Lessons from the Mitchell Scholarship: Narrative and Success

I was a candidate for the Mitchell Scholarship because I spent my college career combining passion with strategy. I believe strongly that the key to success is not to spend four years of undergrad carefully padding your resume and pursuing activities solely based on what will look good on some future CV. Passion is crucial. But so is building a narrative: looking at what you love and giving it meaning and shape. When one of my mentors suggested that I go for the Mitchell Scholarship, I looked at the criteria. They are:

  • scholarship,
  • leadership, and
  • a sustained commitment to community and public service.

I had no way of knowing I would be selected as a Scholar. But I knew I had a chance. Some schools, particularly in the Ivy League, identify students as freshmen and sophomores who they think have a shot at distinguished scholarships once they graduate. If your university offers this, I highly suggest you avail yourself of these services. If you want to pursue a Rhodes or a Fulbright, go and ask where you can find more information, and learn how to shape your college years in that direction. If you don’t have that kind of support, then you’ll have to take on more of this work yourself. Ask for help. Find mentors. Follow your passions and think strategically about what story you can tell of your college years.

Two years ago this weekend I went to the Mitchell Scholar Finalists weekend in Washington, DC. The twenty finalists came from across the country and had an enormous variety of interests and backgrounds. We had made it through the first selection process, and then a Skype interview. The finalist weekend in DC started with a reception in the Irish Embassy, chatting with the other finalists, members of the selection panel, and community members involved in the US-Ireland Alliance. The next day we were interviewed, and by that night we were notified of the selection.

The Mitchell Class of 2013

The Mitchell Class of 2013

I was selected as a 2013 Mitchell Scholar. Along with ten other American students, I spent the 2012-2013 academic year in Ireland and Northern Ireland pursuing Master’s degrees across all different subject areas. The scholarship is run by the U.S.-Ireland Alliance, and we received full tuition, housing, and living stipends. We were supported in our academic and other interests by the organization and its alumni, and gathered several times during the year for various activities and retreats. We were spread across the island—four in Dublin, two in Cork, two in Belfast, one in Derry/Londonerry, one in Galway, and Yours Truly splitting my year between Belfast and Galway.

In the future, I hope to write more about the application process. Throughout the application, I learned an incredible amount about writing a personal statement, organizing a CV, requesting letters of recommendation, and preparing for interviews. I will want to post about the application process and the mindset behind it: how to think through something like this.

But today, two years after that time in DC, I want to talk briefly about my narrative, how I think it helped me as a successful candidate, and what this has meant for me since.

No one will know what you’ve done unless they’re told. In the case of a distinguished scholarship like the Mitchell, that means listing out in excruciating detail all of your accomplishments and how they lead toward some particular life goal. This goal is the conclusion of your story so far, and while it does not have to involve the name of the position and company you hope to work for, it does need to be specific and thoughtful. It has to fit rationally with your past (hopefully by building on it, but possibly by illustrating why you need to change direction based on experience). And it needs to fit you.

The most important two points in any application are:

  • How I fit this position
  • How the position works for me

You want to not only be qualified, but to have the confluence of your passions and the scholarship be so clearly interlocking that you are the clear and obvious choice.

You do this through a combination of strategy and passion.

As I said, I can’t know why I was chosen as a Scholar. I don’t know at what point in the written, Skype, or in-person application they knew I would be chosen. But I can guess, based on the questions asked and the interest shown.

One of the things I am passionate about is immigration in the US. It started when I was studying Spanish in Guatemala the summer after my freshman year, and continued through a series of internships, volunteer positions, travel, community and political organizing, some strong friendships, and a Master’s thesis. It is not my only passion, but it’s one that has had a clear and consistent thread in my life, in academics, leadership, and service.

That’s a good start for a narrative. But here’s the problem: how could going across the world to Ireland possibly further my interest and involvement in issues of Latnia/o immigration to the United States?

So there was the next part of the narrative: International Human Rights Law. And even more specifically, the setting of Ireland and the United Kingdom both playing interesting roles in relation to Human Rights. Queen’s University in Belfast offered the context of post-conflict society, and the National University of Ireland in Galway is noted for its leadership in Human Rights Law. And, as an extra piece of this whole argument, both Ireland and the UK are traditionally immigrant sending communities that are currently struggling with issues of increased inflows of immigration and the accompanying questions of integration, identity, language, citizenship, and human rights.

That’s a narrative.

The Mitchell Scholarship fit with my goals, and I fit logically within its criteria. Now, after completing my Mitchell year and graduating from NUIG, I know that I have learned and experienced things I never expected as I was applying, and have changed me in ways I am still discovering. I am so grateful for the experience, and so curious to see in what other ways my Mitchell experience will continue to shape me.

The UO shot this brief video with me after I found out I had received the Mitchell. Posting this makes me pretty uncomfortable for many reasons (for example, even if someone is standing while asking you questions, keep your eyes level or you'll look like a four year old), but it does show how excited I was...

As a final quick comment for today, and in celebration of this two-year mark, I want to share one personal note with all of this:

I feel incredibly awkward talking about success.

I think this is a feeling many people have, but it is one that I occasionally allow to hold me back and keep me quiet, instead of celebrating what I’ve done and who I am. I don't want to be perceived as braggy, insensitive, stuck-up, or otherwise unpleasant and full of myself. But this fear means that I have a hard time owning my accomplishments. I hide.

So I want to say here briefly: I got the scholarship because I worked really, really hard. I pursued my passions with the utmost energy, and did everything I could to build new communities and programs and adventures based on what I loved and the energy of those around me. I have been incredibly lucky in the people I’ve met and the opportunities I’ve had. I have never accomplished anything in isolation, and am so grateful for the help I've received and the inspiration to work even harder.

Being able to celebrate ourselves is vital. This doesn't mean outright hubris: I don’t think I was better than the Mitchell applicants who weren’t selected. I fit what the panel was looking for that year, that day. I put myself forward with everything I had, and in this case it paid off. The finalists who weren’t selected have enormous accomplishments to their credit and will go on to great work in the future. Just as I will.

Success isn’t something we should apologize for; we should use it as motivation and fuel for future work, and to support the success of others.

But there’s my confession: I have always been quick to own my failures. I am often slower to celebrate success.


What's your narrative? How do you articulate your experiences? And do you do enough to celebrate your successes? Please leave a comment here