We’re so pleased to introduce today’s guest and topic in our Diversity in Fiction series. Jessica Tyner Mehta is not only a critically acclaimed author, she’s the founder of a scholarship meant to promote diversity in fiction, specifically Native American fiction. Born and raised in Oregon, Jessica is the author of The Last Exotic Petting Zoo (shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize) and What Makes an Always published by Tayen Lane Publishing, as well as 100 Ways to Make $100K with Your English Degree from Moonshine Cover Publishing. She is the founder of MehtaFor, a writing company which serves a variety of clients including Fortune 500 enterprises and major media outlets. Her company received the national bronze award for Startup of the Year from the American Business Awards in 2015.
Jessica received a Writers in the Schools residency from the Oregon Literary Arts Council for 2015-16. As a member of the Cherokee Nation, Jessica offers complimentary writing and editing services through her company to Native American students and non-profits based in the Pacific Northwest and/or serving Native communities.
She received her master’s degree in writing from Portland State University, and established The Jessica Tyner Scholarship Fund in 2013. An extensive traveler, she has lived in England, South Korea and Costa Rica. She’s a certified yoga instructor, avid runner, and collector of first edition books.
A Q&A with Jessica Tyner Mehta
- What prompted you to establish your own scholarship/foundation? Was it your experience with Native American/diversity scholarships at university?
I was the first person in my family to attend college—I knew nothing about the process, including that scholarships even existed. By the time I figured it out, it was the junior year of my undergraduate program and I had missed out on a lot of opportunities for those elusive “full rides.” During the last two years of undergrad, I was awarded 19 scholarships that were either Native American- or diversity-based.
In graduate school, I discovered the pickings were even slimmer (especially for someone getting a master’s degree in writing!). While I did receive a handful of fellowships and scholarships, the funding for a diversity-based and/or writing-based fellowship for graduate students was sparse.
I established this scholarship because I know first-hand just how challenging college and grad school can be, especially for Native American, first-generation and/or students pursuing a writing degree.
Jessica Tyner Scholarship
Award for students enrolling at least part-time in college graduate-level study at any four-year public or nonprofit college or university for fall term/semester and majoring in English, writing composition, or other related majors. Minimum 3.5 GPA preferred. Must write essay describing involvement with a Native American community. Semifinalists will be contacted and invited to submit writing samples (up to five pages) of any genre.
– Must be a graduate student
– Must attend a university
– Must be a US Citizen
– Minimum 3.5 GPA
– Must not be attending high school currently
– Restricted to students studying Literature/English/Writing
- Tell me about the process of creating a scholarship fund. Was it difficult? What has been the response?
The Jessica Tyner Scholarship Fund is administered through the Oregon Student Assistance Commission (OSAC). OSAC takes care of the marketing, a lot of the administrative side of things, and walked me through the process. I pay a small percentage of the scholarship total in exchange, but wanted to get as much exposure as possible.
So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, yet it’s still very difficult to reach qualified applicants. I know there are Native students considering a writing or English graduate program because I was one. Now it’s just the challenge of connecting with them.
- What do you hope recipients get out of the award? Have you seen any success stories so far?
We are only in the second year of the program, so the scholarship still has some pretty damp wings. I hope the scholarship gives a little extra financial padding to Native American writers, but more importantly reassures them that they’re not alone. There are people who support their art and want them to succeed. That’s what I found lacking in graduate school. It’s so easy to give up or think, “I’ll get my graduate degree later,” but later can be pushed back indefinitely.
- What are you looking for in an applicant, and how can someone in our readership who feels they may be right for your scholarship apply? What are some examples of good, standout applications that would catch your eye?
Technically, I’m not allowed to request an applicant identify as Native American (there are several legal nuances within race/ethnicity-based scholarships that’s way too complicated to delve into!). Instead, the scholarship is for “students with a connection to the Native community.” However, my ideal applicant identifies as Native American, is pursuing a writing-related degree, and chooses to include a killer writing sample (strongly encouraged, but not required).
Having these three qualities would definitely catch the attention of everyone on the scholarship committee—and, shockingly enough, has yet to happen. That’s why I’m committed to more marketing, more PR, and more pleas of “Help me spread the word!” for the next scholarship season.
- The scholarship really does support diversity in writing uniquely. What does diversity in writing mean to you? Is it important to you as a writer?
I have a strained relationship with the term “diversity.” It can act like an overgrown buzzword that had the tenacity to hold on longer than all the other trending-cum-hot button phrases. I consider myself a Writer before I’m a Native American writer, female writer, or any other niche kind of writer. Of course, being Native has certainly tweaked my lens and my life. I don’t know any other way to write than as a so-called Native writer, but that of course doesn’t mean my perspective, experiences or anything else are indicative of what an “average Native lens” may be because such a generalized eye doesn’t exist.
That being said, if I had to choose between “yes” and “no” when asked if diversity is important to me as a writer, I would say yes. I think it’s paramount that as many different experiences are explored in quality writing as possible—the key word being quality. My artistic writing, as a poet, isn’t any more valuable or important than someone else’s solely because I’m Cherokee.
Wow, this is a long response from me! It’s just tough to answer this question succinctly because there’s so much at play. The disparity in access to university programs, publishing opportunities, mentorship as a writer—the list can go on and on. Yes, diversity is important because, as writers, we all have something of value to say. However, I don’t think it should be used as a free pass. You need to have innate talent, developed skills, and drive, which is why the scholarship I founded weighs writing samples heavier than GPA, test scores, and other traditionally “important” factors.
- If writers are interested in creating a scholarship or their own, what advice would you give them?
Understand that you don’t have to offer “a lot” (whatever that may mean) and you don’t have to commit to providing a scholarship every year. I strongly recommend connecting with the state Student Assistance Commission closest to you for endless help on getting started. Creating a scholarship is kind of like gearing up for a startup. You need a “scholarship plan” that includes what the scholarship entails, your target applicants, materials they’ll need to supply, and other logistics. It’s in the drafting of this process that you’ll also realize what your truest intentions are. It’s very revealing, and will help direct your efforts in the best way possible.
Thanks so much for being with us, Jessica!
Readers, you can learn more about The Jessica Tyner Scholarship Fund at Peterson’s.