Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mary Elvira Stevens....and me

Dear, dear readers:

Guess what! It's been just about five years exactly since I left Boston for a trip down the proverbial  Patagonian Road. Armed with a red backpack (generously "lent" to me by my brother), a copy of Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express (very worn by now but still intact!), and way too many clothes (isn't that always the way?), I boarded a plane for Guatemala City and opened a Blogger account. Patagonian Road was born.

Now, five years later, my life is what it is because of that Latin American year: I moved to New Mexico, a place that reminded me of the countries I'd fallen in love with. I kept up with my Spanish and also became an English teacher, permanently - a path I'd embarked upon during my Latin American year. I wrote a book, and it's being published next year by the Santa Fe Writers Project. 

And for all of this, I have Mary Elvira Stevens and Wellesley College to thank. I couldn't have ever taken this trip without the funding of the MES Fellowship, and if you're a Wellesley alum, I encourage you to apply. A rumor's been circulating for years now that you need to be under 26 and unmarried to get the fellowship - WRONG! You only need be a W alum...and you need to be at LEAST 25, which I think is smart. You're too reckless otherwise.

And if you're not a W alum...fret not! Countless other funding avenues beckon, from World Teach and the Fulbright Fellowships to a Watson and beyond. The point is, the money is there if you're willing to search, apply, wait, interview, wait, and maybe reapply. Same goes for the MES, Wendies - if you don't get it the first time, try, try again! For example, Meredith Sorensen applied twice, and her application - and, ultimately, her trip - improved as a result.

So I'll leave you with this, dear readers: my Mary Elvira Stevens personal statement. Over the years, many have reached out for it, and many more might like to see it. W or not W, dear readers, may you use my humble (but hey! ultimately successful!) stumblings as inspiration for the personal statements YOU write when YOU apply for travel dinero.

A note: I won't share my proposal, because frankly, it's inaccurate now, and anyway, it's tedious to read. And I won't share the budget, because it's outdated and probably, let's face it, not relevant here on my blog. (But my words of wisdom about grant budgeting are these: take your time, do your research, and pad. Pad. They could always give you less - and make it clear that you're okay with that. Individual inquiries related to my budgeting are welcome...visit my website to contact me. )

Without further adieu, my Mary Elvira Stevens Fellowship application's personal statement.


After graduating from Wellesley, I worked as as a front-desk receptionist at a hotel for six months, until I had enough money to purchase a ticket to Asia. I traveled alone there for six months, beginning my journey in Hong Kong and visiting Thailand, Laos, and India. I spent the most time in India, where I worked on organic farms, practiced yoga in ashrams, hiked in the Himalayas, and wrote. I fell in love with India’s crazy beauty, and the mix of exhilaration and fear I constantly felt there has fueled my writing ever since. I found that even the poorest people I met were willing to share what they had and always treated me with kindness, albeit not without some stares. I found it incredible that so many people could exist together in such close quarters, that hundreds of languages were alive in one country, and most of all that the Indian culture is truly an enduring one, whose roots will grow over any imperialist influences that have come along. Indeed, being in India changed my life and gave me something transformative to explore in my writing.

When my visa in India expired, I moved back to Cambridge and have worked full-time for the past year and a half as an associate editor for a small publishing company. I also began to pursue an MFA in Writing from Vermont College. The program requires that I attend twenty days of classes, lectures, and workshops in Montpelier annually. Between my trips to Vermont, I mail forty pages of writing monthly to an advisor, and receive letters and my marked-up work in response. My goal is to teach in a college classroom, since the MFA is considered to be a terminal degree.

Each day I sense that my time in India is slipping further and further away from me. I have to remind myself sometimes to close my eyes and remember being on those noisy streets, or on a beach with loping cows, or in those echoing mountains, where each day contained something I’d never seen, and never would again. My advisor, writer Philip Graham, wrote these words last night on his blog:

“The unsettling immediacy of travel heightens our awareness and encourages unexpected insight, and when one is able to lean into the strange pull of another country or culture, one’s inner landscape is correspondingly altered.” 

The trip I’ve outlined in my proposal will not only boost my credibility as a teacher and allow me to learn another language, but will also provide this unsettling sense of immediacy and the unexpected insight that fuels my writing. Because of my experiences in Asia, I know that a new place, a different place, will transform my internal landscape, forever rich in my mind and filling the page.

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