Hello, this week from Leonor Ayala Polley, URL Media’s Chief Business Development and Partnerships Officer. I am excited to share that my very first fellowship experience is currently underway, and what I am telling myself is that I can’t believe I haven’t done this before. My year kicked off in amazing fashion with a two-week residency at Columbia University as part of the 2023 Sulzberger Fellowship cohort. The Sulzberger Fellowship, in particular, focuses on newsroom executives and leaders taking on work-related projects that will ultimately lead to a more robust and sustainable future for newsrooms.
During the fellowship, I had space to be vulnerable and learn from others with similar challenges, from innovation to sustainability. I learned new ways of working and managing across generations, cultures, and disciplines — hard skills to hone in a fast-paced news environment. And my journey is only beginning. We have 19 weeks to go!
As I reflect on the ways I was stretched and pushed out of my comfort zone, all for the sake of wild creativity, growth, and letting go of learned ways of doing things, I am truly grateful. Leadership, in particular, can often feel lonely. So it is a bonus from this experience that I have gained 23 new peers and colleagues across the journalism industry whose north star is improving our craft.
In previous roles, I was lucky enough to take part in countless corporate training programs, also very useful, that are designed to cultivate leadership. The biggest difference with this fellowship is that I learned from a cross-section of my peers who all approach their work differently.
Sonali Kohli, URL Media’s Senior Recruiter, is an early adopter to the fellowship and has done many, so I asked her about her experiences.
“I. LOVE. Fellowships.,” she says emphatically. “To me, space away from a day job and time to reflect and learn and spread out my brain has led to some of my best work.”
At the Spencer Fellowship at Columbia, she benefited from one-on-one sessions with advisors who taught her really practical things like how to get a literary agent and write a query letter; and then expanded her journalism skills by working with a researcher and professor who taught her the value of incorporating ethnographic practices into her reporting.
A few years ago, she applied for artists’ residencies for which she would never have considered herself qualified. Some residencies simply offer space to work on a project; others offer community and learning.
Here's our advice for applying to fellowships, journalism and otherwise. And arguments to battle the insecurities Sonali and I share, and have heard from others:
I'm not qualified: You probably are. And if you're not, someone will let you know.
I don't have a good idea: Look at what you’ve worked on recently and search for threads you wanted to spend more time on but couldn't. Also, projects change drastically during fellowships all the time! Don’t put so much pressure on yourself.
It's expensive: Ok this one is very fair. Many fellowships are paid or have stipends attached for travel, at least. Many also have scholarships for folks from underrepresented groups.
My employer won’t support me: Start the conversation! Ask your employer if they will sponsor you and provide them with a short list of fellowships you are interested in. Many employers have set aside money for professional development and as long as you are in good standing and can manage your day to day workload there is little reason for a good boss to say no!