Opinions, Editorials

Supporting Students In The Fellowship Process

Earning a prestigious national fellowship or scholarship can confer a wide variety of benefits upon those seeking to pursue scholarly endeavors after completing their undergraduate degree. In the case of Rhodes scholarship winners, for example, graduate study at the University of Oxford is the reward, while Fulbright grant winners can serve as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. in countries around the world as they conduct research or teach English.

Currently, fellowship advising at Boston College is centered around faculty members who coordinate each individual program, like the Rhodes, Fulbright, Marshall, Truman, and Goldwater scholarships. Coordinators handle each program as they see fit, reaching out to students who they speculate may be interested in applying and asking colleagues to recommend possible candidates. The University Fellowships Committee (UFC) also takes part in some outreach efforts, providing basic outlines of the different opportunities available in occasional general information sessions and on its website.

With this approach to fellowships advising, however, not all BC students are being adequately informed about the scholarships for which they could potentially apply, or being adequately prepared to apply for those fellowships that they determine fit their goals and qualifications. The act of program coordinators seeking out students—as opposed to students seeking out the coordinators’ help—is inherently biased, as some students who are qualified to apply for certain fellowships may not have built relationships with the professors who are reaching out.

A more collective mindset should be established for fellowships advising, beginning with a more influential and expanded UFC. Information should be made available to students as early as their freshman year, as several years of preparation with application writing, research, and building relationships with faculty members is vital for success in competitive fellowship applications later. The UFC should partner with departments and professors to publicize fellowship opportunities in freshman courses such as Courage to Know, Perspectives, and Freshman Topic Seminars, as well as in mentorship and leadership programs such as the Emerging Leader Program, Shaw Leadership Program, and the ULA.

Success in publicizing fellowship opportunities can be seen in the large number of Fulbright applicants and winners that have come through the German studies department, chaired by Michael Resler. Resler is known to strongly encourage students to apply for Fulbrights, especially to Germany and Austria, and the fact that BC is consistently among the top producers of Fulbrights in the country reflects these publicity efforts. For the 2013-14 application cycle, BC ranked No. 12 among doctoral or research-level institutions for Fulbright winners, with 19 from 85 applications, including several to Germany or Austria.

After learning about fellowship opportunities as underclassmen, students should then be encouraged to apply for attainable University-level awards such as Advanced Study Grants (ASGs) and Undergraduate Research Fellowships (URFs) to take important steps toward larger-scale national fellowships in the future. The ASG application process should be made more transparent by allowing prospective applicants to view successful past proposals and better understand what the University actually looks for when awarding ASGs. Furthermore, students considering applying for ASGs, URFs, or other awards should be allowed to watch finalists for major fellowships participate in the mock interviews that BC organizes in order to better grasp what might be ahead for them if they choose to pursue a similar fellowship.

The collective approach can also be extended to faculty, some of whom are not even aware that ASGs and URFs exist. If faculty members were invited into a collaborative conversation about fellowships with their students and colleagues, both they and potential fellowship candidates would benefit. More professors would be knowledgeable enough to encourage students to apply and advise them, and professors would be able to work with the passionate, dedicated, and top-tier students who are interested in pursuing fellowship opportunities. While a senior faculty member at the helm of the UFC is necessary to steer the process, it is understandable that it could be difficult to find someone not already overloaded with his or her research and teaching responsibilities.

Many students who apply for fellowships have heard about the opportunities through their involvement and networking with the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program (PSP). All students, though—not just Presidential Scholars—should be made aware of fellowships that are available for them to pursue, and provided with more group-oriented, hands-on programs to assist with all aspects of the application process. This may include more mock interviews, essay writing workshops, and practice social receptions, the latter of which are key for networking with other finalists and panelists prior to a final major fellowship interview.

The current lack of a fellowships-oriented mindset at BC leads to hearsay among students about who is applying for what award, which prevents collaboration and support for one another among fellowship applicants. Further, with few students even attempting to apply for major fellowships, in some cases—there was only one Rhodes applicant for BC this year, when the University is permitted to nominate up to two candidates—there is little internal competition among BC students, which also points to a lack of a culture that encourages students to seek these opportunities. More demand from students looking to apply would also put more pressure on the University to expand the UFC, adding senior faculty and personnel to support applicants.

When considering post-graduation plans, BC students have at their disposal numerous resources for career and graduate school counseling, with a Career Center offering advice, information, and career fairs throughout the year. The opportunity to apply for any one of the various national fellowships, however, is not as widely publicized or encouraged to the greater student body. The University, through an expanded UFC, should seek to replicate its approach to career services with fellowships advising, which perhaps could include a fellowships fair for prospective candidates. These steps will, over time, likely lead to more fellowships winners from BC and a better-established institutional legacy for multiple major awards, as opposed to just Fulbright grants.

Featured Image by Daniel Lee / Heights Senior Staff

November 24, 2014