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For years my passion and drive has been focused on using engineering, specifically that related to flooding, to tangibly reach affected people in impoverished communities. Last October I happened to come across an article describing the NSF GRFP Program and how one may receive a generous Fellowship to conduct research on pressing needs such as this.

I’m not sure why, but I felt the tug to apply to this. I knew with my husband’s undergraduate student loan debt (which we have been ferociously cutting down) that now was not the time for me to go back to school. The timing was not ideal, but I applied anyway. It just seemed like the only choice. I had heard obtaining the Fellowship on one’s first application is rare, and most people receive Honorable Mention the first year and then the actual Fellowship the second year. What did I have to lose? I would apply and see what happened – I figured if I got it I could always defer until our circumstances were in a more flexible place.

Most people spend months writing their essays, and I had three short weeks to come up with a Proposed Research Essay, Previous Research Essay, and Personal Statement Essay. I researched everything I could find online about what to include in these 3 oh so important essays. Just six pages separated me and 13,000 others from a dream opportunity to conduct research on what we find most important in this world (as opposed to what a professor has funding for). This Fellowship would grant me the flexibility to really help Haitians. I would be literally paid to chase after my dream.

For years God had prepared me for essays such as these, because it seemed like everything the prompts were looking for, I had encountered through various experiences along the way. I already knew what my Proposed Research would be – flooding and subsequent landsliding in Haiti. Something deep inside of me knew I needed to apply and just keep taking steps as I was able, even though I couldn’t see the final outcome.

I met with several professors at the University of Texas and found out that one of them is actually conducting very similar research in Asia over geomorphology. She helped me understand what a hot topic this is right now in academia and gave me the motivation to go through with the application. I submitted it within hours of the deadline after revising and editing until there was no return.

Then came the waiting. For months. The uncertainty. I convinced myself I didn’t really want it because we needed to focus on finishing paying off my husband’s student loan debts as well as a host of other much less significant excuses I had come up with in my mind. Deep down though, I really wanted this opportunity, and I knew that this passion had not been placed on my heart by accident. I knew my life had the potential to touch many others through science.

On Good Friday a few weeks ago, I received the news: I had been granted this amazing opportunity. I re-read it. Yep, there it was, in black and white. Still thinking this may be a mistake, I triple-checked everything. I called my husband, ecstatic, and told him the good news. He congratulated me profusely, and then we both kind of thought “oh man, what are we going to do now.”

For weeks I wouldn’t tell anyone else about it. I prayed, fasted, and journaled until my hand hurt. I sought wisdom like a monk, but the answer remained clear and obvious. This was my dream, and it was good. God would, and has been, taking care of all of the logistics in ways so peculiar that they couldn’t be coincidental. God just kept giving when I was wrapped in fear. The loans will be taken care of, financials and ties with my company will be taken care of, fellowship with girls in my program is already under-way, networking in Haiti is blossoming, housing is working itself out. The only missing piece to the puzzle is my husband having a job where we can be together every day instead of just on the weekends, but I am certain it is coming in due time because all of these other things I have been worrying about the last few weeks are falling into place in ways that are completely out of my control.

This award was completely unexpected, and I honestly can’t give any glory to anyone but God. I believe He had His hand in this, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to serve in this manner. I pray that I will be able to utilize this opportunity in a way that is glorifying and genuine.

For those of you who have visited my blog in search of tips for the NSF application, I would say this: be true to yourself in your essays. Follow your heart, and be diligent about making sure that comes across to your readers in a way that is easy for them to understand while shining light on your cause. Don’t beg or become overly personal, but do show them that you have determination to see this through. Give them a reason to be wowed at your life experiences and future goals. Everyone else applying will have excellent GPA’s and a list of awards and service achievements. Write about those things of course, but be unique because that is a beautiful thing. Sorry that isn’t a cookie-cutter answer, and it’ll make you have to really think, but I honestly believe that is part of the reason I was chosen. Show the reviewers why you want to study your intended topic and how you have been prepared for such rigor through a diverse display of experiences. If you don’t have any real reason for pursing your research and just want to get your graduate school funded, perhaps this isn’t the fellowship for you. The NSF is looking for motivated students who have the capability and determination to better society through the sciences. Give them that in your essays. Give them a reason to want to see you succeed.

My essays are below. Enjoy, and I hope these help:


Cynthia Castro 2013
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