By Mia Carey
Before my maternal grandmother suddenly passed of congestive heart failure in the early 1990s, our family would gather every Friday night to play cards and cook, while some members drank and told stories of the old days. My grandmother was the matriarch of the family, and I believe it was her cooking that kept our family as close-knit as it was. She was a gorgeous woman, fair skinned with dark bone straight hair which was indicative of her Native American heritage, who got up every morning at the crack of dawn to begin cooking. I remember the house always smelled of cake. At those weekly Friday night parties, people from our neighborhood and our extended family from Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. would travel to her home just to get a plate. My grandmother was traditional African American cook, the type who never premeasured anything but was able to make it the same way each time. If you wanted to know embarrassing stories of your parents, aunts and uncles, or any other members of the family, Friday night was the night for them to be told. The stories are beginning to fade from my memory now, but what I will always cherish is that those fading moments are a unique part of my heritage that have been passed down for generations and told as a narrative over shared meals.
Before I explain it, you should probably know that I am a historical zooarchaeologist. My particular interests are in African Americans and the Diaspora, the post-bellum, post-Reconstruction period (1865-1900), health & nutrition, and historic preservation. I recently finished writing my master’s thesis, which analyses the dietary patterns from two antebellum and two postbellum free African Americans sites in Maryland to assess whether or not dietary patterns remained consistent among the broad and sustained economic, social, and political changes that characterized the 19th century.
I opened with this particular snippet of my personal statement for two reasons: (1) I put the personal in personal statement and (2) I deviated from the same cookie cutter response to why and when I became interested in archaeology. Unlike some of my peers, I had no clue what anthropology or archaeology was until my second semester of undergrad. My path to archaeology was gradual. When I first started grad school I wanted to do business until I realized that I couldn’t imagine myself wearing suits and heels for the next forty or fifty years of my life. I ended up in anthropology and finally into archaeology by the end of my sophomore year. In one of my archaeology classes we were required to choose a project, and I chose to analyze animal bones out of all of the other artifact classes. Why? Food had always been a part of my life. As the snippet suggests, food was an important factor in brining my family together and what I believed kept us close. It offered an opportunity for several generations to share their stories and our heritage. It served as a comfort in times of need and a celebration in times of joy.
I know that most people can’t relate their research interests with such an intimate part of their lives, but it helps. I was commended several times in my application reviews:
• The applicant is a strong writer, having brilliantly crafted the personal narrative.
• In addition, she is descended from Free Blacks and has combined her interest in family history with a scientific study of class in her graduate studies…
My point in all this: Make your personal statement stand out and make it personal. Everyone is going to have a story about wanting to be in their field since they were a child, but it doesn’t make you stand out or memorable. I took a risk with this statement because I never express my feelings about the loss of my grandmother, but she’s been such an inspiration in my work. Think outside the box when applying for an NSF or any other type of fellowship or grant that requires a personal statement.
- Do not share something that you are uncomfortable with letting people in on. Use caution.
- Get started early and seek out people in your department who may have received the award before– if they are like me they would be happy to help.
If you’re interested in reading my statement or discussing the application process, I’ll be more than happy to speak with you via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mia Carey is a third year graduate student at the University of Florida. She has received a McKnight Doctoral Fellowship (5 years of funding) and the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship (3 years of funding).