January 11, 2012

Notching up fellowship awareness

At the beginning of the school year, senior Alex Raul was in an ideal position to apply for a Fulbright fellowship to teach English in Spain. As a Spanish and Educational Studies double major, her skill set matched the program well, and she started thinking about the application process well in advance of the deadline. Not all Knox students, although they may be qualified, are as well-prepared.

“I think we can do more to bring stuff to the attention of students at an opportune moment than we have in the past,” Dean Lawrence Breitborde said. “You can put off looking for information, but you can’t go back and re-enroll in courses you should’ve taken.”

As a first step towards disseminating information about national graduate fellowships, Dean Breitborde and Associate Dean Lori Haslem are hosting a series of informational lunches beginning this week for juniors who could potentially be strong applicants, spurred on by discussions with senior staff and President Teresa Amott.

“We thought, let’s just have these conversations and just make sure that people know that there are these kinds of opportunities,” Breitborde said.

Although Knox has become well-known for turning out Fulbright scholars over the past few years, applicants for other national graduate fellowships, such as the Rhodes, Marshall, Javits and National Science Foundation (NSF), have ranged from few to nonexistent. The culprit, according to Breitborde, is not a lack of qualified students but rather a lack of knowledge that such fellowships exist.

A proven record of success plays an important role in a fellowship’s appeal. This year, Knox had 17 applicants to the Fulbright program, a number that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

“There were maybe two applicants [back then], if that,” Breitborde said. “We’ve had increased interest in [Fulbrights] partly because Knox students have done so well. The other ones like NSFs and so on … we have to notch up student awareness of them.”

In the past, many students interested in such fellowships have had to discover them on their own and then seek out the appropriate advisor on campus, often with deadlines fast approaching. Initiatives like lunches for juniors, however, would enable the college itself to share information with students early enough to help them plan accordingly.

“For some of these fellowships, it’s very late to start thinking about them sometimes even during the summer before your senior year,” Breitborde said. “We think that Knox students could become even more competitive if they started thinking about these earlier.”

Senior Michael Kaminski, who applied for an NSF fellowship in mathematics, cited the importance of thinking about fellowships well in advance. He first heard about the fellowship while participating in an NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) during the summer between his sophomore and junior years.

“My REU mentor suggested the program to me,” Kaminski said. “And then professors here kept bringing it up and saying, ‘You should apply for this.’”

If Kaminski’s application is successful, he will receive $30,000 a year for three years in addition to a $10,500 “cost of education allowance” for tuition, professional development and other needs, according to the program’s website. Predictably, the fellowships are extremely competitive. In order to have an edge, students like Kaminski need to be able to tell a story.

“A lot of Knox students have all sorts of research experience by the time they get to be seniors, but there are different kinds of … experiences,” Breitborde said. “You want to see a narrative, a logical sequence. You’ll be a stronger applicant.”

National fellowships for which Knox has traditionally not had many applicants, such as NSF fellowships, may also be more difficult to obtain. The Fulbright program is inherently different than many other graduate fellowships in that it is not necessarily attached to a degree program, leading to a larger pool of potential applicants. Many students, such as Raul, instead use it to solidify interests.

“Right now, I’m doing my student teaching at the elementary level, but I’ve been thinking about bilingual education,” she said. “I thought Fulbright would be a good chance to improve my Spanish and also get a look at what the school system is like in Spain.”

Regardless of whether students want to go to graduate school right away or wait a few years, fellowship support is often available if students can position themselves well and build their qualifications throughout their college career. Breitborde hopes that, as a result of the lunches, more students will make individual appointments to discuss how to better prepare for applying for fellowships.

“That’ll be some kind of indication to see if it worked,” he said. “I think this is a first step in a work in progress.”

Anna Meier

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