Yolanda Franklin Wins McKnight Dissertation Fellowship

yfranklin.jpgSometimes an award comes to a person just when they need the prize the most. For Yolanda Franklin, the timing was spot on for her winning a McKnight Dissertation Fellowship.

The Florida Education Fund recently named Franklin as a fellowship winner for the 2016-17 academic year. The fellowship is open to Ph.D. students at nine participating Florida universities, and the organization's goal with the award is to help African-American and Hispanic students with costs associated with earning their advanced degrees.

She initially missed the application deadline for the full PhD fellowship. When Graduate School Assistant Dean Adrienne Stephenson, who also is the director of the Office of Graduate Fellowships and Awards, notified her that the McKnight award was still a possibility, Franklin quickly pulled together the necessary materials, including letters of recommendation from her program committee heads, Professors David Kirby and Maxine Montgomery. She says this was the most excited she has ever been filling out an application, and those positive feelings paid off.

"I thought, 'yes, thank you, Jesus! This time, I won something,'" says Franklin, who is working on her PhD in poetry at Florida State. "I work really hard at applying for awards, and I am always hopeful. I really needed this award."

Franklin is a single parent to two college-aged students, and while they all live apart, they are all currently enrolled in school. The $12,000 award will help offset some of her family financial obligations.

"The phone call to inform me that I won came first and the email came almost simultaneously," Franklin says. "I wanted to bake for the person. I wanted to ask, 'What do you want me to bake? Can I bring you something?' It's often the way I was raised to show love: to bake something."

In addition to living costs, some of the money also will help take care of some lingering financial responsibilities Franklin has due to a recent medical issue. Franklin suffered a stroke two years ago, but doctors had no explanation for why it happened. She is now working on a memoir to interrogate this time in her life while taking an independent study in creative nonfiction with FSU English Assistant Professor Ravi Howard.

Since the incident occurred, she has been slowly recovering to full strength, as she goes through the process of "the rewiring and the readapting of my personality." Franklin credits Cocoa Williams, who also is a Ph.D. student in the English department, with helping her focus and generally taking care of her as she dealt with the side effects from the stroke.

"Cocoa is a huge inspiration in my life.I don't know how she deals with me half the time, especially with what I call my 'new brain,'" Franklin says. "She is a godsend - she walked me to class every day when I had double vision."

Franklin is now back on track for her Ph.D. studies, and she will use the majority of her fellowship funds on a couple of research-oriented trips. One of the visits will be to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in Washington, D.C., in September 2016. There she will examine newly released census reports of the slave trade.

In addition, she will travel to New York City to attend poetry readings of authors who influence her work, including Rita Dove and Claudia Rankine. The Q&A sessions, Franklin says, will greatly enhance the research she is doing for her manuscript, titled Blood Vinyls.

The title of her upcoming book ties directly to two of Franklin's interests: family roots and music.

Franklin is a fourth-generation Floridian, and she says that growing up in the South is the backbone to her writing. She grew up on 40 acres of national forest land just outside of Tallahassee, and she says, "I know about the outdoors in this area, and what it means to live off the land." In fact, her Twitter account is @FloridaGRITS, or "girl raised in the South."

When Franklin talks about her extended family, it is clear that she appreciates the importance of her relatives and the richness they bring into her life. She still has a living great-grandmother, and she can remember all of her great-grandparents. "My people all live into their late 90s," she says.

Her parents' backgrounds add even more depth to who Franklin is as a person. Her father was a game warden and a musician who played with artists such as Little Richard and BB King.

"I say that I am a musician as my father's daughter because that's what comes up in my poetry, that influence from my family life," she says. "I was a tomboy who loved music."

Her mother was one of the first women to graduate from FSU's College for Women after the campus was desegregated. Franklin takes a strong approach to her education, and she is not afraid to confront Southern stereotypes.

"As a Southern girl, I do push back against gender norms, the expectations of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be feminine, which follows more toward traditions of womanism, similar to Alice Walker," Franklin says.

Walker is included in her list of favorite authors, which is filled with writers who have Southern connections, such as Natasha Trethewey, or authors from the South who appreciate the migration from the South to the North, such as Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor.

In the English department, in addition to her colleague Williams, Franklin says she relies on her committee members Kirby and Montgomery for guidance through the Ph.D. program. Her appreciation for Kirby even goes to a more emotional level.

"It's like he and I were born to be together," Franklin says, with a laugh. "I tell his wife, Barbara Hamby, that all the time. I love them. His love for music and the way he remembers it is very much like my father did."

Franklin is also working on criticism she has noticed in the literature of African-American female writers, and Montgomery has been a big help to get Franklin's book proposal on the topic together, something she would like to accomplish before graduation.

Her degree from FSU will complement the undergraduate degree in education she earned at the school. Following that graduation, Franklin taught English in middle and high school, and became a nationally board certified teacher of English as well as a reading specialist.

Once she picked up her creative writing again, she earned her Master of Fine Arts at Lesley University in Cambridge. She appreciates the route she has taken throughout her educational and personal life, dealing with the struggles she has encountered along the way.

"I think it is interesting that I am from Tallahassee, I was a student at Florida High, which was FSU's high school, and I attended FSU as undergrad," she says. "And now I have full circle by coming back to FSU for my Ph.D.

"Winning the McKnight award has afforded me a financial and an extra academic support group that is easing my path to completing that goal."