The acceptance letter was effusive: “Congratulations! Welcome to the NYU Tisch School of the Arts Film MFA program!”
As much as I welcomed that news, reality soon sunk in: I had a gargantuan financial challenge ahead of me if I was going to be able to take advantage of this incredible new opportunity. The top film MFA program in the world had a spot for me, a formerly undocumented dude from Texas! I impressed them, how cool. But how could I possibly afford to attend? To whom could I turn for help?
More than a decade earlier, I found myself reading another letter — a scholarship award confirmation from the San Antonio Area Foundation. Remembering this, I dug through my inbox and found a 2010 email exchange with Bernice Uresti, a Philanthropic Adviser heading up the scholarships program within the Area Foundation’s Development and Donor Services Department.
I found a story beyond what I expected. Bernice emailed me all those years ago, before I had moved to New York City, before I collected professional accolades and awards in film and media production, to find out if I had changed my address because the award letter had been returned to the sender. And she emailed yet again, determined to reach me when I did not immediately reply.
In my first year of college, that award allowed me to establish myself at the University of Texas at Austin. It allowed me to purchase my precious bike, an invaluable method of transportation to get to and around campus and work that I still use to this day. That Area Foundation scholarship was a godsend. Well, OK, that award was God-and-Bernice-send. Sorry, Bernice!
All these years later, the gratitude overflowed. The Area Foundation scholarship that Bernice worked so hard to help me secure helped make possible my education and my young adult life in the United States. In 2009, my family moved back from San Antonio to Mexico and I decided to stay in the U.S. to finish high school and try to get into UT- Austin as an undocumented resident.
I moved from friend’s house to friend’s house, carrying my stuff in cardboard boxes and luggage. Sometimes I took the VIA bus from Northwood to Madison High School and then back again after theater rehearsal or National Honor Society or whatever other extracurricular I had lined up. It was a tough time. But I think I convinced everyone that I was fine — everyone but Bernice, who noticed that the mail she’d sent me had bounced back.
Today, once again searching for a way to fund my education with the master’s opportunity at NYU, I know more than ever how the Area Foundation scholarship changed my life. First-generation immigrants like me are statistically less likely to engage with creating art than later generations, according to the 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Participation in the Arts. Other studies also confirm that folks with my background are terribly underrepresented in U.S. higher education and film at the highest levels.
Recently, Bernice received a long, sentimental email from me with my sincere thanks. Alas, I did not receive the news of my acceptance to this prestigious MFA program in time to apply for the Area Foundation’s 2021 scholarships program. According to Bernice, the 2021 program saw a total of 868 students receiving a combined $5 million from 83 separate scholarship funds. Talk about having an impact in the community!
Just like I did a decade ago, I am now once again knocking on doors, asking philanthropists for any amount they might be willing to give to support my studies so that I could have a chance to sit in the same classrooms in which renowned directors such as Martin Scorsese or Chloé Zhao once sat.
Though my situation is a little bit less desperate today, thanks in no small part to the undergraduate scholarship I received some years ago, I hope I can once again enlist the backing of San Antonio philanthropists to prove that someone in my shoes can leap forward and succeed despite mounting odds.
In order to attend NYU, in order to make the movies and culture we see just a little more open to bona fide American stories like mine, I hope to enlist the interest of someone who cares as much as Bernice and the Area Foundation. The gesture this time won’t be returned to the sender, I can promise that much!
The San Antonio Area Foundation recognizes the centrality of the arts to our collective recovery from the economic, cultural and social impact of the pandemic. The Recovery Fund for the Arts was established to support arts and culture organizations who, through continued engagement with our communities, are shaping the post-COVID future for the cultural sector. Click here to learn more about grant opportunities.
Jorge Corona is a writer, filmmaker, photographer and performer. He hails from Mexico, Texas and New York. His work has appeared in Deadspin, FUSION, Univision, New York Magazine, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, The Huffington Post, Remezcla and in conversational English textbooks in France through Éditions Nathan. For a more in-depth look at his work, go to www.anorocpictures.com.