How Dr. Mi’Jan Tho-Biaz Created Her Dream Career As a Multi-Fellowship Winner

Aug 31, 2023


Dr. Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz redesigned the traditional career path by taking part in multiple fellowships to help shape her dream vocation. She has been recently awarded fellowships from the Fulbright Specialist Program, New America (America Us@250), and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at The Huntington Library. Her multi-discipline journey involves knowledgeable mentors, building lasting relationships, and sharing her passion for storytelling with others.

ProFellow Founder, Dr. Vicki Johnson, interviewed Dr. Tho-Biaz to learn how she fashioned her career by participating in mid- and early-career fellowships. Dr. Tho-Biaz details how her nontraditional methods won her opportunities to pursue her passions in oral history, teaching, and learning.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Hi everyone, this is Dr. Vicki Johnson from ProFellow, and I’m really pleased to introduce you today to a very special guest who has a lot of experience in the world of fellowships, and in particular, fellowships at mid-career for her multi-disciplinary career. So I’m pleased to introduce Dr. Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz. Mi’Jan is a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist, documentarian, public speaker, and host. She’s also a multi-fellowship winner and has achieved a wide variety of fellowships, artist residencies, and other types of awards, which is why I was so eager to speak with her today.

Now, Mi’Jan, we recently reconnected because several years ago, you took my Fulbright Applicant Mastermind workshop as you were thinking about the international Fulbright awards, and more recently, we reconnected because you had since gotten accepted to the Fulbright Specialist roster. This is a program that gives you funding to go to potentially multiple countries for two to six-week stints, and you are about to embark on your first Fulbright Specialist roster placement in Ecuador. So I definitely want to talk about that because that in itself is unique. But this is actually one of many fellowships you have won and have leveraged to create your own career track as an entrepreneurial scholar, international educator, speaker, and artist. So let me just mention a few more. You’re a 2023-24 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation short-term fellow researching Octavia E. Butler’s archives at the Huntington Library. You’re also a 2023-24 new America Us@250 fellow. So you are a true “Pro-Fellow!” This is just a few! So let me start from the beginning of your story, and let’s share with the ProFellow audience how you first discovered fellowships and entered into this very interesting career track. But let’s start way back at the beginning, so let’s say “hi,” and let’s talk about your early career, starting with your undergraduate studies at Xavier University of Louisiana based in New Orleans.

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

First off, what an introduction! Can I take you everywhere with me?

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

I love introducing “pro-fellows”!

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

You are the best. I have admired your work and what ProFellow does, so it’s just an extreme pleasure to be able to be in conversation today together.

Okay, way, way, way back, [at] the beginning. I went to Xavier University in New Orleans, and I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Psych and a minor in Spanish. At first, I started off with a gazillion different majors; however, the minor really, I kept toying between Spanish and International Relations because I knew I wanted to do something; I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be policy or some sort of diplomatic work.

Let’s see; I was at Xavier in ’94, and in ’92, I was an exchange student in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Life changing! So it’s a bit of a full circle year for me, I have to say to be able to return. We’ll talk a little bit more as we continue with our conversation about this return to Guayaquil, Ecuador, as a Fulbrighter. However, I knew I had some, I think, just rambling ideas, but I wasn’t sure exactly how formal education could connect 100% to the vast future that I wanted to build. And so my general rule of thumb was it’s going to be with people, I should probably understand how people act, behave, and think, and that’s how I got into Psych.

Then in terms of moving along to that first professional job, I knew I couldn’t be a psychologist or a psychiatrist just with a BS. In 1998 when I graduated, I got my first professional role as a social worker, and it was cut up into different parts. There was the aspect of the role where I was a liaison with different community organizations and entities. Then I had street outreach with my client roster. I was working as a social worker with pregnant and parenting teens. So I’d go out and see neighborhoods, just trying to figure out who needed some help. I had case management for those who were actually on my case roster, and then I had counseling sessions. And out of all of that, I can tell you I only lasted six months in that role because it felt so reactive and not very proactive. I kept feeling like I was catching people. The teens were homeless because their families had forced them out of their homes. And I’m like, how do I get to all of these people who are coming into this homeless shelter before everything happens?

And luckily, at the end of that six months, there was – oh, I remembered it just right now – there was a program called the Nurturing Program, and I became a certified nurturing program educator facilitator. And I was like, uh oh, there’s something here for me! I really, really, really love the proactiveness of teaching, of getting people before everything has been laid out, and we’re trying to remedy, and patch together resources, etc. So that’s how I started.

Dr. Mi'Jan Tho-Biaz sitting outside the Kennedy Center on a park bench. She is wearing a black dress, hands crossed over her leg with a forward facing smile
Dr. Mi’Jan Tho-Biaz at the Kennedy Center’s 50th Anniversary Kickoff Week for the REACH Artist Residency.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Wow, okay, so that’s really interesting, and also that you’re moving into a career track post-college. You know, you have to try it out to see what fits and what doesn’t fit, so that’s part of the journey.

Dr. Tho-Biaz:


Dr. Vicki Johnson:

So, you found this kind of segway into education, which probably leads well into my next question. Ultimately, I know, fast forward a bit, you decided to pursue and then completed an EdD, a doctorate of education, at the University of San Francisco. So tell us a little bit about the steps toward that goal.

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

So the way that it worked was I still had this golden seed brewing in my mind, like education, education. But I also knew I didn’t really want to teach kids, I didn’t want to do a K-12 education career, at least not long term, and I didn’t understand the steps. Even though my dad was a lifetime educator, I still was, I think, stuck. Like, that’s fine to know; I’d love to do something with adults in education, but what? And again, what degree is going to help support me with that? What’s needed? And so I went into another professional role in fundraising in the non-profit world with an NPR PBS affiliate. And here I have landed again in my lap. I’m training during the pledge drives, our volunteers. And Ta-Da! Again, I love this! I’m living for this part of my job – the rest not as much. Like some parts, but to be honest, not as much, again, learning. I’m in my 20s.

I happen to ride public transportation, the train, one day. And I see this sign. I see a literal sign, and it’s for the Master’s program that I wound up going into, which is a Masters of Arts in Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults. It’s in the School of Education, the same school of Ed. where I went on for my International and Multicultural education doctorate degree. And so here I am, I’m traveling these two tracks. In order to teach in California at least, and I haven’t been an educator in a very long time, however somewhere at, let’s say, late 90s, early 2000s, adult schools were operating, maybe they still are, as part of school districts. So there was an actual teaching credential that I had to earn so that I could teach in The Adult School Division at San Mateo Unified School District. And at the exact same time, I was doing my Master of Arts. And I was like, okay, I know that there’s something about literature, stories, education.

I’m just going about my business, and it’s time for me to finish the master’s. I was in and out in two and a half years because I had baby number two, and the department director had, I think, an exit interview. But all I know is I was in her office, Dr. Alma Flor Ada, University of San Francisco. It’s like making me tear up because I had an eight-month-year-old baby when I was graduating.

It’s December, and she’s like: “What are you gonna do next? You’re gonna do our doc program, right?”

So this must have been November, and I’m like, “No!” Phew. “I have an infant! I’m nursing! What are you talking about? I need a break!”

And she looked at me, and she was like – it was a really sweet, kind, soft conversation – and she said: “I was a single mom of four kids. English was my second language. I immigrated from Cuba.” I think she went to Harvard. And she said, “I need you to understand that there will never be a perfect time, better time, but perfect time, no. Better time? Yes. Perfect time – no.” And she said, “I really do believe in you.”

It just gave me the chills.

She’s like, “I really believe in you, and I think, as the Director of the Department, that you should be applying and going for a doc degree. Get all of your papers. We all know you’re a great educator; it’s in your blood. It’s what you love to do. You can teach at any level as a credentialed teacher, as well as someone with an undergrad, master’s, and a doc degree. So go all the way.”

And I was like, “Uh…” And I think I looked confused or hesitant, and I’m still trying to tell her, ‘But I’ve got a little baby and a kid!’ And she just turned her chair on me like, she just turned around and started doing some paperwork. And it was like, what are you going to do? So that’s how I wound up in the doc degree program.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

So you’re a mom; I know this story well myself. You’re studying for your doctorate, but you said you went through the EdD, which you know, you might be going through that thinking you’re going to go into academia, maybe become a professor. But then you said near the end, when we chatted, you said you had a sudden pivot. And you decided to go into non-profit leadership! So what happened there? What was it that sort of prompted that change of heart?

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

Well, I had this, and – I am definitely tearing up right now – I had this incredible academic mentor: Dr. Jackie Reza. She was the first person, ironically, towards the end, who – because I kept saying I’m going to do it, I’m going to be a professor. That’s what’s happening. That’s why I’m here!

And she was the first person to say: “You know, this is really actually a description of what that job entails. We all know you love to teach. We all know you’re going to be a great professor if that’s what you choose. Here’s the full story arc of that work and especially while you’re on the tenure line earning tenure.”

And I was like, wait, what are you talking about? Meetings, service works, publishing, constantly?

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

The reality of being a professor!

Dr. Mi'Jan Tho-Biaz sitting on the far right-hand side of a farm table with bowls and plates of food. There is a green, leafy garland on the table and glass jars with candles. The wall behind her is painted an orange color.
Dr. Mi’Jan Tho-Biaz at the Burnside Farm Artist Residency in Detroit, Michigan

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

And I was like, let’s backtrack! Because I thought I was just opting into the teaching and that everything else was just a suggestion, a recommendation! You know what I mean? You could opt-in or not. I had made up a whole fantasy career, pretty much. So she explained the differences, being a really great mentor.

Just very quickly, her background was anthropology, education, and marriage and family therapy. So to have a mentor who’s also a therapist, anthropologist, educator – it’s the trifecta of brilliance! So she knows how to ask very great coaching questions.

And her question for me was, “What’s the cadence of the work life that you really do want? How much money do you really need to be earning so that you can retire? When do you want to retire? What’s the composition of that work? Where do you want to work?”

And she had been watching me professionally also because we had some of the same sorts of overlapping consulting entities that we were working with. And I was her TA for at least a couple of grad classes, so she knew where my heart was, but she was just trying to help me to help myself, to understand, okay, well now what? How do I lay this out since I know that this other thing is definitely not what I want?

That said, I was recruited in that last year for a tenure-line position, I was recruited for an executive director position, and I was also recruited for a government leadership role. And I was like, “What to do?” I don’t know what should I really be going after and pursuing.

And I was talking to my dad, and my dad was like, “Honey, I don’t see you long for a government role. You really move very quickly, and I think that you would become frustrated, as well as frustrate other people who are working within such a large entity.”

And I was like,’ Okay.’ However, that was the thing that paid the most money out of all three, with great benefits, because it’s government. And then the mid-tier thing, in terms of pay, was the ED role, the executive director role. It really was pitched to me as, and it was with – because that’s what I chose – it was with the media arts education organization. And it was like, ‘Hey, we’re small, we’re scrappy, but we are pulling on everything that you actually have as a background in, and you can grow this into the next phase, and you can grow with it into your next phase professionally.’ I was like, “Okay!” And, as I said, it was a midpoint in terms of the money.

And then here we have that tenure line, which I already knew! The last sort of thing that made me say ‘absolutely not’ was the exact Department that I was being recruited into had a massive turnover. And that was a red flag. It was like, don’t do it!

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

So you’re in this great position. You have, what I mean, a lot of people these days would be like, well, you had three job offers – this is great! But I think it’s great that you didn’t just look at the jobs in terms of the title, the prestige, or all of the cultural associations with those things. You were also thinking, and probably because you are a mom, maybe you were thinking through this like, what kind of lifestyle do I want to have? What is the nature of the work that I want to do? So tell us a little bit more. Which one did you choose, and where did you end up?

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

I chose that ED role! However, I wish I had researched a bit more, what’s the nature of the beast of becoming a first-time woman of color executive director. What’s that burnout rate? You can do that in education roles where you recognize if you’re going to do K-12 and it’s special ed, and burnout is very quick. I mean, it’s really hard, etc etc. And it never occurred to me until the end when I was saying, okay, this is also so for me, but also there are some big pieces that are so not for me.

Number one, at the top of the list, was the degree of isolation I felt versus when I had been in academia and also at the school district. I lucked out as what I recognize now, I had great mentorship and professional community, and I felt like I was blowing in the wind in terms of the ED role. I held all of the responsibility, and so it, oddly enough, as I left, I went into a fellowship in residency that first year out at the Women’s International Study Center (WISC), right here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And I said, I really actually want to take this time to research and understand, why did that just happen to me? Even though I know from all the white papers that it’s actually typical, most EDs burn out within the first two to five years. Which is like, let’s do something about it!

But I said, “I really feel confused and perplexed because New Mexico is a majority-minority state, and women are the gender majority, so this shouldn’t have happened.” I should not have felt isolated. I should throw a rock and hit a gazillion different women of color EDs. And that’s how I wound up actually founding and directing the New Mexico Women of Color Non-profit Leadership Initiative.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Wow! So this is so great! I want to unpack this transition a little bit because I think at this stage, you have an EdD, and you had job opportunities. I would say probably any of the tracks you would have picked, any of the three; there’s going to be challenges. I mean, many of us, when we’re getting into our mid-career, there isn’t really leadership roles that are easy or simple or not without challenges – financial challenges, cultural challenges, challenges for women, challenges for people of color. So, you said that you found a fellowship as the next step. How did you come across the idea of doing the fellowship as sort of this way to maybe wriggle out of this or reinvent yourself?

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

I actually don’t know – but I know that first year out as an independent consultant and an independent documentarian, before I built a business, that first year, I just kept thinking I’m going to need community. I already know that from these last experiences of when I had it really well and sweetly and when I didn’t, and I can see…

I think, to answer the question, there was something going on where I was researching talent investing. And fellowship residencies, those were things that I had drawn on as a graduate student that successfully helped me pivot, helped me grow, helped me move to the next phase, brought in new professional relationships that were a ‘chef’s kiss.’ So here I’m in another pivot time, another transition time, let me pull on the thing, let me place the call, let me apply for what I know that’s a structure that works really well for me in these key times of transition. So that’s how I wound up applying to WISC and getting that fellowship.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

So that was the WISC [Women’s International Study Center] Fellowship? Tell us just briefly what that is and how did you find it?

WISC offers residencies of up to 4 weeks.

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

Well, at least then, it might have been [where] two weeks is the smallest, all the way to maybe two or three months. Because I chose a time of the year where there were no other fellows, I had this big rambling house to myself. You know, I love a great residency where you don’t have to cook and clean. There is no chef in residence; however, I didn’t have to clean [since] there’s a cleaning service. And it’s just this restorative time to research, make some headway on your project, and then to do some sort of public, useful community-based talk about your practice, your work, and how it ties to Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico. And so for me, again, because I’m just not really that linear, I was like, you know, it would be even more interesting, how about we have a panel instead of me just being a talking head. I created a panel, and I turned to the Santa Fe Community Foundation, which is one of our largest philanthropic foundations in the region. I said, would you be okay hosting it even though you guys don’t have anything to do with this fellowship and residency? But this topic is in your lane. We’re talking about women of color EDs, and burnout, and what is the care in tending that the sector needs to be aware of, and how we can make changes? How can women of color EDs, and those who are aspiring and hopeful; how can we know each other? How can we make relationships and build those? And so I hosted it. It was probably one of – not probably, it was one of the most well-attended up until that time. The rest was history, of seven years history- it’s like seven years old now.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Wow. And I think this, it sounds like this was kind of the beginning of a series of fellowships. That you were using to kind of pivot. Post this kind of traditional ED role that you had taken on, now you’re leaving that and kind of branching out on your own or doing something independent. What were you thinking, and what was the plan? Was there a plan?

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

Okay, you know what- my plan… So the three things I had going on that year that were certain and clear ground underneath my steps [were] I was a visiting scholar with another academic mentor. Dr. Amy Starecheskiis the Director of the Oral History Master of Arts program at Columbia University.

And I said, “I have some thoughts about oral history. I want to do some weird, wild new things, you know?”

And she [said,] “Great, you need library resources, community, come on down!”

Actually, I had four things going on. I had an Aspen Institute, which is a think tank sort of institute. They had an Ambassador-Fellowship hybrid program. It was all on the notion of a service year that you don’t have to leave the country and become a Peace Corps member or join the military in order to be in service to our nation. That, actually, we have an AmeriCorps program. I am an AmeriCorps Public Health alum. That was my first fellowship, actually, many, many years ago. Also, though, while I was in grad school, I needed that to pivot as well. I was trying to understand community health. But not just from [the] mental health perspective of social work.

So here I am, I’m in this year: I’ve got Aspen Institute, I have the Women’s International Studies Center, [and] I have Columbia University. And then, literally two months after sort of opening up my doors, just saying I’m going back to becoming an independent oral historian because that’s what I was before I was an ED, and I did just fine. And I was like, well, I can go back and do that. Knock, knock, knock at the door- I get a repeat customer, basically. My very first oral history gig, straight out the gate, while I was actually learning for the first time in my doc program, was the former CEO of The Ms. Foundation [Sara]. She was convening with also the former head- I can’t remember Joanne’s formal title, but it’s the head of Women for the United Nations.

They had this convening that they were bringing together of national economic justice leaders, and they [said], “We need an oral historian and someone who can make a project of this convening and really capture these stories, come on down Mi’Jan!” So that was my first gig.

Then fast forward to the other side of me being an executive director and exiting- Knock, knock, knock! It’s two months later, doors open, [and] Mi’Jan’s an independent oral historian again, and Sara, the former president of The Ms. Foundation, says, “Hey, I’m co-directing this thing called the Steinem Initiative (in honor of Gloria Steinem) at Smith College. We’re thinking about having a digital storytelling initiative, a digital storytelling project within the initiative. Are you interested? Can we talk? When’s the next time you’re on the east coast?”

And [I say,] “Well, I’m at Columbia. I’m going back and forth between New Mexico and New York all the time.”

She was like, “Great, we’ll come get you. Can you be in Northampton, oh, in a month?”

And I’m like, “Sure, fine! I’ll make a side trip!” Which became me being hired for my first big gig straight out the gate after the executive director role.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Right, that’s when you were this Lead Designer and Facilitator at the Steinum Initiative. By the way, there’s so much good stuff here. I mean, I’m still just trying to figure out how you did this all, especially being a mom and everything too! So you had all these interesting connections, contacts, but you’re in a relatively niche space. I mean, you’re an oral historian. Actually, can you just define what is an oral historian for those who may not know?

Dr. Mi’Jan Tho-Biaz at her Pocoapoco Artist Residency in Oaxaca, Mexico. She is wearing an off-the-shoulder black dress and looking to the right.
Dr. Mi’Jan Tho-Biaz at her Pocoapoco Artist Residency in Oaxaca, Mexico

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

I mean before the pandemic, I didn’t do any video… no, I take that back, there was one project with video work. However, it was always audio. I would collect audio stories: that wasn’t niche at all. It’s audio stories of a particular point in history from people who comprise that historical time period. Where I seem to have departed and become a bit of a non-traditional oral historian, is two-fold.

One, I mean I don’t know when this happened, maybe just at some point in the last 10 years, I end every oral history question not asking just about, you know, what has happened in this historical time period that we’re trying to unpack, document, archive, [and] amplify. But also, I ask, what’s your story of the future? And then of whatever is the theme tied to that community.

Some people say, “Oh, Mi’Jan asks for our prophecies and our prayers.” I can understand that a bit more now that I’m researching Octavia Butler, you know, a speculative fiction genius writer’s archives. However, that’s always been a component of the oral histories I collect, that make me a little different. As well as, because of that first executive director role landing in my lap within the first two, three years of me becoming an oral historian, I always primed every project for amplification.

It’s not enough, especially if you’re collecting oral histories of marginalized communities, to say, ‘well it’s going to go to an archive,’ and it’s an archive where you have to have documentation, it’s on a university campus. Well, what if you’re collecting oral histories with undocumented folks? That seems to be a false start. The people who are providing the histories can’t even access them? Or maybe they’ve had not-so-great experiences and they’ve been marginalized and they don’t feel comfortable at repositories or government sites because of whatever treaties were not honored. Maybe the government is not a welcoming historic place and so to have their stories collected and put in a place that doesn’t resonate, or there’s been some unrepaired relationship. …So I’m always a person who says I’m a cultural worker. I work with cultural workers, that was my research in grad school. What happens when we give these instead of to an archive, we give them to muralists in your neighborhood. And the muralists make murals based on these stories. What happens when we give them to young people and we put them not just in a museum exhibition but on public radio and we get them edited. What happens if we work with- I love to do these culinary story events- what happens when we create story-feast events and we bring more people to the table, to not just listen but also to share and build. So I’m non-traditional.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s amazing. I mean to me, that sounds like the future of the stories that we’re telling. You hear storytelling now is like a common theme. Everyone’s talking about storytelling, but I love that concept that you’re really – it’s not just about documenting stories and storing them somewhere. It is amplifying the stories, and you’re doing this through fellowships.

So do you find yourself leveraging the fellowships? I want to know more about how you’re using fellowships because you’ve gotten so many of them! So I think some people think, number one, that it’s not possible to do something like this at mid-career. But you’ve been able to become truly an independent scholar who’s visiting different institutions, designing your own career, and you’re still pursuing different fellowships. I feel like I’m skipping around on the questions!

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

It’s okay, go for it!

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

I’m curious because, I see, I know a lot of people in the ProFellow community who I think at mid-career, are looking to do socially impactful work. But the question is how do we design a career? And how can we leverage fellowships for that? So maybe tell us a little bit about how are you able to build one, and then you get another, and then you get another.

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

This is the easiest answer that I can share. Because- a lot of my work is- it’s not even a lot. All of the work has been education or narrative-based, right? Professionally for me, except for being a social worker. And so I think through like an educator does. You’ve got a summertime. The summertime is break time, or at least it’s quiet time. It’s not when you’re out doing public programming. So if we’re following praxis, this concept that we reflect, we design, [and] we plan in a season, it would be the summer. And it is the summer season. And then you go, and you teach. I believe in popular education, so I’m like, okay, how do I prime myself so that I’m in teacher and learner mode, right, in a classroom context? Whether it’s community-based or if it’s academia. And then you come back for a quieter hibernation sort of period of the winter month off, to recharge your batteries, but also to reflect what went right, what sort of went sideways? Why, if anything at all? Or what was just boring? If I had, years ago, the great advice if you’re bored as a teacher in the classroom, your class was bored a half hour ago. So it’s like just starting to do an audit in the winter time and then also plan and prime for the spring and then come back and do it all again in the summer. Maybe in different ways with different people in different places.

But I follow praxis, and so for me, as I think about fellowships, I think about them the exact same way, but more so as a narrative worker where it’s research, pre-production, production, [and] post-production. And so, what fellowships can I turn to, or even if? Because there are some years where I’m like, no, I don’t have the capacity because I’m such a relationship-driven person professionally and personally. All of the things that you’ve just ticked off about the different fellowships that I’ve received over the years. I mean, I’m obviously going into this new upcoming year, so it’s not quite happened yet, but all of the ones up until now, I still have at least one friend, one dear friend, and/or colleague from every single institution. Every single one!

And so there’s that relationship, and I guess a very process-driven part of my work, where I say to myself, okay in this upcoming year of work, pre-production, production, post-production, or; curriculum design, teaching, leading, you know, etc. And then the reflection afterwards, survey space, [and] analysis. Who do I need to make relationships with who I don’t already know? What are some skills maybe that I need to have under my belt that would be so useful? And, how can I show up in this new next community, new next fellowship, or artist residency, where it’s mutually useful? I always am researching for that mutuality because, again, relationships! Think about, you know, the last time you were single, Vicki, and you go on a date, and if the guy or woman or whoever sits down with you and says, you know, what’s in it for me? I think the date would be a U-turn, and you’d just be like, “No, we’re done!”

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

The big thing I teach in the fellowship applications, especially when you have to propose a project or propose research, you always want to think about what’s the mission of the organization and the funding body that’s sponsoring you to understand what they need out of the relationship. Because the goal isn’t to help you advance your career, that’s never the mission, really. The mission is that there’s some area of work that is untapped that they want to advance – invest in people to help use their archives, do this work… So they care about the work that you’re doing.

I mean, I heard so many great nuggets of advice here. Number one, you know, every year, you should be thinking about the relationships that you’re building because when you start to get in your mid-career, that’s when you really start to see the gains of the network that you’ve built. You have a much bigger network if you’ve done it thoughtfully, kept in touch with people on your fellowships, kept in touch with people from university and graduate programs and career tracks and jobs. Suddenly at mid-career is when it really starts to snowball into new opportunities. I hear you talking about thinking ahead and really planning out your years, [and] being strategic about how you spend your time, which is great. So not just job hopping, okay, this job’s here, and now it’s ending, and now I’m going to look. You’re kind of always thinking ahead, so I hear that too.

And then mentors. I think you’ve been lucky to get some mentors. I won’t have a lot of time to do all the questions on my list here, but I wanted to ask about the mentors for a minute because sometimes people say, ‘Well, how do I get a mentor? There’s nobody who would want to mentor me.’

So what do you think? What would you give, especially to people in mid-career, as well as early-career, who are hungry for mentors but maybe they don’t know what one looks like or what it means? So how did you find your mentors or cultivate those relationships?

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

You know it was another one of those things where two parallel tracks are happening at the same time: becoming a teacher at San Mateo Unified School District. Tim Doyle was the English as a Second Language Director at the time, and he said “I’m going to pay you to sit in a seasoned master teacher’s class so that you can understand why it flows the way that it flows really well. And how maybe you can integrate that into your teaching practice.” And I was like great.

And he said, “And I’m also going to pay for some time so that you can talk to this master teacher, not just to be in observation mode but to also be in dialogue mode.”

Right, and then he said, “I’m also going to pay for you to sit down with the other two new Adult School Educators in the ESL Department who have decades of experience but they’re new to our school, our adult school. And I want you all to pass around your lesson plans and talk about them, go to the teacher resource store, and, you know, buy your materials together.”

And so I understood as a new educator this is just how this works. So, I had seasoned mentor[s] and also peer mentors that I was paid to jam session with, basically. At the exact same time that I was in grad school, and I’m noticing, wow, there are these things called Teaching Assistantships and they’re getting some money somehow. They’re talking about their advisors who are their mentors because that’s how our department worked. And I was like, how do I get one of those people? And then that’s how I wound up with Dr. Jackie Raca, and getting two graduate merit fellowships, and being her TA and her being my mentor extraordinaire for my grad career.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Yeah, those are the university jobs for graduate students. I talk about the assistantships a lot because it’s the big cash cow for graduate funding that a lot of people don’t know about. You can get your tuition and stipend, but then this is the other huge benefit, the experience that you get in those roles and the mentorship. So you actually get to connect with potentially more professors, more professionals, and colleagues for your career. So yes, it’s a really worthwhile role to get at the university in the Assistantships. Which could also be Instructerships or there’s other words for them even outside the US. So it sounds to me, though, I want to say… I think most people came to you with these opportunities, paying you to go to master classes, doing this because they knew that you would make the most of it. That you were someone who was hungry, passionate, you were somebody that, if they made that introduction or invested in you, that you were going to take it 120%, right? And I think that has really paid off, as you can see because now you’re just in the flow. You’re in the flow of fellowships and opportunities that came from a long runway of working up and building relationships, but also proving yourself to those relationships too. So I mean, take note, take note, everyone who’s watching! I mean, Mi’Jan has figured something out that I see in a lot of people who I call “pro-fellows”. It’s not just about these funding awards or this or that; it is about the relationships that you build in your career. And I felt that for myself, too, is that even ProFellow wouldn’t exist without all the people that supported me and mentored me over the years to get it to this, to become this resource that we can offer.

So, Mi’Jan, I have to wrap this up. I want to do a final question. Actually, let me do one. Has there been any negative or disadvantage to using fellowships to build your career? Because some people might say well, why would I do this over a traditional job?

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

I don’t consider it a disadvantage, but I do want to caution- maybe not caution- but I would say it’s a consideration. Because in my experience and also because of how I engage and use fellowships, I would say it’s speed.

I hear so many people who are like, “I’m gonna get a fellowship, and then all of my dreams will come true, forever!” And I’m like, “Wow, tell me what fellowship is that?”

That, in my experience, is not how that works, and it’s also not how I approach them. I approach fellowships, yes, for resources, income, in-kind as well as financial. However, I approach fellowships for the learning in terms of tangible skills. And also, again, I’m going to keep harping on it: relationships. And so, guess what, if I’m engaging in fellowships based on growing professional relationships and communities? That’s not going to move very quickly because relationships move at the speed of connectedness, intimacy, and trust.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

One last question. What’s the prophecy? What’s the future of Dr. Tho-Biaz? I want to know! What are you going to be working on next? Oh, and we didn’t even talk about Ecuador! You’re heading to Ecuador on the Fulbright Specialist roster!… [so] next year and then the future.

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

…Yeah, I’m doing this year of adventure. I get to do a month of the Camino de Santiago. It’s the year of me being the Lady Explorer. I always used to say when I was growing up, I’m going to be a lady explorer and travel all over the world and meet all these people and investigate cultures.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

And you’re doing it now; you’re doing it!

Dr. Tho-Biaz:

I pulled it off, I pulled it off. And so it’s Camino de Santiago, then two months with the six-week Fulbright Specialist award, and they approved my additional time for personal travel. I get to go to Quito and check out museums and stuff like that. Also, the Galapagos Islands it’s been a lifelong dream. Then after that, I’ll be in Octavia Butler’s physical archives. I’m a digital reader now doing the preliminary research and handing that over to the research assistant there. However, I’ll be digging into her archives, living though at 18th Street Art Center, which is in Santa Monica, California, and then making the commute- I would say most of the week I have a friend who lives closer to the archives- making the commute to the Huntington Library to do that work. The goal is to I create a guide for BIPOC world builders, nation builders, prolific cultural icons, as well as our community-beloved cultural workers, where they can determine from the guide, like a coaching resource, who, where, when, and how they want their materials of their lives to be archived and amplified, instead of just leaving it for whatever generation after they pass along to figure out. Like, well, maybe let’s just keep it in a basement. It’s like, no, no, no! We need those precious treasures to be protected for the next generation so that they can put that history into good use and action.

After that, I have two Story Feasts that I’m producing. I can’t tell you publicly where, but I’ve already met with the leadership, and it’s very exciting! Yeah, it’s our cultural node places in the United States. And then I have a digital series that I’m hosting with cultural workers, [and] literary workers, all on the theme of “Repair, Hope, Reckoning and Liberation,” living into our nation’s promise as we’re moving into our nation’s 250th anniversary.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Wow, Mi’Jan, that is truly what I would call a career adventure. And I would just say, if anyone watching this is interested in doing something similar to what Mi’Jan is doing in your particular field or area of work, check out ProFellow. We’ve got a huge, massive open-access database. We list fellowships all the way for undergraduate students, all the way to mid/late career faculty, scholars, and professionals. A lot of the awards that Mi’Jan mentioned today that she’s on are in the database, like the Fulbright Specialist program. We’ve got research fellowships, library fellowships, graduate fellowships, as well as fully funded graduate programs. So check this out!

But Mi’Jan, thank you for the inspiration. You’re just proof that it can be done, that you can reinvent yourself, [and] that you can create a career adventure at any stage in your career, [and] that you can pursue your passions! You truly designed your career. So, thank you for sharing your story with us at ProFellow. And please stay in touch because I can’t wait to see what you’re coming up with next.

Want to learn more about some of the fellowship opportunities Dr. Tho-Bias participated in? Make sure to bookmark the following fellowships to your ProFellow account:

Dr. Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz, Ed.D. is a Kennedy Center CitProfessional photo of Dr. Mi'Jan Tho-Biaz.izen Artist who moves between realms of oral history, art, media, and ritual to produce meaningful forward-facing cultural projects. As a 2023-2024 Andrew Mellon Foundation Short-Term Fellow, Mi’Jan is researching Octavia Butler’s archives at the Huntington Library. She is also a 2023 Fulbright Specialist Awardee to Ecuador’s Universidad de Las Artes. Previously, Mi’Jan curated and hosted Unfinished Network’s 2022 inaugural salon on the theme of multiracial democracy with CNN’s Van Jones and MSNBC’s Maria Teresa Kumar; designed and led the Gloria Steinem Initiative’s public policy digital storytelling pilot; and served as a New Mexico Humanities Council Scholar.

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