University of Michigan graduate student Cherline Bazile has been awarded a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, a program that provides financial support to immigrants and children of immigrants.
Bazile, who is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, is the first U-M student to receive the fellowship since 2012. The program provides up to $90,000 in financial support over two years to 30 new Americans in U.S. graduate schools.
“I am beyond excited to be a recipient of this fellowship,” said Bazile, who likes to think of her story as one of breaking barriers, or defiance. “I’ve been feeling a mixture of shock, gratitude and pride that’s been gently brewing.”
Since 1998, the fellowship has supported new Americans with heritage in 89 countries to study at any U.S. graduate school. It draws nearly 1,800 applications each year.
According to Henry Dyson, director of U-M’s Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships, what makes the P.D. Soros Fellowship special is the recognition that successive waves of immigrants and children of immigrants have been a major source of revitalization to American industry, science and culture throughout our history.
“The fellowship seeks to identify and support, financially and through elite mentorship, the next generation of Americans who will make significant contributions to our national narrative,” he said. “In Cherline’s field of literature, think of the contributions that authors like Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz or Amy Tan have added to the richness of our understanding of what it means to be an American.”
Born in Florida to Haitian immigrants, Bazile says she grew up in tough circumstances—poverty, abandonment, violence—and because of her background, being both black and the daughter of immigrants, there weren’t many options out there.
Despite the challenges, she was accepted at Harvard University, where she studied English, focusing her research on how narrative could be a tool for rewriting trauma. She is now a first-year MFA student in fiction in U-M’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program.
“So many people I know from low-income, immigrant backgrounds either don’t know what’s out there or feel pressured to ‘stay’ out of duty, circumstances and sometimes guilt. I see that in my siblings,” she said. “And I want something different for them. To know the world is full of wild possibilities and that they deserve to live the life they choose.”
For Bazile, being a child of immigrants comes with a very particular set of challenges, especially if the parents weren’t wealthy or educated before moving to the U.S.
“There are a lot of narratives about immigrants that make them seem either like they’re lazy or, almost the opposite, like they’re working too much, taking too much space,” she said. “The narratives people make about us stick. We can try and shrug it off, we can work despite (of it).”
Bazile will use the fellowship to learn more about American culture and how art creation can empower those from adverse backgrounds. She hopes her work inspires others to move beyond their limiting circumstances.
“I hope to be a vessel for people to surmount what makes them feel small and give them the space to breathe and grieve and laugh,” she said. “I’m working on my first book now and plan to write a few more, in addition to writing television shows.
“My mother is illiterate, and I am a writer. I think there’s power in that sentence. I am an extension of my mother. I am capable of achieving what she could not. Her decision to come to the U.S. means that both of our lives have been transformed. When I write, my mother becomes a writer, too.”