A Strong Handshake

I read a blog yesterday about improving your body language. Since writing my book, I have been working on all my communication skills and it is essential to be aware of your body language. If your message is strong but your body language is weak, the message is lost. The blog said, 

When first introduced to a leader, we immediately and unconsciously assess him or her for warmth and authority…. So the best leadership strategy is to embody both sets of traits—and to do so early and often.

What body language conveys authority? Good posture, taking up space, a firm handshake and a purposeful stride.

The part about the handshake resonated with me. I don't know how it came to me, but when was preparing to do my first panel interview for the Rotary Scholarship, I resolved to stride confidently into the room and greet each person with a firm handshake and a smile. Perhaps because handshakes have always been scary to me (I have sweaty hands), this action took a lot of buildup. It made an excellent impression, however. In every interview since, I have made sure to give a good handshake. 

First impressions matter a lot. Everything from your grammar to your handshake give cues to your audience about your character. If handshakes are scary for you too, try practicing them with a friend. One great way I get to practice is by participating in Toastmasters. Every time you get up to speak, the Toastmaster leading the meeting shakes your hand to welcome you and shakes your hand to finish. It's a way to recognize each other and add formality to the role you are taking on. It's a reminder that you are a professional (in whatever field you practice), and that you should be treated as such. 

Handshakes have become less common in some crowds, but I think it's an important way to bridge generations and reminds you that you should be taken seriously. Give it a try sometime!

Ten Minutes a Day

I've said for a long time that I wanted to learn guitar. I thought I'd have time to do it when my husband and I lived in a National Park (where there was no internet, tv or cell reception). I certainly had the time, but I didn't dedicate the time. Last month, an event renewed my interest in making this goal happen. I voiced my interest to my dad, a musician, and within a few weeks, he turned up at my door with a guitar he'd bought for me. 

That evening, I kept in mind that I'd pick up the guitar and start learning as soon as I finished making dinner . . . as soon as dinner was cleaned up . . . as soon as I'd put my daughter to bed. And you can probably guess, I never got around to playing that evening. The time in the evenings is just too tight. 

So what did I do? I brought the guitar to work with me the next day and just pulled it out for ten minutes during my lunch break. I only practice about ten minutes a day, and only on week days, but it's beginning to pay off (thanks to YouTube tutorials and encouragement from my patient coworkers). 

So how does this relate to getting funded? If you wait until you HAVE the time to work on researching or preparing your application, it's never going to get done. You have a leg up in that you don't need to buy the instrument to get started. You already have what you need! So find that ten minutes in your day that you can use to make an investment in yourself. 

Make the Most of Your College Resources

I often tell people that by the time I was a senior in college, I had finally figured out the system. That's right, it took me three whole years to understand the amazing resources available on a campus. But by that time, it was almost over. I even asked my mom, "Can I please stay one more year??" Guess what she said. So let me share some of the things that you should be doing as a college student to make the most of your experience. 

1) Check to see if your college has a fellowships adviser or fellowships office. My college had an amazing program in which students had to apply to work with the fellowships office. You had to show that you were serious about doing the work involved to get an award. Most campuses have at least a fellowship adviser available to consult with students. 

2) Meet with as many faculty about your field of interest as possible. Say you want to apply for a scholarship or even just do an independent project, start asking faculty if they can meet with you to brainstorm ideas. Even if you've never met them before, check through the directory and feel free to contact them. Who knows, they might even have some funding to spend on a student researcher. One of my best friends in grad school went to India on her faculty adviser's dime. 

3) Look through your school's list of awards. Oftentimes colleges and universities have awards and small scholarships for which students must either be nominated or apply themselves. If you can apply, go for it. If you need to be nominated, approach your best professor and ask them to do you a favor by suggesting you. Most students don't know these awards are available so they are low-handing fruit. In other words, the selection pool is usually small. 

4) Go to your career counseling office on campus and ask what kinds of scholarships they know about. If you school doesn't have a fellowships office (or even if they do), the career counselors might have some different advice about internship placement or scholarships for post-grads. 

5) Take advantage of sister campus programs. My college was in a consortium with four other colleges, so I could use any of the resources on ANY of these campuses. Amazing. That's 5x the faculty, 5x the libraries, 5x the possible reviewers for essays, 5x the specialists. Many schools have some kind of cross-campus exchange, check it out. Maybe they even have international connections that could help you when you're trying to find a contact for your Fulbright application. 

So many resources, makes me wish I were still in school!!


To Volunteer or Not To Volunteer

On Saturday, I was asked whether volunteering was a good idea. I was talking to high school and early college students about how to line up materials to get funded. Staying active and engaged in your area of interest is always a good idea, but just volunteering? Maybe not. 

"Volunteering can look like a bad tattoo," I said, "something random that is slapped onto your resume with no context." If you are volunteering just to fill your cv with content, then it's probably a bad idea. But if the volunteering has something to do with a logical track of interests with which you can show continuity, then yes. 

So take for example a student who has good grades but you see on their list of activities: volunteers at the homeless shelter, the wilderness society and did a 5k for the local teen center. You could possibly weave a narrative about how these interests overlap, but more likely, it just looks like someone who is volunteering just to check off that box. 

Instead, think of something that makes sense contextually with your areas of interest and with the field you want to pursue in the future. It's always good to explain how your actions and passions intertwine, but having a coherent and logical train of extra-curriculars makes this plainly obvious. If you're volunteering for the sake of volunteering, take some time to think where you are headed with your career (or academic) plans and see if you could use your time more wisely. 

Making Your Passion Persuasive

In ninth grade, we were assigned to write a paper on something we were passionate about. Even back then, I felt so violated and distressed about how humans treat mother nature. I wrote about how we needed, as a species, to change the way that our selfish behaviors destroy the planet. I got a C- on my report. I completely shut down, thinking that my topic was stupid or unworthy. In fact, it was how I stated my feelings. 

Capture Your Passion

Capture Your Passion

In order to be successful and persuasive in the fellowships sphere, you have to CARE about something. Passion drives you study and pursue a topic, but oftentimes our feelings block logical argument and articulate dialogue. This certainly happens to me when I try to calmly discuss politics. 

This also happened to me when wrote the first draft of my Fulbright statement of purpose essay. I wanted to describe how beautiful the Senegalese culture is. And yet, the words were so . . . dull. I couldn't articulate my feelings of love, sophistication, implication in an essay form because they were just so visceral to me. Not being able to describe how the dance made me feel was a just roadblock. 

If you are lucky enough to be passionate about something, how do you transform it into a document or relatable form? I think it helps to bounce ideas off of other people. When you have a vision in your head, it's hard to know which parts of it are coming across when you describe it. Write down, or talk about your topic and then have someone who is unfamiliar with the subject read or hear it. Ask them to repeat back what they heard, and start to note the gaps in the story. 

Having a passion is one of the great joys and distresses in life. Caring so deeply about the planet, or protecting children from abuse, or an element of culture is a gift. So try to use that gift to make a difference in the world. But don't get discouraged if your first attempt to communicate falls flat.  

A Reviewer's Review- Tips on a better fellowship application

This is the second year that I am working as a reviewer for the Mandela Washington Fellowships for Young African Leaders. In terms of fellowship applications, I'm usually on the applying side. I struggle through crafting the message I want within the confines of a 500-1000 word essay. It's much different to be a reviewer. I gain insight into how the whole application package fits together. 

Here are some of my reflections as a reviewer this year:

1. Other people's praise means a lot

I got a great piece of advice from my graduate advisor to put into my book: When bragging out yourself, you can sound more humble by saying, "I've been told that I'm very smart." That sounds so much better than saying, "I'm very smart," right?? This is why the letters of recommendation are so important. I read an application yesterday where the applicant didn't stand out from the others, until I came to the letters. 

One letter was written from the chief of his tribe. "What I particularly like is that even though Mr. G works for the Provincial Government, he visits the village at least once every quarter per year and provides valuable advice to me, so the village benefits from his skills, professional experience and his education." The chief's words convinced me that this applicant is a valuable member of his community and someone who gives back. 

2. Picking a single cause brings the applicant to life

Nothing is worse than an application that jumps all over the place. I understand the challenge: you are involved in so many interesting things and have many different angles. Including those interests into a coherent story line and purpose seems impossible. Yet the people who read well on their applications are those who have a defined interest. Yesterday I read about a woman who has been focusing on maternal and child health in Zimbabwe. Her personal activities focused on this and her career has led her to become a project leader for a UKAID project worth 12 million pounds. Her application really popped out because I could get a sense of her drive. Having one main focus allowed further details about her work to fill in the gaps instead of take me onto a different subject. 

These are just a few reflections, some things I've been thinking about this week. It's really an honor to read about young Africans who are doing incredible things. I hope my reviews get them to where they want to go.