Meet Denise Grollmus – Fulbright Scholar to Poland

Denise Grollmus funny portraitJune, 2012

Denise Grollmus is a writer whose work has appeared in the 2006 Best American Crime Writing anthology, Good Magazine, Salon, The Rumpus, Wax Poetics, and various Village Voice Media papers, including the LA Weekly. She has her Bachelor of Arts from Oberlin College and her Masters in Fine Arts from Pennsylvania State University, where she also received the 2012 Excellence in Teaching Award from the Department of English, and where she intends to pursue her PhD in Literature after completing her Fulbright research. From 2012-2013, Denise will be in Warsaw, Poland, writing about Jewish Revivalism, thanks to a Fulbright grant in Creative Writing.

An Interview with Denise:

How long did it take you to complete the application?

I began assembling my application in May 2011 and kept tweaking my materials up until the last week of September, so five months or so.

Who have you consulted to complete the application?

Ruth Mendum was my principal contact and gave me great advice for putting together a strong application. I also did a Google search looking for Fulbright scholars who had previously gone to Poland and did work in my area of interest (Jewish Life and Culture). I simply emailed them and all were gracious enough to let me interview them by phone. These sources were invaluable and it was through one of my contacts that I became acquainted with Pawel Spiewak, who wrote me my letter of recommendation. I also had recommenders in my field (Creative Writing) look over my writing sample as well as my personal statement and grant proposal.

Have you taken any foreign language courses? If so, do you find it helpful in your application?

Unfortunately, Polish is not offered at PSU and I’d never taken it before, so my lack of language skills was a concern. I did, however, have a generous summer grant that allowed me to go to Poland for June 2011. I spent the month taking an intensive Polish course. I definitely wasn’t a fluent speaker by the end, but I picked up enough for casual conversation and I think that, simply by taking the course, it showed initiative. Luckily, Poland’s language requirements aren’t as stiff as they might be for Spain or France, because it is such a difficult language and so few people speak it.

Have you studied abroad or traveled to any other country? If so, do you find it helpful in your application?

Yes, I’ve traveled a lot and I think it definitely helped me. I also speak Spanish and German, which I think helped show the committee that I had an aptitude for language learning, despite not knowing Polish well.

What do you think that make you stand out among your competitors?

 I feel that I had a strong, feasible project. I also went to Poland for a month to do some preliminary work and establish contacts to show that I was already well-invested and versed in the work I was proposing to do.

How long did it take you to complete your personal statement? What crucial steps did you take to write your personal statement?

I wrote a rough draft of my personal statement in May, before meeting with Ruth. She read it for me and made many suggestions. While I was in Poland, I redrafted the statement according to her suggestions, my experiences there, and based on other personal statements I read. I had one of my recommenders read it over for me and she did a very thorough edit. I also got some revision suggestions from the professors who interviewed me, and revised accordingly. I’d say I continually revised over the course of five months.

How many times have you rewrite your personal statement before you submitted it?

Several times. It was the first thing I wrote and I continued revising it up until September.

Have you applied to any other scholarship program? If so, how many and which ones?

I had received a scholarship for the Prague Summer Program for the summer of 2011. Before that, I’d done a fellowship at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Prior to winning this prestigious scholarship, have you applied to any other scholarship program but lost?

As a writer, I’m constantly applying for residencies and fellowships. I lose all the time! And I’ve certainly lost less prestigious scholarships than the Fulbright. My motto is: the worst they can do is turn me down. I never tell myself I’m not good enough to get in, because you really never know unless you try.

Have you had any failure in the past? If so, can you demonstrate how these failures help you succeed?

At 31 years of age, I can safely say that I have had MANY failures. How, specifically, any of these failures affected my Fulbright application, I can’t say, other than, I didn’t let them stop me from applying. I wasn’t sure that I was Fulbright material, but I was sure that I wanted the Fulbright grant to Poland more than anything else and that, if given the opportunity, I would make the most of my research. I did the absolute best job I could on my application and that was good enough for me.

Do you have any other advice for future prestigious scholarship applicants?

When I finally submitted my application, I honestly felt like I did everything within my power—I went to Poland, took Polish, tracked down the best scholar I could for my letter of invitation, revised my personal statement and grant proposal several times. I left no stone unturned. I was fully invested in the process and I was extremely passionate about my project. If I had been turned down, I knew it would have been no fault of my own.

My best advice is to throw your self into the application process completely. Make sure that when you submit your application, you are sure that it was the absolute best you could have done. Don’t just do what’s required, do whatever it takes to prove that your project is not only worthwhile and feasible, but absolutely necessary.