Advice to Fellowship Applicants
Please know that these are my own opinions and they are not endorsed in anyway by the Bonderman Traveling Fellowship program. As with all of my opinions, it may be the case that they are wrong.
First off, congratulations on making it this far. Those of you who are interested in applying for the Bonderman Traveling Fellowship have a curiosity about the world that you should cherish, and I admire that. Because several people seem to be interested in my advice with their applications, I have decided to collect my thoughts in this public format and share them with all who may be interested. Also, just if this will stop you reading, I offer no formula or silver bullet, because each application depends on the individual applying. For that reason, your ideas about how to prepare your application are probably better than my ideas about how to prepare your application. What little helpful advice I have comes in two parts: the usual general restatement of stuff you've likely heard already and my own personal, possibly incorrect ideas.
The restatement stuff first. Bonderman Fellows engage in cross-cultural immersion experiences in more than six countries in two regions of the world for at least 8 months, which may sound like enough time for that number of places, but it is enough time to understand only a tiny fraction of what is going on. My personal experience is that one week is enough to get a feeling for a city, which means that you could do four cities in a month. Of course, you could spend 9 months in one city and still keep learning, but I think that a wide focus is better than a narrow focus with an opportunity like this. That said, I had a good friend who lived in Buenos Aires for 7 months instead of traveling around because she met good people and enjoyed it, but that would not meet the fellowship's requirements, so you might want to find another way to do that trip. Also, people who apply to travel to places that they have visited a lot will likely not be successful, nor will applications proposing travel to family heritage sights or people proposing lengthy stays in Western Europe, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. Also, make sure to familiarize yourself with all of the rules applicants must follow, especially rules about vehicles.
This fellowship is a unique challenge, and should be approached as one. It is unique in the sense that each person challenges himself or herself in different ways, and you should try to identify what that way may be for you and reflect on that in your application. I hope that over the course of your career at the University of Michigan, you have taken classes and had experiences that challenged you emotionally, musically, culturally, intellectually, politically, or in whatever way. What did you learn from those experiences and why do you want to endure 8 months of challenges like that? And, as a side note, since many people seem to describe the place where they are comfortable as their "comfort zone," you have the opportunity to offer a refreshingly creative description by not referring to it as this.
My personal advice revolves around one thing: admitting and identifying that you are probably wrong about a lot, and that you want to fix that. Think back to times where you most appreciated a class's or an experience's ability to break you down. Were you forced to change or expand your opinions? What elements of your current personality can you attribute to a time when you had to change? I like hearing other people's stories about times like these, because they help me improve and demonstrate an attractive ability to think critically about your existence.
People who have forgotten why they believe a thing and are unwilling to challenge that thing are beholden to a power that they don't understand, and they can careen into brick walls of mediocrity, frustration, and sadness if their idea happens to mislead them. Simple things, like the proper way to eat dinner or the proper way to show respect to another person are different everywhere, and it has been great to learn about different ways of living. And simple things like that can lead you to a more meaningful understanding of the kaleidoscopic complexity of life in our country and in others. I feel like I have options to choose from now that I didn't have before, and I have way more ideas about how to positively participate in the world than I did before. How would this experience challenge you in such a way that will help you contribute more to the world? What plans do you have for life? Or are you looking for inspiration?
What do you have a strong suspicion that you are wrong about, and how might you investigate that? What parts of the world do you know about but cannot yet emotionally identify with? Are you able to admit that something about you or your culture is wrong? And what would you do if you saw something wrong with another culture? Perhaps relate any of this stuff to things fellows have experienced.
As I see it (and I may be wrong), this fellowship is about challenging what you think you know and exploring what you do not know. Talk about your ideas and passions with your friends and family, and flush stuff out with them. Also, be prepared to answer lots of questions about your application! Why did you arrange it in the order that you did, and why did you select those countries? When I applied, I talked to anyone who would listen about why I wanted to do this, and their questions helped me identify places that I could clarify more for myself and for others, plus this got me so excited. If you have time, read books about the history or culture or whatever about places that make you curious, and see if you would really like to live in those places for a month or more. Check out the other page on my blog about planning your trip for cool resources I have learned about. Most important of all, let passion come through in your application.