LTE: Perspective On Fellowships

I am a 2011 graduate of Boston College, and I greatly appreciate the attention The Heights is devoting to the fellowships application process. In my senior year at BC, I was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship in what was then the Massachusetts and Connecticut District. Since that time, I have been back to BC twice as the keynote speaker for the annual BC University Fellowships Dinner. I have also returned to speak about Advanced Study Grants and Undergraduate Research Fellowships. More recently, I have participated in the mock interviews for BC’s Rhodes Scholarship finalists.

The article, “BC Fellowship Applicants Past And Present Emphasize Early Preparation” does an excellent job of raising areas for improvement and of providing advice for interested undergraduates. However, I do think one important point, though touched on, was not emphasized enough in the article. Many of BC’s candidates have been successful because of their commitment, their drive, and their perseverance. One of the candidates quoted in the article approached me as early as sophomore year to seek out advice on the fellowships process. By this point in time, the candidate had a vision for the future, had discussed fellowship and funding opportunities with faculty, and had begun to prepare the early groundwork for applications due in junior and senior year. A degree of onus does fall on the applicant for starting early, for preparing the application, and for preparing for the interview. The most robust fellowships office would not be of any use without a committed and driven applicant, and in my experience—and in closely watching those who followed me—the most successful candidates have been highly proactive in furthering their postgraduate goals from their earliest days at BC. They attended fellowships information meetings on campus. They identified the supportive faculty members. They formed relationships with these faculty members. They showed up to the annual dinners for ASG winners and for Sophomore and Dean’s Scholars where faculty and senior students discuss fellowship opportunities. They reached out to former applicants for guidance and assistance. They persevered to become finalists for national fellowships, even when they were told that they were not strong candidates. They organized their own additional mock interviews when BC could only provide one. And, because the rejection rate is inevitably higher than the success rate in applying for major fellowships, they applied again and again after receiving rejections. Barriers surfaced. They went around or through.

I have been advocating for a more robust fellowships office since my senior year. However, I hope that the attention devoted to bolstering the fellowships office does not lead us to overlook the personal qualities that made these winners and final candidates as successful as they were—qualities that I believe are necessary for success—no matter the support system in place.

Still, more needs to be done. One of my concerns, not covered in The Heights fellowships series, is the gender disparity in fellowship winners from BC. When I attempted to gather data on this back in 2011, I found that we have yet to have a woman win a Rhodes or Marshall, despite the high number of women being elected to Phi Beta Kappa and winning some of the most prestigious internal academic awards. I was surprised to see that in the past 30 years (from 2011), the ratio of male to female winners was 2:0 for the Rhodes, 5:0 for the Marshall, and 13:2 for the Truman. In the past ten years (from 2011), it was respectively 2:0, 4:0, 6:0. The Truman and Rhodes data is confirmed, but it is possible that I missed someone in compiling the Marshall data. To gather the Marshall data, I combed through old Marshall announcements and BC press releases, which regrettably provides an opportunity for error. I provided the fellowships office with this information, and it was this concern that led me to organize the 2011 panel, “Discernment and Scholarship,” that brought together a Rhodes Scholarship selection committee member, a Marshall winner from Harvard, a Rhodes finalist from Wellesley College, a Truman finalist from BC, and a National Science Foundation and Goldwater winner from BC, all women, to discuss the fellowships process for the benefit of BC students. The panel had decent attendance, but there were more men in the audience than women, and only two faculty members. Princeton University recently conducted their own study of national fellowships gender disparities on their campus. They found that faculty mentoring and student role models can make a significant difference in a female student’s decision to pursue prestigious postgraduate fellowships.

BC could also do more to publicize winners and final candidates on campus, which would not only serve to educate students about the fellowship opportunities available, but would also provide role models and points of contact for younger students. The Heights has been and could continue to be a leader on this particular initiative. In the past, I have emailed the BC Office of Public Affairs to inform them of other students who had received prestigious fellowships that had not yet been announced. Faculty and students should feel comfortable highlighting their students’ achievements, their friends’ achievements, and their own achievements! In years past, BC has widely publicized when a male student-athlete, on a high profile team, submits an application for a national fellowship. We should do the same for all students who are honored with selection as finalists and winners. The public mock interview is one way to achieve this goal, though I fear it has the disadvantage of depriving BC’s finalists of a realistic mock interview experience. Given the sometimes highly personal nature of questions asked at national fellowship interviews, I also worry that an audience would prevent students from expressing themselves freely or would prove distracting. For instance, in my own interview, I was asked personal questions about where I found God, how I negotiated being Jewish at BC, and my experience as a student-athlete. Perhaps BC could instead videotape and archive these mock interviews. A video record would allow candidates to watch their interviews and note areas for improvement while also providing a resource for future applicants.

Finally, we need to do a better job of identifying and encouraging candidates. This responsibility is on everyone—administrators, faculty, and students. Older students who have gone through the process have a responsibility to mentor those who follow, just as faculty, too, need to be engaged with the fellowships process if BC students are to be successful. Two years ago, I checked the junior Phi Beta Kappa inductees in the spring, did a Google search on their names, and emailed an encouraging note to those who I thought would be strong candidates for the Rhodes. I included information on how to start the process, and to ensure that they could not, try as they might, ignore the encouragement, I cc’d the Rhodes coordinator and any supervisor, such as a former ASG adviser or coach, identifiable online. One of them applied and became a finalist. I was in part motivated to do this because of the support I received from Robbie Kubala, BC ’09. Robbie, who had never met me, told me that I was a strong candidate for a national fellowship during correspondence about fellowships the summer before my senior year. At a time when I was facing some of the aforementioned hurdles that can arise in applying for national fellowships, his comments meant a great deal to me, as did the support of BC faculty mentors. A few words in an email, after practice, in a residence hall, or in office hours can make a big difference in encouraging BC’s undergraduates. Sometimes we see potential in others that they, and particularly the humble among us who are perhaps the most suited to these fellowships, do not see in themselves.

In short, the Rhodes mantra that people, not schools, win Rhodes Scholarships is, in my experience, an accurate one, but we could all be doing more to make sure that our very best people have our very best support.

Amanda Rothschild
Rhodes Scholarship Finalist
BC ’11

Featured Image by John Wiley / Heights Photo Illustration

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