Many fellowship and grant funders want to see a commitment to community. In fact, many different permutations of this concept exist within the graduate funding world. The AAUW wants to see a commitment to the issues facing women and girls. The Ford Foundation wants to see a commitment to diverse communities. Even the NSF and NIH value community involvement as it relates to science education and recruitment of under represented groups. Read on to see what that commitment can look like to an application reviewer.
So how do we parse through the nuances of demonstrating this commitment? Well, a big part of it lies in our personal motivations. How were you introduced to the community? Do you belong to the target community? Why do you consider a particular community’s perspective especially valuable? Naturally, we all want to answer these questions positively. But the words we choose have a great impact on how we convey our conviction. Try to focus on a relatable story; the more personal your involvement, the better your start.
Service vs. Commitment
You may be asking, “What if I don’t do a lot of community service?” Well, that really requires a two-part answer. The first answer is that it’s not so much the quantity as it is the quality. One activity, performed over time, can have a much more compelling impact and convey a much more intimate involvement than a long series of disconnected community service activities.
The second part of that answer is that “community service” may not be the best way to think about the question. Think of an issue you are passionate about. Maybe you feel strongly about children’s education. Maybe you are a Big Brother or Big Sister. Maybe you are concerned with global conflict and the well-being of those trying to escape it. Maybe you simply coach a sport. It is entirely possible and even likely that you interact with different communities on a daily basis at work, and it may be a matter of taking an active approach in your interactions. Try it! You may learn something that sticks with you.
There are a multitude of experiences that bring you into contact with different communities. Remember, these experiences come off as more genuine when they are, well, actually genuine. Commitment, however, is a mindset, not an activity! Reviewers want to see that mindset rather than a list of your services. They can get that off of your CV or biosketch.
Telling the Story
For organizations that focus on specific community issues or the issues of a specific community, focus on the aspects of your work or other activities and experiences that bring you into contact with those communities. For the AAUW, you must state and demonstrate a commitment to women’s issues. This can come in many forms. Firstly, all eligible applicants are, by rule, women. So there’s a natural place to start. Do you have a female role model? Do you share concerns for women’s issues abroad? Beginning with these types of motivational issues can really kickstart an application essay and give you a springboard to jump into how you manifest your commitment.
The Ford Foundation has an emphasis on diversity, covered in another excellent blog post. But this also has implications for commitment to community. The Ford Foundation seeks to promote the recruitment of underrepresented populations. Many of it’s applicants come from these populations and, consequently, have an innate personal investment. But what about those of us who do not? Well, the truth is that these populations are often underrepresented because people from outside these populations do not seek out their perspectives. Maybe you are the exception to that rule. The Ford Foundation Fellowships are prime examples of diversity- and community-oriented programs that do not restrict their applicant pool to a specific population. Strictly speaking, you do not have to be a member of a community to share a commitment to it. Maybe you share and demonstrate a commitment that overlaps into one or more of these communities.
Most men have mothers and sisters that they care very deeply about. Close family friends may be from different ethnicities, religions, or socioeconomic backgrounds. Families are often multicultural. You can find motivation to serve a community from many different places. If you feel strongly about something, turn that passion into action. These actions, over time, demonstrate commitment. Write down your passion and how it evolved into that commitment. Trust us. It makes for a great story! Don’t sleep on it!