Success in Perseverance
Mid-March, I was notified of my status as a Fulbright Finalist for the 2019 to 2020 year. The feeling was surreal, especially as the congratulations began pouring in. For a few days, my Facebook page was almost overwhelming, as I did the usual “I’m so pleased to announce…” thing that seems almost a requirement these days to keep friends, both near and distant, apprised of your career accomplishments.
However, as I celebrated my success, I knew that such social media displays only told half the story. Mine certainly did. For this success, I’d endured years of failure that forced me to adapt, grow, and hone my focus.
For some reason the Fulbright bug bit me a long time ago. The idea of getting to spend a year abroad, in a German-speaking country, working on music from the First Viennese School as well as music from the late Romantic composers like Wagner and Strauss, sat deep in my bones for years.
The first time I attempted to get myself abroad was my second year of my masters degree, when I was 25. My proposals were winding and unfocused. I applied for almost every fellowship, grant, and residency I could think of, and was soundly rejected for all of them.
I remember receiving my last rejection in the mail; I eagerly ripped open the letter postmarked from Germany, only to see it was my final rejection that solidified I was not going to Germany that year. I officially had no plan. I clearly remember lying on my bed in my cramped Hell’s Kitchen apartment and crying for about ten minutes, then taking a deep breath and acknowledging that it was now time to find a new plan. I spent the summer gigging, babysitting, then went on several singing gigs in different cities, feeling nomadic and lost as I passed through different host houses, friends’ couches, and sublets.
While temping at a financial company as an admin, I began building my Fulbright application. I overcame my discomfort at asking for recommendations, my hesitation to reach out to an old undergraduate professor for a German evaluation, and embarked upon the daunting task of finding a letter of support from someone in Germany.
I was thrilled to find out I was a Fulbright semi-finalist that January. Once an application reaches the semi-final round, the chances of getting selected get astronomically higher. I began fantasizing about my year abroad, imagining myself pedaling down tree-lined paths to get to my classes at a German university, and helping to direct the Ernst Krenek opera I’d proposed to produce and perform.
Somewhere around April, an uncomfortable feeling set in. I re-read my proposal and found inconsistencies and mistakes in logic, and my ideas and dreams for the years seemed muddled and unclear. It was no surprise when I received my rejection for the Fulbright for the 2014 - 2015 year.
Though I’d been expecting it, I was devastated. This was my second attempt to go to Germany, and it had felt so much closer than the last time. Few applications go to the semi-finalist round of the Fulbright.
I fortunately had a backup in the form of a fellowship to a doctoral degree. Years later, I knew that the Fulbright itch was still waiting to be scratched. I knew I wanted to apply again, but I was honestly embarrassed. I couldn’t imagine, four years later, asking my recommenders for help again and finding an affiliate again and having to admit to friends and colleagues that I was putting myself out there again.
I kept my plans private except among close friends and family, and of course, my academic references. I told myself, this time is the last time.
Years of academic exploration made me know the exact scholar I wanted to study with, Michael Haas. To my shock, he responded immediately with a positive reply to my request for a letter of support, and added Professor Gerold Gruber as one of my supporters. I revised my application to focus on one composer specifically instead of multiple composers. I also changed my affiliation country to Austria, since a Viennese-based affiliation actually made much more logical sense than one in a German city.
The rest is history, as they say, but I had to begrudgingly admit, that though the intervening years were occasionally painful, and the moments of rejection difficult, I know that without those original applications I would never have received a finalist status in the first place. I needed to fail to understand how to maneuver through the obstacles before me— how to work smarter and how to innovate in the face of adversity.
I was embarrassed of my failure for a while. However, I can’t be embarrassed of my perseverance. To me, that’s the true success, and have learned to take pride in that, instead of the number of applications accepted or grant dollars won. I allowed myself my moments of pain, the tears of frustration, but I continued on, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quote ever sounding in my mind: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…” except I think of the past as that which made me stronger, smarter, and ready to succeed in a way I never was before.