How I Won a Fulbright Using ProFellow: An Interview with Ngoni Mufute

Mar 30, 2022 • Views -

Growing up in rural Zimbabwe, Ngoni Mufute started brainstorming from an early age how he could play a role in improving the agricultural practices of local subsistence farmers. After studying Agricultural Engineering and Water Resources Management, Ngoni recently earned a Fulbright Research Award for African Scholars to continue his studies in the United States — with the help of some useful ProFellow resources!

Learn more about Ngoni’s research project, the ProFellow articles he found most helpful, and his tips for applying for Fulbright research grants as he shares his “How I Won a Fulbright” story with ProFellow Founder Dr. Vicki Johnson. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Click the video above to watch the full conversation!

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Hello everyone. I’m pleased to introduce a guest interviewee today, Ngoni Mufute. I wanted to interview Ngoni because I heard that he earned a Fulbright Research Scholarship Award from Zimbabwe to come to Utah State University in the United States. And I had the pleasure to learn as well that you used some ProFellow resources in order to create a really exceptional application to get to this really extraordinary Fulbright Award in the U.S.

So Ngoni, I was interested to learn more about you and your journey to the U.S., and I had a couple of questions for you for this interview today. Welcome!

Ngoni Mufute:

Thank you very much.

Dr. Vicki Johnson Johnson:

Tell us a little bit about your background, where you’re from, and how you started to work in your field. What is your area of expertise, and how did you become interested in this area?

Ngoni Mufute:

I am Zimbabwean, by the way. My area of expertise is water resources management and irrigation. So I have several years of experience in this field, and maybe I can talk a bit about my education also. I did a Bachelor’s of Science in Agricultural Engineering. Then I went on to do a master’s in Water Resources Management at the University of Zimbabwe. Now, I’m a junior lecturer at the Midlands State University in the Department of Land and Water Resources management. I teach irrigation, watershed management, and greywater harvesting. I also do some research and community engagement, visiting farmers, and other community members where are they staying. 

I spent my early years of primary school (some people call it elementary school) in the rural area in the Eastern part of Zimbabwe. So the most lively activity there is, you know, is agriculture, basically rain-fed agriculture. So every time we had a drought, crops would fail and that was not good for families or the country and its economy. So I wondered at a very early stage in my background, when I was still a kid, how I could help solve this problem. Water and irrigation basically are about supplying water to crops, and that’s how I got interested in this research topic.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Wonderful. Now, you were recently selected for a Fulbright research scholar award to come to the United States. How did you first learn about this opportunity to do your research through the Fulbright Program? Is this something that you always wanted to do?

Ngoni Mufute:

Yes, I am a 2021 Fulbright research scholar. The actual Fulbright research program that I’m on, because there are several Fulbright programs, is called Research Awards for African scholars, a program in curriculum development grants. I started this in mid-February this year. And my project title is, “Practical Training on Irrigation Water Management and Research on the Evaluation of Solar Irrigation in the United States.”

I first heard about the Fulbright awards during my college years from colleagues and friends at college. Back then I always regarded these awards as being prestigious, and they are really prestigious indeed. I considered them to be beyond my abilities to apply. So those years I didn’t consider applying, you know? It was not until I started working as a lecturer that I seriously considered applying for these scholarships. 

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Great. And you mentioned in your e-mail when we connected that you were able to use some ProFellow resources, articles, or tips to really help prepare your application. Tell me which ones did you find most useful, so that other international applicants might really hone in on those?

Ngoni Mufute:

Basically, I used a lot of ProFellow resources to help me with my preparation. There’s one document about how to win competitive fellowships, 5 Secrets of Fellowship Winners. You actually yourself actually wrote that one on your website. It taught me basically that it’s not only about what I want, it’s also about the organization that I’m applying for and its goals. You know, you have to really consider those. That’s one of the things that it taught me. 

I also consulted other documents like your Step-by-Step Guide for a Competitive Fellowship Application. Basically, it’s a good document! It really helped me structure my applications, as well as understand the required application documents and how to put them together. It explains the procedures step by step how to go about it. I also read a group of other articles, like 5 Powerful Personal Statement Openings of Fellowship Winners and How to Write a Personal Statement for Graduate School

There were others, like How to Write a Personal Statement: 6 Exercises to Conquer Writer’s Block, and another on How to Answer “Why”: 3 Tips for Fellowship Applicants. These resources helped me prepare my cover letter, personal statement, short biography, and obviously my project statement.

Ngoni Mufute has been interested in improving the agricultural practices of subsistence farmers since growing up in rural Zimbabwe.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s wonderful to hear that you used so many of the personal statement articles we’ve written. Some I’ve written, and actually, many of them have been written by other Fulbright fellows. And I love that you honed in on the mission of the organization of the Fulbright Awards because it really is an award about international diplomacy and building relationships between countries. So I think that is a really good thing to emphasize in your application.

Well, tell me now about your application process from Zimbabwe to the Fulbright research. How did you figure out a host institution at Utah state, and how did you create your project proposal for this?

Ngoni Mufute:

So I was given an option to look for my host institution or to get sponsors to look for the host institution. So I opted to let the International Institute for Education, which is the administrator of the Fulbright program on behalf of the Department of State, decide. They searched and selected the host institution for me. But obviously, I had to give suggestions. I had to read about possible host institutions and give them suggestions that they could actually consider. So they eventually chose the host institution for me.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Oh, great. Yeah, it doesn’t always work that way for some of the awards. But that is interesting that for you, you suggested schools, and the Utah State University … were they ones that were leading research in your area of interest around water management?

Ngoni Mufute:

Yeah. Utah State actually is, I would say is one of the leading universities when it comes to irrigation and water management for agriculture issues. Really, they are really an authority in those areas. So I feel very honored basically that they selected that institution for me. I feel very honored.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Well, tell me now about the day in the life of a Fulbright. Now that you’re here in the United States, working at the University, what are you doing on your Fulbright day-to-day? What sort of activities are you involved in?

Ngoni Mufute:

In the first few weeks basically, it’s mostly about the administrative issue, orientation, getting registration on your institution, submitting documents to the sponsors, and complying with the education requirements. Those are the things that you have to do. Sort out your bank accounts, and finalize long-term accommodation. This is what you start by doing. Those you can’t avoid going through.

After that, some of the immediate tasks that you have to go through day-by-day is you have a plan. Like when I got in touch with my host, we had to finalize my proposal, to sort of fine-tune it to meet conditions on the ground and the expectations of my host. So we developed a project plan. You know, how to implement that project. So one of the immediate tasks is to go through the tasks within that plan, that include in my case, technical reading about the technical issues in my field, and practical training also on certain equipment related to my field. Right now, because it’s the end of winter, and you know in winter, irrigation is not normally practiced, we practice it in summer. So right now everybody’s just doing their preparation to go to the field, and so forth. So that’s some of the things that we do prepare for the fieldwork: finalizing the research plan, and selecting study size, things like that.

I also learn about what other students and fellow scholars are researching, attend meetings that are related to day-to-day issues at the University, like scheduled meetings for professional development, which are normally group meetings in our department with my host. We normally have scheduled meetings basically every Monday morning where we go through what we are doing in research, and also select a certain professional development topic to talk about that week. I also participate in departmental seminars. The department is large, so they host seminars every Thursday. 

And of course, the other thing I have been doing so far is going to organizations that do things in my field. So, going there and looking at what they do, it really helped me because I get to appreciate how these things are done in the United States.

By utilizing ProFellow resources and tips articles, Ngoni recently received a Fulbright Research Award to study in the United States.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Well, tell me a little bit more too about you know, there’s a big aspect of the Fulbright is the cultural exchange. So outside of the research, how have you engaged with the community in Utah, and what are you learning about U.S. culture that’s interesting to you? Have you had any opportunity to share your culture with your U.S. community?

Ngoni Mufute:

It’s still early days yet, but I’ve been engaged in informal discussions, for example with my colleagues, my fellow students, and also with faculty staff. You know during those, we’ve been discussing our various cultures, like how we do certain things in Zimbabwe, how we school in Zimbabwe, how life is in Zimbabwe, for example in the rural areas and urban areas. Yeah, making comparisons and contrasts on those things. 

I’ve been invited to dinners, of course, at homes, and getting to eat typical American food, or home-cooked food with American families. And there are other members of the wider communities that I’ve met, they’ve invited me to their social activities, to their places of worship. I’ve learned about the history of Utah. You know, there are these people who believed … they were called the Mormons. Those are the first migrants to get to the place. So most people in my host town go to the Latter-day Saints Church, which is basically from the original Mormons.So there are churches of historical significance that I’ve been taken to by these people; for example, the Logan Temple. 

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

So many interesting things. I hope the more you’re there too, you’ll get to share your culture, your foods, your music, and those sorts of things with Americans because you know, we do love to learn about other cultures.

Ngoni Mufute:

Definitely, I will learn to do that. Then one thing that I’m kind of missing is to maybe to cook for them our traditional staple dish. We call it sadza, which is basically a thick paste of porridge made from corn flour. We call it maize, but here it’s called corn. Yeah, so corn flour yeah, we use that paste, then we have a relish, maybe made of vegetables and meat and so forth. So I wanted to make that, but I can’t seem to find the right ingredients.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

I know. That’s one thing, you do miss the food when you go to a foreign country. You miss your own food, your home food.

I’ve got one last question for you before we wrap up. If you could give any advice to other scholars or students from Zimbabwe, or even other foreign countries, in terms of applying to these Fulbright Awards, what advice would you give? What would be your top tips?

Ngoni Mufute:

So the first thing is, do your homework. Do your homework about what you want to do, where you want to do it, and why you want to do it in the U.S.A. so that you can make a compelling and feasible application. When I mean compelling is like do you really know what you want to do in the U.S.A.? And why is it that you want to do it in the U.S.A.? Can you not do it in your own country, for example? And you have to choose a group, a fit, a host institution for you in order for you to do it in the United States. So you have to make a convincing application in that regard.

And the other thing is to consult with those who you know have applied successfully for scholarships before. It would be even better if you could find somebody who has applied for the exact scholarships that you want to apply for. They really give you very useful tips that you can use to apply. So for myself, I consulted a lot of colleagues who had applied for Fulbright, and also for other scholarship programs like the Orange Knowledge Program from the Netherlands. I learned a lot from that.

Then, of course, preparation is really important. There’s nothing that beats preparation. And I’ve seen in one of your articles when you say opportunity favors the prepared. So I really learned that that is really important. I cannot over-emphasize that. So for example, gathering the required information and documents in time. Doing background research about the institutions, about the scholarship providers themselves and their values. Things like that. That is really important. And you also need time obviously to fine-tune your application documents, and so forth. So it’s really important.

And there are things like, don’t feel intimated by whatever the title or the way some of these scholarships are viewed. You know, you can get intimated by that, and decide not to apply. I have this similar experiences with that. “I can’t apply for this prestigious scholarship because the competition is top-notch. I can’t match the competition. I’m not good enough.” You know? So everybody has their story to tell, and you have your own unique experience and qualities. So it’s about how you package and customize your experiences and your stories to convince the selectors that you are the right candidate, you are the right pick for what they want, and you are the right person to advance their goals.

Usually, they’ve got goals about social impact, you know like the Fulbright is about enhancing the mutual understanding between peoples and also between the United States and other countries. So you need to understand that. You need to show that you are the right candidate. But everybody has done something in those regards, and it’s about how you put your story across. That really is important. So that’s some of the advice that I can share with those who are willing to apply. 

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

I love it. Ngoni, you are a true ProFellow. I feel like you’ve really embodied the ProFellow spirit

Ngoni Mufute:

Well yes, I mean I’ve read 1,000 documents and articles. I’m still doing right now yeah, I’m still reading some articles. 

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

And we also love that you’re working in a really socially impactful field.

You know, water and climate change are going to be two really big issues facing our future generations, so we need more people like you doing the research and developing mutual understanding in this particular field especially. So thank you for dedicating your life to this work, and we’re so happy to have you here in the U.S. We hope you have a good experience here, and we hope too if you go back to your home country, if there are other aspiring applicants, you’ll have some great tips to share for other students and scholars from Zimbabwe that want to take on something like a Fulbright Award. Thank you again.

Ngonidzashe Lewis Mufute is a Lecturer of Water Resources Management and Irrigation at Midlands State University in Zimbabwe. He is currently a Fulbright Award visiting scholar at Utah State University. He has a Bachelor’s of Science Honors degree in Agricultural Engineering and a Master’s degree in Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) with a specialization in water resources management.

Interested in applying for a Fulbright? Find out which Fulbright program is the right fit for you and your experience level. 

© ProFellow, LLC 2022, all rights reserved.