Arctic Dreams: Making It Through the Fulbright Application Process

For the past year, I’ve carried Barry Lopez’s book Arctic Dreams with me wherever I go. I read it slowly over the course of last summer, one chapter at a time. Re-reading, taking notes, thinking about it. Dreaming. Always dreaming, sweating in the Maine summer heat and reading about ice floes, polar bears, polar explorers and the profound human connection to the Far Northern landscape. The contrast between the book and my immediate surroundings could hardly have been greater, but I plugged away at it, sneaking in a few pages during lunch hours and photocopying the best passages, taping them up on my wall. “Goodnight,” a friend used to bid me farewell in the evenings, “and sweet Arctic dreams.”

‘This Boreal Night,’ from my recent series ‘Origins’

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Over a year ago, I started the long and intensive process of applying for a Fulbright grant for the 2014-2015 academic year. My ideas were chaotic in the beginning – Greenland, Canada, or Svalbard were all thoughts, with ideas ranging from full-time study to documentary research to independent art project. Over the course of about six months, I met with a Fulbright advisor at RISD, in person or over the phone, almost weekly, and we narrowed it down. Two meetings in, I chose Canada, who would accept me even as a graduating senior. Over the summer in Maine, I would get up around dawn, bike to the local coffee shop and work on my application before breakfast. My advisor tore apart my proposal time and time again, pushing me harder than any teacher ever had. She was ruthless; nothing was ever good enough. In desperate need of real affiliations, I called people, schools, and administrative offices across Canada. Most of them never returned my calls; the ones that did were so far away that it was almost impossible to hear them over the phone. It took about four months to track down people who, although I’d never met them, were willing to help me. Slowly, the proposal became vaguely possible, vaguely convincing.

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By the end of the summer, I had a concrete destination, multiple affiliations confirmed on paper, and the most concise two-page document I had ever written. I actually traveled to the Alaskan Arctic in August, using my experiences and observations to fill in the gaps. I wrote my personal statement in the back of a bush plane soaring across the Brooks Range. My project proposal was highly specific, concise, and feasible, with real outcomes, a plan to make them happen no matter what, and signed letters from people and institutions willing to help. At RISD in late September, I was interviewed by a panel of academics who vigorously questioned every sentence, with intimidating intensity, then politely wished me luck and ushered me out the door. This was followed by five months of silence.

“You accept the possibility of death in such situations, prepare for it, and then forget about it,” Lopez wrote, of sailing for the edge of an ice pack in an oncoming storm. So it was that I accepted the possibility of failure. I didn’t really think about it, once the proposal was submitted. In February, I was notified that I had passed the first round of the application process. With no idea what that meant, or how many rounds there actually were, I briefly celebrated, and proceeded to plan concretely for the event of total failure, trying to line myself up with a job and a plan post-graduation.

Fate, however, had other ideas. The evening before my senior thesis critique, I received an email that I had been selected for a 2014-2015 U.S. Student Fulbright Award to Canada. My heart stopped for a moment. I’ll admit that I screamed aloud, and immediately called my parents. Then I sat in disbelief, teary-eyed, amazed that anyone, especially the U.S. Department of State, believed in my crazy ideas enough to actually make them happen.

So it goes. In rare cases, a peculiar combination of huge dreams, optimism, steady hard work, and immense perseverance will actually achieve something real. In September, I will leave for Toronto, spending two months working with professors in Photography and Indigenous Visual Culture at Ontario College of Art & Design University (OCAD U), doing research and preparing to go North. I will then spend four months in the town of Arctic Bay on Baffin Island, creating a photographic series about features of the landscape that have held mythic and cultural significance for thousands of years, and people’s relationship to them in a contemporary context. My hope is to be in Arctic Bay from the last day of sun in November until the day it rises again in February – then the last two months will be spent back at OCAD, scanning, printing, and creating a traveling exhibition that, while specific, should ultimately convey the cultural relevance of the Arctic landscape to inhabitants of the Circumpolar North on an international scale. A big goal, I know, but evidently you never know until you try. Even if it falls somewhat short of this, it’s going to be good.

So, dear readers, here you have my new life plan. I am moving to Canada, and to the Arctic, with a camera and a dream. A new chapter is beginning, one surely fraught with challenge and surprise, but hopefully adventure, friendship, and creativity, too (and, yes, a lot of cold and darkness).  I was recently struck by this passage from Arctic Dreams on polar explorers of the past centuries: “Behind the polite and abstemious journal entries of British naval officers, behind the self-conscious prose of dashing explorers, were the lives of courageous, bewildered, and dreaming people.”  The particular combination of adjectives struck a chord.

Courageous, bewildered, and dreaming.

Note: The views and information presented are my own and not necessarily those of the Fulbright Program or the Department of State. This blog is purely my own and is not an official Department of State publication. 

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4 thoughts on “Arctic Dreams: Making It Through the Fulbright Application Process

  1. Congratulations is not a big enough word!
    I’ve been reading and re-reading Arctic Dreams also, for roughly the last 12 months. I really don’t think I’ll ever be “finished” with it.
    Good luck with your Canadian adventure and work.

  2. Thanks guys. Albert – I don’t think I’ll ever be finished with Arctic Dreams, either. It’s become almost a bible of sorts – always something new and profound to reflect upon with each visit… glad to hear I’m not alone :)

  3. I’m but a mere follower of your blog, but I don’t care, this is amazing! You are really an inspiration for me. Thank you for sharing all that you do. I’m so excited to see what this year holds for you.

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