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Joel Francois Named 2020 Soros Fellow
Joel Francois, a graduate student in the creative writing program in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been awarded a 2020 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. He is the third Syracuse University creative writing M.F.A. student to receive the fellowship in the past three years. Francois joins 30 other new Soros Fellows, selected from 2,211 applicants nationwide this year.
Paul and Daisy Soros, immigrants themselves, chose to invest their money in supporting the graduate education of new Americans—immigrants and children of immigrants—who are poised to make significant contributions to U.S. society, culture and their academic field. Each fellow receives up to $90,000 in financial support over two years and joins a lifelong community of New American Fellows. Below, Francois shares his story and what the fellowship means to him.
Q: Your family moved from Haiti to East Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1995 when you were five years old. How did life change for you, and what did you do to help you acclimate?
A: It was cold! Haiti has two seasons—dry and wet—and it’s pretty much beautiful all year round. I saw snow for the first time in New York City, so that was interesting. Other than the weather, I lucked out in moving to East Flatbush, Brooklyn, which has a thriving Caribbean population. I met many of the close friends I have now within a year of moving to the United States. I learned English quickly by watching cartoons.
Q: What kind of influence and support did your parents give in regards to your education?
A: Honestly, my parents pushed religion more than education. For some strange reason they cared more about me being in church than in school. I sometimes regret that they didn’t come down on us heavily about our education; it feels like a missed opportunity.
Q: You attended Brooklyn College, where you studied English, but initially had plans to go to law school. What happened to change your path to full-time writing?
A: I worked as a paralegal for debt collections at a point-of-sale systems company. It was brutal—their practices were predatory, and the work was very stingy and grimy. It put a bad taste in my mouth about law. I had joined the Brooklyn College Slam Poetry Team, which is where I learned about spoken word poetry. I was doing well as a poet, and it just felt right to lean on that.
Q: What have been your greatest influences on your writing? Where have you found the most inspiration for your work?
A: I am more a writer who has to write. I’m not sure how much it’s dependent on influences and inspiration as much as it’s just wrapped into my routine. I see the world and translate the things that move me into poetry. I have traveled near and far performing and teaching workshops. My work touches on many topics, but often focuses on love, race and family. I believe writers are the architects of humanity. The words we put down are the building blocks that shape the human skyline. All of the words in beauty, pain and drama are ours to translate.
Q: How did you find out about the Soros Fellowship? How will it help you to reach your goals?
A: It came up a lot within my creative writing program here at Syracuse; the program does a really good job supporting its students in that way. I love that in being awarded this fellowship, I have inherited access to a vast and intricate network of new Americans, folks who are growing and thriving and trailblazing, all connected to me via this opportunity.
After earning my M.F.A., I plan to pursue a Ph.D. and then build a career that allows me to write, perform, teach and research. My long-term goal is to start my own nonprofit organization geared towards bringing storytelling workshops to poor immigrant communities in the New York City area.
Q: What does being a New American mean to you?
A: I love the term “New American” because many of us left so much to come here. At home we were countrymen and women, and here we are immigrants, a word so laced with bad connotations; “New American” is a good rebrand.
The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships are awarded to New Americans who give promise of making distinctive contributions to U.S. society, culture and their field. Applications for the 2021 fellowships are due Oct. 29, 2020. The award is open to candidates 30 years old or younger who are immigrants or the children of immigrants in the United States. To be eligible, candidates should be planning to be enrolled full time in an eligible graduate degree program at a U.S. university for the full 2021-22 academic year and must not have begun the third year of the program that they are seeking funding for as of the Nov. 1, 2020, deadline.
The application is available on the Soros website: www.pdsoros.org/apply/online-application. Interested Syracuse University students and alumni should contact the Center for Fellowship and Scholarship Advising (CFSA) for assistance with the application: 315.443.2759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.