Port-au-Prince native awarded $90,000 for graduate school studies at Syracuse University

When five-year-old Joel Francois ’18 moved to Brooklyn from Haiti with his family in 1995, he faced an uncertain future. His parents, Paul and Marie, always stressed the importance of school, and the young man soon had aspirations of going to law school.

But while taking English classes at Brooklyn College, Francois developed a love for writing, particularly poetry. The major was his way of doing something that felt natural to him before he entered law school; it was never meant to be a permanent endeavor.

But Francois’ commitment to writing escalated when he joined the Brooklyn College Slam Poetry Team, which is where he learned about spoken word. The same week that Joel lost his job as a paralegal, he entered his first adult slam poetry competition at the renowned Nuyorican Poets café in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Beating out hundreds of poets, he was named the 2015 Nuyorican Grand Slam Champion.

Francois continued to perform, and by 2017 he began shaping a career for himself as a poet. He traveled throughout the United States and the world performing and teaching workshops, venturing as far as Durban, South Africa. His work touches on many topics but often focuses on love, race, and family.

Now, in the first year of his journey toward an M.F.A. at Syracuse University, he has been awarded $90,000 over two years through The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans program. Francois was chosen to receive the merit-based fellowship from a record-breaking number pool of 2,211 applicants. He is the second graduate of Brooklyn College to win the fellowship; Sophia Jan, a 2002 recipient, was the first.

The 30 fellows were selected for their potential to make significant contributions to the United States. The 2020 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows are children of immigrants, green card holders, naturalized citizens, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients, or visa holders who graduated from both high school and college in the United. This was the first cycle that the fellowship was open to all immigrants, regardless of their immigration status, who have graduated from both high school and college in the United States. The fellowship has been open to DACA recipients since 2014.

“At a time when all forms of immigration are under attack, it’s more important than ever to be celebrating the achievements and contributions of immigrants and refugees from across the world,” says Craig Harwood, who directs the fellowship program. “Our country and universities are enriched by the ingenuity that comes from abroad. When we honor and invest in New Americans, our nation is stronger—the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellows are a perfect demonstration of that.”

After earning his M.F.A. at Syracuse University, Francois plans to obtain a Ph.D. so that he can pursue a career that allows him to write, perform, teach, and research. Most importantly, he intends to further the work he has been doing teaching storytelling workshops within the nonprofit sector with a long-term goal: He wants to start his own nonprofit organization geared towards bringing storytelling workshops to poor immigrant communities in the New York City area.

“I am excited to see where my career takes me,” Francois says. “I believe writers are the architects of humanity. The words we put down are the building blocks that shape the human skyline. All of the words in beauty, pain, and drama are ours to translate.”

Along with the funding support, the new fellows join the prestigious community of recipients from past years. The active alumni network includes former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy; California Surgeon General Nadine Burke-Harris; Stanford AI leader Fei-Fei Li; computational biologist Pardis Sabeti; legal expert Jeannie Suk-Gersen; CEO Andrei Cherny; award-winning writer Kao Kalia Yang; poet Janine Joseph, and more than 650 other New American leaders.

Founded by Hungarian immigrants Daisy M. Soros and her late husband Paul Soros (1926–2013), The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans program honors continuing generations of immigrant contributions to the United States.

To read the full bios of the 2020 Fellows, or for information about the fellowships and the application process visit https://preview.pdsoros.org/, or on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.