The Meaning and Downsides of Academic Fellowship: What I Learned by Receiving the Harvey Fellowship | MIT Center for Civic Media

The Meaning and Downsides of Academic Fellowship: What I Learned by Receiving the Harvey Fellowship

What does it mean to receive an academic fellowship? Are fellowships just polite language for recognition and money? Or do great fellowships offer something deeper by giving us meaningful networks of friendship and support?

This gif from a 2015 article uses a novel method called 'GLO-Roots' to visualize and compare
the growth of roots in water deficient (left) and control conditions (right).

Last weekend, I joined a four-day summer gathering of the Harvey Fellowship, which funds Christian gradstudents from any country or culture who are in top 5 programs for their fields. This fellowship is a new experience for me, since I've never accepted money from a religious source and I focus on non-partisan, non-religious research projects. When I do venture into matters of religion in my public identity, it's usually as a journalist, liveblogger, or facilitator rather than an advocate. So as I attended the summer institute, I was curious to see how the 25 or so other fellows understand these questions.

I have never been at a professional gathering where people were so open about their challenges, fears, and vulnerabilities as last week. Normally, gatherings of this kind open with speeches about how special we are. The Harvey organizers took the opposite approach, arguing that humility and faith were pre-requisites for long-term flourishing. The first four alumni speakers all told stories of unanticipated challenges in their lives that had completely reoriented their ideas of who they were. Rather than start with stories of success, the first speakers outlined challenges that an elite education could not help them overcome: infinite adjuncting, long-term family tragedies, post-partum depression, and pressure to compromise integrity. To live well through whatever might happen, they argued, we needed to ground our lives in our faith and build deep relationships that could weather the hardest challenges. A fellowship that couldn't offer that kind of support didn't deserve the name, they said.

Over the next three days, we reflected on the words of St Paul in Ephesians 4, which urges Christians to live out our callings with excellence, humility, and care for others. In group conversations, we listened to each other describe our hopes and challenges, and we spent many hours in prayer. We heard from high profile alums later in the week, with an emphasis on diverse identities and perspectives. One speaker was a conservative US senator. Another was Turkish scholar who offered pointed critiques of American Christianity's role in the world. As we argued through these issues in small groups, many fellows shared specific areas that the gathering had challenged our life and work. In our final session, we circled around each fellow for prayer in turn. I could tell that this group of peers could become a powerful source of inspiration and accountability in my life.

What Does the Harvey Fellowship Mean For My Work?

Throughout my PhD, I have worked to be transparent about my commitments to my audience and my research participants. So I want to be clear about what it means for me to accept funding from the Harvey Fellowship.

All applicants to the Harvey Fellowship are expected to affirm the Lausanne Covenant (wikipedia), a statement of confession and purpose affirmed by many evangelical Christians globally. It's a remarkable document that affirms a cosmopolitan vision for the role of Christians in faith, justice, and reconciliation. The covenant also argues for the central importance of indigenous Christian movements. I have long admired the Lausanne covenant and was happy to affirm it in this way.

In my six-essay Harvey Fellowship application (full contents here), I emphasized three ideas. The first idea is my focus on public interest research about online behavior. The second idea is my commitment to a form of leadership that is fundamentally about supporting inclusive networks to achieve their collective potential. My essays also explained to Christians the values behind my work by outlining the centrality of social justice in the early history of Christianity.

Intellectual independence is a basic part of the Harvey Fellowship, so I'm not expecting to change anything about the work I do. However, the fellowship does make some things more possible. The money is going to help me fund travel and research costs for my dissertation. I'm also putting some funds into research and ministry collaborations.


The Downsides of Fellowship
As an international student at Cambridge University in 2006, I remember watching the strong community within the Gates and Rhodes Scholarships from the outside. These elite scholarship recipients were marked out for special access to opportunities, and they benefitted from a powerful alumni network that fast-tracked people to the resources they needed to achieve their visions. Many of my friends in these circles have done meaningful work for good in the world, but I don't think I'll ever forget the palpable difference between being a runner up and being an insider of a strong, supportive community. Whenever I gain access to something exclusive, I always ask how I can leverage those networks to spread opportunity more widely (In this work, I continue to be inspired by my CivicMIT colleague and Rhodes scholar Joy Buolamwini). So when I applied to the Harvey Fellowship, I was already committed to continue that pattern.

I'll admit it; I came to last week's fellowship gathering expecting an elitist club. That was far from the case. I can genuinely say that the Harvey alumni are the most diverse, humble group of academics and professionals that I am connected to. They span a wide range of careers, status, and institutions, from small regional colleges to governments and corporations. Harvey alumni come from many different cultures, and their work ranges across the humanities, sciences, arts, and business. Distinctively, one of the ideas that brings everyone together is the Christian commitment to put others before ourselves. I hope we can stay true to that. Connecting with other Harvey Fellows has already made my social media experience dramatically more diverse along many political, cultural, and geographical dimensions.

But the Harvey fellowship is still an exclusive group. With that in mind, I'm planning to allocate some of my time and funds toward a project aimed at studying and expanding the fundraising capacities of people of color in Christian university ministry. After exploring the issue for the last six months, I'm currently negotiating the details of a research collaboration. At our gathering last week, two other fellows independently voiced the problems of POC ministry fundraising as one of the most strategically crippling problems facing our generation of Christians. I took it as confirmation that I was headed in a good direction.

Being a Fellow to Others
I have been very lucky to experience rich models of academic fellowship more than once: at the Center for Civic Media and through Harvard's Berkman Center. As I learn from the openness and care of those around me, I hope to continue to grow in my ability to foster that kind of community wherever I go. In the busy final year of my PhD, I continue to be thankful for everyone at MIT and Harvard, especially my advisor Ethan, for showing me how to care for people while also caring about my work. After several days with the Harvey Fellowship, I am excited to see those same values lived out among these new colleagues and friends.