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BC Fellowship Applicants Past And Present Emphasize Early Preparation

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

The road to winning a major national fellowship or scholarship does not begin—in many cases—during a student’s junior or senior year of college.

At Boston College, prospective candidates for prestigious awards such as the Rhodes, Marshall, or Truman scholarships or Fulbright grants often start as early as their freshman or sophomore years, learning to write research proposals and personal statements through applications for Advanced Study Grants (ASGs) or Undergraduate Research Fellowships (URFs).

An early start not only prepares students to articulate a focused, clear vision in their application essays, but also gives them time to develop relationships with faculty and other mentors, individuals who will provide vital letters of recommendation.

Narintohn Luangrath, BC ’14, who won a Truman Scholarship in 2013 and was a finalist for the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships in 2014, said that pursuing two ASGs and three URFs as an underclassman helped foster the kind of thinking she needed for her later fellowship applications, in which students are asked to provide details on the career path they hope to follow.

“I think that the ASGs and URFs were all important in getting me thinking about interesting research questions and relatedly, what I wanted to do professionally after Boston College,” Luangrath said in an email.

Robbie Kubala, BC ’09, won a Marshall Scholarship and noted that accumulating awards such as ASGs beginning in his freshman year gave him the confidence to apply for larger, international fellowships.

Students are only able to start considering fellowship opportunities early on in their college careers if they are made aware of those opportunities, though. Many applicants hear about different fellowships through the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program (PSP), its director, Rev. James Keenan, S.J., and their individual PSP faculty mentors.

“A lot of BC kids don’t know enough about fellowships, but with the Presidential Scholars, it’s the opposite—we hear too much about them,” said Paul Davey, A&S ’15, who applied for a Fulbright grant to teach English in Germany.

Davey said that he only applied for a Fulbright because he knew that other fellowships did not apply to him and his interests and qualifications—an awareness that Keenan said the Presidential Scholars have because they have so much exposure to the various opportunities.

Outside of the PSP and the German studies department, however, Davey said that he did not hear about the Fulbright program. He said he was particularly encouraged by Michael Resler, professor and chair of the German studies department, who also serves as a Fulbright advisor and helped BC establish an institutional legacy for producing numerous Fulbright winners annually, especially for positions in Germany.

In the spring of 2013, the German studies department hit the milestone of having sent over 100 Fulbright scholars to Germany and Austria, ranking BC among the top producers of Fulbright winners for those countries, as well as Fulbright grants overall.

“The Fulbright program is very well developed … it’s definitely a fellowship where BC is on top of its game and knows what needs to be done when, and I think that really contributes to the success we’ve had with Fulbrights across the board, not just with Germany,” Davey said.

Alicia McKean, LSOE ’15, who was a Rhodes finalist this year and participated in her final interview this past weekend, said Keenan brought up the idea of her applying for the Rhodes, and that she was able to use him and other mentors whom she knew in a non-academic context for support and letters of recommendation.

“I was lucky enough to have these people who I know outside of class, but all students don’t, so you wouldn’t want that to bar off the opportunity because they didn’t think about it soon enough,” McKean said.

Luangrath, who was not a Presidential Scholar or in the College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program, had to seek out Keenan’s advice on her own.

“I worked hard to reach out to the faculty that worked with those exceptional students,” she said. “I also knew that many of the Presidential Scholars applied for nationally competitive scholarships. Therefore, given Father Keenan’s experience with those students, I figured he would have a lot of helpful ideas for me when I was competing for a Truman Scholarship during my junior year.”

As a senator in the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC), Luangrath spearheaded an effort in her senior year to create a fellowships handbook to increase publicity of fellowships and scholarships to BC students who may not be exposed to the variety of opportunities available. The handbook is available as an academic resource on the UGBC website.

“Ideally, students should be establishing BC faculty, non-faculty, and non-academic (professional) relationships over a four year period—it’s not something that a student can just start during senior year when his or her Rhodes application is due, for example,” she said. “So, on BC’s end, increasing University-wide awareness about these scholarship opportunities needs to happen very early—freshman year is not too early—in order for interested students to start developing the profiles that will make them compelling to a competitive scholarship committee, especially on the national level.”

The University Fellowships Committee (UFC) and individual program coordinators are responsible for advising and communicating with applicants, which McKean said was difficult at times due to the departure of Donald Hafner, former vice provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs, director of the UFC, and Rhodes Scholarship coordinator for BC, this past August. After she spoke with Keenan about applying for the Rhodes, he told McKean that she should expect to hear from Hafner.

“In the spring I was waiting to hear something from Dr. Hafner, because I figured that he would contact me when I should get started, and I didn’t hear from him until probably two weeks before the fall semester,” she said. “At that point, I had already started to do some things, and, he was so busy, I didn’t hear a lot from him, so it ended up just getting pushed farther and farther back as I was waiting to figure out exactly what I should be doing.”

The whole process was rushed, she said, when she returned to campus this fall and ultimately had about a month to pull her application together.

“There wasn’t a lot of direction about when I should get started and when would be a good time so that I wasn’t rushed at the end,” McKean said.

According to Truman and Marshall scholarship-winner Aditya Ashok, BC ’12, the University lacks a clear method of centralizing the process of fellowship advising. For this reason, Ashok, who was a Presidential Scholar, suggested to University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. several years ago that BC establish an office for prestigious fellowships.

Ashok said he was fortunate to have individual professors as mentors at BC to offer advice, write letters of recommendation, and help him prepare for interviews, but individual professors can only do so much.

“Each of these professors helped me while also doing their own advanced research and teaching classes,” Ashok said in an email. “Overall, I don’t think I received as much support as students that have formal fellowship offices.

“BC has amazing students. It really is an incredible place. I felt that the students were not being connected to these graduate fellowships in a consistent and reliable way though each individual professor dealing with the fellowships was doing a terrific job. The proposal [to Leahy] seemed like a win-win.

Both the professors advising on the fellowships and the students themselves could benefit from a centralized fellowship office, and it didn’t seem like it would require much effort from the University (financially or otherwise).”

In general, Ashok said that BC could benefit from creating a better culture around fellowship opportunities, as Keenan has also suggested.

“I really don’t think that BC wins fewer fellowships than other schools because the students are less competitive,” he said. “It’s just that these fellowship processes are just challenging, and without a ‘culture’ surrounding the application process, it can be very difficult for the applicant to stand out.”

Part of this culture that Keenan and Ashok propose includes opening mock interviews that BC organizes for major fellowship finalists up to other students to attend, allowing them to see what kinds of questions would be asked of them in this setting if they were to pursue a similar fellowship in the future. Kubala said in an email that his mock interviews were the most important thing the University did for him to prepare for his final Marshall interview. Luangrath, Ashok, and McKean all said they would have benefitted from seeing others practice interviewing before them.

“I really didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect going into it … I think if I had had a preview, and more time to think about it, that would have been good,” McKean said.

Students such as Luangrath and Kubala noted that the act of just applying for a fellowship is—in and of itself—a valuable and worthwhile experience, as it forces applicants to seriously consider their passions and potential future plans.

“I gained greater clarity about my academic and professional goals, experience writing personal statements—a wonderful exercise in self-reflection—and practice relaying complex policy issues concerning asylum seekers and refugees to a lay audience, both in my scholarship interviews and in writing the applications themselves,” Luangrath said of applying for the Truman, Marshall, and Rhodes.

“A fellowship application, regardless of whether you are successful, is a remarkable piece of self-knowledge and self-definition,” Kubala said. “Agonizing over the task of fitting a biographical statement into 1,000, or 500, or even 250 words can be a rich process of finding out who you really are and how you want to present yourself to the wider world.”

Featured Image courtesy of the Office of Marketing Communications

November 24, 2014