sharing this story to say, failures will come, wins will come. Neither of those things define you. You are responsible for building and uplifiting yourself, nobody else.  I’m sharing this because social media is typically a highlight reel and I want people to know that it’s OKAY when you lose. You should not feel ashamed or embarrassed by it, and we gon’ change that status quo. In fact, per my mom’s advice, you should CELEBRATE every thing that shows up on your journey because it makes you who you are, and you are always worth celebrating.

Never thought an application would elicit the same feelings as a heartbreak but today, it’s clear as day, I was meant to go through this process to reclaim my power, to remember that I’ve always been good enough and I always will be. Period’t.

(P.S. I’m doing a 30 day yoga challenge and today’s theme is “uplift” …so here I am, writing an uplifting story lol).

With Love,
Chi-Chi

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