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Advisors Seek To Aid Undergraduate Fellowship Applicants

Editor’s note: This story is the second part of an ongoing series about fellowships advising at Boston College.

In most applications for major national fellowships, students are asked to, essentially, plan out their lives.

At Boston College, over 20 faculty members serve as coordinators for each specific fellowship, aiding applicants as they work through various portions of the process, particularly the essay questions in which they must discuss their future career goals and plans to use the education or funds they will receive if selected.

For adjunct associate professor of political science Paul Christensen—the Fulbright Program advisor for BC—the heavy workload of advising dozens of individualized Fulbright applicants is spread out between him and four other faculty members who serve as advisors.

“That helps give us the time we need to advise people in a way that we feel comfortable, because it is a very time-intensive process, as anyone who applies will tell you,” Christensen said.

He noted that during the fall semester—when his Fulbright commitment is most intense—his contract provides for a teaching reduction by one class.

In recent years, BC has consistently ranked among the top producers of Fulbright grant winners from the U.S., producing 19 winners from 85 applicants in 2013-14. Two years ago, BC produced 21 winners from 73 applicants for the 2012-13 application cycle.

“Our success has been a combination of good students and dedicated advisors,” Christensen said.

Associate professor of political science Kenji Hayao, who has been advising for the Truman Scholarship for over a decade, does not receive any kind of teaching reduction during the fall semester, and said the balance between his advising work and his teaching responsibilities can be tough.

“In the past, it certainly has been almost like another class, because I’m advising, say, a dozen students on their applications, which involves … past activities, leadership, as well as the future, and they have to do a policy proposal as part of that,” he said. “It can be a lot of work.”

Hayao said he handles Truman applications mostly without assistance from the University Fellowships Committee (UFC), which oversees some outreach efforts for fellowships and provides support to the coordinators for each individual program.

“For the most part, the coordinators are left pretty much to deal with their [fellowships] as they see fit,” he said. “We can ask for help … but we’re free to figure out how we want to shape the process.”

He also said that, unlike Christensen, who has a group of Fulbright advisors with whom to share the workload, he advises Truman applicants on his own, with other faculty members acting as informal advisors. In the long term, he said, it would be better if the process changed somewhat to provide more support.

“I think we do need a broader support network of people who are involved,” Hayao said. “One of the problems of relying heavily on one person is, if I go on leave or something like that, who’s going to take it over? We need to have more of a committee-like structure for some of these things to spread out the workload so that nothing is so dependent on one person. If that person leaves, things don’t get done.”

As far as outreach to find applicants for their respective fellowships, Christensen said he sees a mixture of interested students who approach him and those who professors have identified as potential Fulbright candidates. Hayao starts recruiting sophomores to apply for the Truman as juniors, and talks to groups that are well-connected on campus and are involved with programs related to public service. The Truman Scholarship is awarded to juniors who demonstrate leadership potential and commitment to public service.

Mary Roberts, professor of chemistry and coordinator for the Goldwater and Churchill scholarships—as well as grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH)—asks science departments to nominate students to apply, and advertises the scholarships to students in her own classes as well. With the specificity for the science-based scholarships, she noted that not as many students apply for these as might apply for Fulbright, for example, making her workload as an advisor manageable.

That specificity creates a problem for Roberts, however, as she tries to pull in applicants in the first place.

Getting undergraduates more aware of the opportunities for scholarships is challenging, she said, and she tries to encourage fellow faculty members to make announcements in class, but it does not always happen.

“I think BC needs a culture where this is really pushed,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t start early enough here.”

A culture is precisely what Rev. James Keenan, S.J. would like to see at BC—a culture in which students and faculty can meet and work together in preparation for fellowship applications and interviews.

Keenan, the Founders professor of theology and director of the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program (PSP), has advocated to the provost’s office over the past few years for a more transparent, collective approach to fellowships advising that could extend the work of isolated individuals such as Hayao, Christensen, and Michael Resler, professor and chair of the German studies department and another Fulbright advisor.

“Until we have that culture, we’re never going to be doing as well as we should be doing,” Keenan said. “Our track record [with fellowships] is not what it easily can be.”

Specifically, Keenan proposes a program, led by a senior faculty member who holds more clout than the UFC does currently, that would have a collective vision for fellowships advising and particularly emphasize preparation for students earlier in their college careers.

Evidence of the need for a program, Keenan said, can be found in the fact that many students outside of the PSP approach him for help on fellowship applications because they know he works with PSP students on similar endeavors. He is happy to do this, he said, but there should be a whole aggregate of faculty members who could be available to advise students.

“This would change everything. It would diminish the anxiety that students have,” he said. “Where would we be if we had a whole group together?”

The Advanced Study Grant (ASG) program is a logical first step for students who want to apply for major fellowships later on, and Keenan said that there needs to be more transparency in ASG applications. In recent years, he approached Donald Hafner, former vice provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs and director of the UFC, to find out what successful ASG proposals looked like, yet he was not permitted to see them or post them anywhere for students to see as an example.

He has also urged the University to consider opening up mock fellowship interviews—which are arranged for major fellowship finalists—for other students to attend, students who have perhaps applied for ASGs or Undergraduate Research Fellowships (URFs).

“I know that students who are being interviewed don’t mind it at all because, as a matter of fact, there’s a sense of solidarity at meetings like that, rather than a sense of intimidation, or mockery, or anything,” Keenan said. “There’s actually a lot of esteem that these … are the candidates that BC wants to promote. We couldn’t get [the provost’s office] to first base, but I’ve been talking about it for years.”

Roberts agreed that the UFC should have examples of proposals, and Hayao called ASGs his “prime recruiting ground” for potential Truman candidates, who will have gained vital experience proposing a project and conveying their ideas when applying for the smaller grants.

Keenan said that there are easily 100 to 200 students at BC at any time who are working at the level required of major fellowship applicants, and that there should be more dialogue among these students and faculty to reduce hearsay surrounding who is applying for which awards and fewer one-on-one, isolated conversations, which he said was the prevalent form of advising under Hafner.

“I know that Dr. Hafner, toward the end, started asking groups of people to show up [to meetings], but then it still was not to be shepherding or working with them—it was a one-time information session,” Keenan said.

He would like the support network that PSP students have at their disposal to extend to the entire University, and believes now—in the transition after Hafner stepped down at the beginning of the semester—is the right time to make a move toward a fellowships program at BC.

“We need a program so that these students are not going through really tough application processes, really tough interview processes, and then great disappointment, when there really shouldn’t be as much disappointment as we have,” Keenan said. “I’m concerned with how frustrated some students feel afterwards, and how badly they feel, when they see what other schools are doing.

“It’s not just that it would be good to have a collective and program, it’s that, in light of our track record, we have to have something like this so that we don’t keep leading students inadequately toward an interview that’s not on-par with what other schools are doing to prepare.”

Photo Courtesy of the Office of Marketing Communications

November 20, 2014