Merage fellowship to help fund student’s American dream of publishing personal journey from PolandBy Julia Morse
Martyna Majok’s life story reads like the pages of a best-selling novel—which is exactly what it may become.
The College fourth-year and aspiring writer already has written a play she hopes to one day adapt to a novel, which she has titled, “wander/standing.”
The story is Majok’s personal journey as a young Polish immigrant struggling to make ends meet, while living under the same roof as a stepfather who, she said, “rampaged a 12-year-long cycle of alcohol-enabled abuse” on her and her mother.
“The project is painful and personal and the best decision I’ve ever made,” said Majok.
But this spring, with graduation approaching, Majok began to fear that her writing project would have to be put on hold. With no job offers lined up, Majok’s mother told her, “You worry about food first.”
Majok said, “I was nearing graduation, but I felt so far from finished. I had no job lined up—but I had loans and future rent payments, and a dream that wouldn’t stop. Then I read that e-mail.” Waiting in her inbox on Friday, April 6, was a message from the Merage Foundation for the American Dream, naming her one of its 2007 fellows. Chicago’s College Scholarship Committee had nominated her earlier this year.
“I felt like my ribs had opened and I’d never breathed like this before,” she said of receiving one of the 14 fellowships administered nationally this year. “I’ve been granted permission to do so.”
The Merage Foundation administers the American Dream fellowships annually to the most exceptional immigrant college students at 22 top universities around the country, including Chicago. The fellows are selected based on academic performance, leadership skills, ethical behavior, clarity of their American dream and their potential to contribute to America.
“Ms. Majok stands out, even on our campus of over-achievers,” said Rovana Popoff, Senior Adviser in the College.
“She has challenged herself by taking four courses in nearly every quarter of her tenure here. She has, in addition, performed in over 20 plays and independent films,” Popoff said.
Each American Dream fellow receives a total of $20,000, administered in $10,000 stipends over two years, to assist them as they pursue their American dream, and while providing access to leaders, teachers and mentors in their chosen fields.
“I’m working on developing my play right now, and I hope to use the Merage to be able to take classes and workshops to help me in that process, and then to send it out of the nest and continue writing more work, taking more classes,” Majok said. “Without the fellowship, I don’t know that I would have been able to do this. The Merage is a very important seed to the tree I hope to grow.”
One branch of her tree, she said, is becoming a creative arts therapist, working in treatment facilities for people afflicted with addiction—something that is close to her heart. “I know if I hadn’t had literature, then theater and now, my play, I would have been in a frightening state,” Majok said.
After immigrating to New Jersey from Poland with her mother, years after her father had abandoned them, Majok’s mother remarried and then, she recalled, “We had our apartment and our new life. Then we had our bruises and excuses.”
While Majok spent many nights over the next 12 years hiding from her stepfather to escape his physical abuse, she credits much of her emotional survival to discovering her very own American dream.
“I read so much,” she said. “Never did I feel as safe and secure as when I lost myself in a story. Eventually, I began writing my own stories, starting with plays. I was always, always writing. I was never happier than in that world.”
Majok said that during her sophomore year of high school, her mother, “fled from the man whom I’d been escaping in fiction.” Her mother’s courage to leave, she said, inspired and pushed her even more. “At the end of it all, I felt that I’d survived something, and in college, I learned why.”
At Chicago, Majok’s concentration in English Language & Literature with a focus on Theater and Performance Studies and Creative Writing, has enabled her to express through writing her first 12 years in America.
For now, she said, she is enjoying the present while looking eagerly into the future, and that these days her tears are tears of joy.
“I was waiting at the bus stop today and began to tear again. Apparently I’ve taken to habitual crying. A different breed of tears, though,” she said. “I’m excited for my life. Genuinely excited for tomorrows.”