How Fellowships Foster Personal Development: A Three-Time Fellow’s Perspective

Jul 22, 2020
Jason collaborating at the Unschool of Disruptive Design fellowship in NYC

“A considerable amount of learning happens outside of the classroom,” argues Jason Sandman, a Hive Global Leader, Unschool of Disruptive Design Fellow, and Startingbloc Fellow. “I’ve taken this same perspective with my career. Much of what I have gained and learned about being a professional has happened outside of my career.” Jason is the co-founder of Climate Dads, which provides education, tools, and support in order to nourish a parent’s innate appetite to safeguard their children and provide a space where their children can thrive, particularly from the unpredictable nature of a warming world. In this interview, he shares his unique take on fellowship programs and gave some helpful advice for future applicants!

1. What inspired you to start applying for fellowship programs?

I remember applying to graduate school programs determined to get a salaried, living-wage career post-graduation. I conceptually envisioned something practical, rather naively, that I thought would pan out. I really loved the humanities and social sciences courses I completed in undergraduate school, but they didn’t lead to the career trajectory I had hoped. I was willing to give academia a second chance and really engaged with my graduate program. However, due to many controllable and uncontrollable factors, I quickly realized after graduation that neither undergraduate or graduate programs really worked out the way I wanted at the time. 

Saddled with way too much debt, a job that I tolerated instead of a career that I loved, and also realizing that I wanted to explore how and to what extent soft skills could improve not just my career opportunities, but just better position me to be a better human, I looked at non-traditional opportunities that would equip me to be a better human being both for myself and others.

2. How have your fellowships helped you develop your career aspirations?

I don’t want to make the generalization or assumption that those pursuing fellowships do it simply to further develop career aspirations. Looking back, I certainly considered they might lead to that outcome, but I pursued them for other, also personally valuable reasons. 

I got to travel to NYC as an Unschool of Disruptive Design Fellow and Startingbloc Fellow and to Harvard for the Hive Global Leaders Program. These were novel locations to me at that time, and I used that setting as motivation for furthering opportunities to become a better human being. Who could I connect with in my cohort to improve my own soft skills? What about those places could help me develop more practical life skills? Themes like design, sustainability, social entrepreneurship, leadership, and collaboration all spoke to me as fellowship content, so I jumped into fellowship programs like these. Do these skills translate to a deeper sense of career aspirations, or a more robust sense of self? Perhaps both. 

A young Jason in Israel

3. What have been some of your favorite experiences as a fellow?

I remember the vulnerability of posting online crowdsourcing pages so that I could attend these fellowships. For a couple of the programs, I was in some of the earliest cohorts and not a lot of scholarships/grants were available at that time, so funding my own transportation, housing, and applications was on me. I recall reaching out to current and previous landlords, 2nd cousins, supervisors, and even neighbors. I was surprised how effective that was in gathering enough capital to invest in myself. That was a bit shocking to me – how eager people were to help. Just make the ask. Make the ask. I can’t imagine many scenarios in life where you get rewarded without making the ask and/or doing the work. When it comes to fundraising, make the ask directly. 

I vividly recall collaborating on a disruptive design model for a rural community in India as an Unschool of Disruptive Design Fellow that produced a concept for sustainable use of water and adaptive reuse of a space. Leaders in the rural Indian village and community were on a call with us from a coworking space in Manhattan, but it felt like we were right there in the field. I enjoyed that experience. Oh, and some of the catered food and beverages were amazing. (:

4. What advice would you give for those who want to become strong applicants to fellowship programs?

There is a theme here; a fellowship, much like academic programs, offers an experience. Is this experience right for you right now? The fellowships I completed never promised the cohort a career, nor should they. Are you applying for college, university, or a fellowship just for a career? If so, why? I think once you start to look at fellowships as experiences that can have some intangibles, positives, and optimisms you don’t typically get from a lecture where a professor speaks at you, then these experiences become even more valuable. Fellowships are experiences with you. For me, that was incredibly valuable.

Perhaps the most important question an undecided fellowship applicant can ask is, what does the post-fellowship look like from the organizer’s perspective? How do they support you post-fellowship? Is this important and/or critical for you? The first step is being bold. Ask the folks organizing the fellowship about the post-fellowship experience. How does this experience nourish, support, and harness your abilities and objectives so that you can thrive after the experience? So, in turn, that the population you want to support can also thrive?

Jason is the Co-Founder of Climate Dads, a population of caregivers who lead by example in the response to the climate crisis. He has been a Hive Global Leader (Boston), Unschool of Disruptive Design Fellow (NYC), and Startingbloc Fellow (NYC). He is an Americorps veteran, a citizen planner, and avid gardener. He is also the father of two young boys in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He sits on the board of directors of his local registered civic organization, is an active block captain, and enjoys cycling, running, and playing soccer. 

Interested in learning more about the fellowships Jason completed? Learn more about the Hive Global Leaders Program, Unschool of Disruptive Design Fellowship, and Startingbloc Fellowship

© Victoria Johnson 2020, all rights reserved