MFA Student Earns 2020-21 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Scholarship

By Tom McLaughlin

It was back in elementary school, recalls the aptly named Patience Williams.

Williams grabs a cup of coffee prior to attending The New Yorker Festival masterclass with Zadie Smith and Teju Cole in fall 2019.

“That’s how long I’ve known that I wanted to be a full-time, professional writer,” says the student in the master of fine arts (MFA) program in creative writing at Rutgers University–Camden.

The lifelong Oklahoma City resident will now open the next chapter on her quest when she travels to the Netherlands this spring to write, study, and teach on a 2020-21 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant scholarship.

The accomplishment cannot be overstated. She becomes the first Rutgers–Camden student since 1981 to earn the prestigious award, which is given to approximately 2,000 students worldwide each year to conduct research, study, or teach abroad in more than 140 countries.

“This is a remarkable achievement, as the Fulbright committee receives more than 10,000 applications from more than 700 institutions worldwide,” says Howard Marchitello, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–Camden. “We wish Patience much continued success during her semester abroad.”

In a word, says Williams, earning the Fulbright means “opportunity.”

“I strongly believe in the powers of networking,” she says. “I do think that, when you can be part of a community that strives to help other communities, a lot of good work can get done.”

Williams is no stranger to honors and commendations – and the hard work and determination to earn them. She attended Oklahoma City University on a full scholarship, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English in 2017. During her first semester there, she studied for a semester at the University of Oxford, fulfilling a dream of hers since she was in fifth grade.

The Rutgers–Camden MFA student stands at the doorway of Virginia Woolf’s writing room

That dreamlike semester came with a $20,000 price tag, but she did what she always does: she found a way.

In this instance, that meant writing and self-publishing a book as a fundraiser, titled Letters From Me, To No One, which raised about $1,300. She also worked two jobs, in addition to applying for every pertinent grant, scholarship, and fellowship she could find. By the time she boarded her flight, she only had to pay $3,500 out of pocket – less than the cost of her in-state tuition.

Her travels wouldn’t end there. Williams also studied Latin American poetry in Oaxaca, Mexico, as an undergraduate and received grant funding to conduct research at Yale University along with the chair of her English department.

Upon graduating, Williams was accepted into Rutgers–Camden’s fully funded MFA in creative writing program. She says she was drawn to the program because it welcomed “eclectic work” and she thought her own “ambitious” offerings would be embraced.

“I like to try new things, fail, then try them again and figure out how to do them better,” she says. “My professors are all for this.”

She is also a big believer in the power of fiction writing – both in literature and film – to inspire change and influence in the world.

Williams takes in an art exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London.

“People relate to fiction as though it’s real, even though it’s constructed,” says Williams. “You can really teach people through fiction.”

As for her writing style?

“A mess,” Williams says with a laugh. “But in a more serious manner, a harvesting. I put in a lot of time and effort to my work. I look carefully at what I’ve created and fallen in love with, and then I tend to the parts that are nourishing the overall purpose of what I’m writing. Nearly everything else gets cut and my revisions are heavy.”

Nonetheless, adds the Rutgers–Camden scholar, her work is also heavy on compassion and good intention – two elements that are in high demand in “the midst of a culture war and spiritual crises.”

“Stories have been used to teach and to aid healing for centuries,” says Williams. “Many of us have lost sight of this but I don’t want to, and my work certainly doesn’t. I want people to read something in my fiction and understand something in their lives. Words have this potency.”

Williams strolls the Oxford University gardens.

Williams – who draws on the inspiration of literary figures such as Ralph Ellison, S.E. Hinton, Zadie Smith, and Yelena Moskovich – has shared her perspective and expertise teaching undergraduate composition courses at Rutgers–Camden. She is now looking forward to serving that role from Jan. 1 to June 30 at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, located about a 50-minute train ride from Amsterdam.

“I plan to take this responsibility seriously and with compassion,” says Williams, who also has tutored Camden middle-school children.

Just like the rest of the world, Williams isn’t sure how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact her experience, but she remains undeterred no matter what it brings.

In addition to Williams, three other Rutgers University–Camden students were selected as semi-finalists in the 2020-21 Fulbright Scholarship competition, the largest U.S. exchange program worldwide. The semifinalists were:

  • Cherry Hill resident Erica Westman, an undergraduate criminal justice major, was a semifinalist for an English Teaching Assistantship in Lithuania;
  • Scranton, Pa., resident Joelene Joinvil, a student in the graduate public policy program and a Susquehanna University graduate, was a semifinalist for an English Teaching Assistantship in Colombia; and
  • New York City resident Natasha Soto, a master of fine arts student and a graduate of Bowdoin College, was a semifinalist for a Study/Research and Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship in the Dominican Republic.

Fulbright grants are awarded to individuals who have demonstrated a record of academic excellence, as well as evidence of service and leadership potential. That’s a winning combination for Rutgers–Camden students, notes Laura Collins, director for the Office of Scholar Development and Fellowship Advising at Rutgers–Camden.

“The application process is rigorous, but Rutgers–Camden students are well positioned to compete among other top scholars,” says Collins. “Our students’ civic-mindedness and leadership skills are where they shine in this national competition.”


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