Since returning from my Fulbright-mtvU year in Mexico, my conversations with applicants have reminded me of just how daunted I was by the application process. Somewhere in Mexico – between playing in a mariachi band, staring in awe at Diego Rivera’s murals and exploring Aztec ruins – I managed to forget all of the hours I had spent researching project ideas, writing and scrapping drafts and revising my essays. One step in particular was so confusing that it nearly led me to crumple up those drafts and quit. How was I supposed to get a letter of support from a Mexican institution when I had never been there before? Although Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (or ETAs) are assigned their host institutions and don’t need to obtain affiliations, Fulbright-mtvU and Fulbright research or study applications require letters of affiliation.
Securing an affiliation is one of the hardest parts of completing a Fulbright application, but I think it’s meant to be that way. Your affiliation letter shows Fulbright reviewers that: (1) you have really thought your project through; (2) you’ve made contact with people in your desired host country; and (3) they have found your project feasible and worthwhile enough to write a letter in support of it. In a way, your affiliated institution is your “pre-screening committee.”
But don’t crumple up those drafts! Securing an affiliation actually turned out to be surprisingly easy. It just took a little bit of planning and patience. The process was so easy, in fact, that I decided to spring for two affiliations instead of one (since my project took place in two Mexican cities). Here’s how I found them:
1) Check out the Fulbright U.S. Student Program website for details on the affiliation requirements. Each country has its own requirements. In some places, you can affiliate with only universities or laboratories. In others, libraries, non-governmental organizations, artists, laboratories, conservatories, or writers are also o.k.
2) Don’t worry if you don’t know anyone in your host country. Many grantees don’t. There are other ways to find potential affiliations. Ask your professors. Google is your friend. Do a little detective work to find out who might take an interest in your research. Since I wanted to make audio documentaries about urban Mexican musicians, I emailed anthropologists and asked them for the names of Mexican ethnomusicologists and radio producers. Most academics in the U.S. and abroad are familiar with the Fulbright Program and are happy to help you. The Fulbright student and scholar directories are also helpful ways to find contacts in your proposed host country.
3) Have a well-defined project idea by the time you make contact. You don’t have to know all of your project’s details. After all, your confirmed affiliation might end up influencing where and what you study, but know enough to be able to make a good sales pitch.
4) Don’t wait for emails! Pick up the phone. A lot of great mentors are out there and willing to work with you, but many of them don’t have time or are not able to answer emails quickly. Instead, call them and introduce yourself. Acknowledge what you know about their work and make a cheery pitch for your project. In my case, after calling several institutions in search of my affiliation’s phone number, I finally reached him at his home. We wound up talking for an hour, and within a week, I had an express mailed letter with his warm endorsement and signature in my hands.
5) Once you’ve made contact, offer to send your affiliation a copy of your project statement (or rough outline) so they have all the details for writing their letter. It doesn’t have to be long and amazing, just a few clear sentences expressing support of you and your project. Ask that they write it on institutional letterhead.
6) Give yourself enough time to do steps 1-5 so that you can give your future mentor plenty of time to write and send your letter.
Once in Mexico, I found that every Fulbright grantee had a different relationship with their host affiliations. Some worked with them everyday; others, like me, met or emailed with them every few months. In my case, my mentors helped me find more contacts and resources in local musical circles. They kept me updated on events that were relevant to my project. Nothing was required of me on a regular basis, but it was up to me to steer my project. Whenever I needed my mentors’ help, all I had to do was ask.
Photo: Katie Day Good, 2008-2009, Mexico, with her mariachi teacher, Pedro Gutierrez, at the School of Mexican Music in Mexico City.