Debunking the Funding Myth

Don’t tell your mom I told you this, but the Funding Fairy isn’t real. And it took me until this week to realize it.

The Funding Fairy isn’t as real as I thought.

Since before even arriving on campus, I’ve heard story after story of Princeton’s generosity: the fully-funded research project, the all-expenses-paid trip to Cuba, the paid summer fellowship. Dazzled by these stories, I pictured the University as a Funding Fairy with a magic wand (or a pushover parent in a toy store – ready to pull out their wallet whenever I pointed at something I wanted). Unfortunately, however, this Funding Fairy is not real; funding is not awarded nearly as liberally as I imagined.

Earlier this week, I decided I wanted to spend winter break translating Yiddish poetry in archives in New York City. I’ve been itching to study Yiddish for months, but, because Princeton doesn’t offer a Yiddish program (yet), I’ve had to limit my Yiddish projects to vacations. Shortly after thinking of my poetry translation idea, I shot an email to the Lewis Center for the Arts asking for a small bit of funding for the project. A few hours later, I received the response: “We don’t have winter funding.” And like a child discovering the coin under her pillow was no fairy gift, I realized securing funding is more complicated than just asking for it. And I’m actually grateful for that.

Of course, many funding opportunities do exist on this campus, especially when it comes to independent work for juniors and seniors. We’re lucky to attend a school where a quick search on Princeton’s Student Activities Funding Engine can lead to significant institutional support.

However, it’s also important to realize that Princeton won’t hand us a blank check for any project we feel like doing. And when we hit a dead end on campus, it’s actually an opportunity to think more creatively about how to implement our project. Like any editing process, redesigning a proposal in order to secure funding or to reduce costs can actually improve the final project. As we all know, revisions strengthen our arguments and improve the clarity of our ideas — often by pushing us to craft connections with other disciplines and resources, and to reconsider what about this project is most important to us.

Also, I try not to think about this too much, but Princeton is likely the most generous and reliable sponsor I will ever encounter… or at least for the foreseeable future. As a result, learning how to navigate funding opportunities and write strong proposals are essential skills for the post-Princeton world. And although it’s no fun to hit the funding wall any earlier than necessary, it’s great practice for the future.

Since hitting my dead end with funding on campus, I’ve discovered an exciting alternative project through a non-Princeton institution. I called my friend — who happens to be an intern at a Yiddish organization in New York — to ask if she had any leads and, within an hour, she was helping me sign up for a fully-funded winter scholarship for artists and students to study Yiddish history and produce art inspired by the organization’s archives. No, this wasn’t the project I had originally imagined. But as I get closer to winter break, I’m actually more excited about this program than the original project I had proposed to Princeton.

— Rafi Lehmann, Social Sciences Correspondent