Shaping student scholars
By Liz McCarthy, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-2848
Applying for a national fellowship is intimidating, scary, competitive. Well, it was.
At least that’s how Jackie Cantwell described the months-long process of applying for a research Fulbright fellowship.
“Applying for any national fellowship is a major undertaking, because they are highly competitive. A lot of very well qualified applicants don’t even become finalists, so it can be intimidating,” said Cantwell, a recent University of South Carolina graduate who received a Fulbright this year. “Right from the beginning the staff in the Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs made the process less daunting and more manageable.”
Before USC students send off their Fulbright fellowship applications, a team of dedicated university faculty and staff spends hours advising them while they craft the perfect essays, arranging partnerships and offering step-by-step guidance.
For Cantwell this meant hands-on help perfecting a research proposal, composing a compelling essay and coaching her as she submitted the final application.
Cantwell was among 13 winners for Fulbright awards this year from the university, an increase from previous years. These Fulbright scholars are currently representing the University of South Carolina abroad, conducting research, studying and serving as English teachers in countries from Brazil to Russia to Taiwan.
In fact, USC was named one of the top universities for producing Fulbright scholars. This year’s class breaks the earlier USC record of nine set in 2008, and brings the total number of USC Fulbright winners to 70 since the establishment of the Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs in 1994.
The process for winning isn’t easy. It takes multiple drafts of essays, recommendations, establishing a formal partnership with a foreign organization and an on-campus interview with faculty members.
“It was absolutely a group effort to make my application as strong as possible,” said Cantwell, who is also a McNair Scholar. “All of the work finally paid off, and none of it would have been possible without all of the people who helped me along the way.”
The Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs begins each semester with program workshops to introduce students to the process.
Jeff Persels, professor of French and director of European Studies, works with students applying for research Fulbright awards to put their project ideas into words as one of the university’s Fulbright program advisers. This year Persels is helping approximately a dozen students with their applications.
“I always tell them that I’m the useful idiot,” Persels said. “These projects come from all over the disciplinary map, and I am the generally educated reader who will represent the type of reader they will encounter on the Washington level and the host country level.”
The Fulbright research grants have two essays – a personal statement and a study proposal. These essays can go through many drafts and many different hands.
Cantwell, who traveled to Caen, France to join an ongoing project working on inorganic synthesis of multiferroic (iron-based) materials, had help from other faculty advisers as well as Persels. Hans-Conrad zur Loye, associate dean for research in the chemistry and biochemistry department, connected Cantwell to a laboratory in France and helped with the details of the research proposal.
“They both had really valuable perspectives about the strengths and weaknesses of different sections,” Cantwell said. “There were times when I had to change a single word of a sentence, but those are the necessary edits visible only through the eyes of experience.”
The research Fulbright requires scholars to have a formal affiliation, such as a university or non-governmental organization, in the host country. This is where faculty can be very important, said Persels, who has been helping shape USC’s Fulbright scholars for about five years.
Adam Kess, a senior international business and finance major, first started working toward a Fulbright his junior year. He chose to study in Ecuador to get an affiliation from a university there for his Fulbright proposal. Kess, a McNair Scholar and South Carolina Honors College student, met with Persels before leaving for Ecuador for guidance with the affiliation process.
Kess, who recently finished the Fulbright process, went through several drafts of his essay with Persels.
“He has read multiple drafts of my essays and been very helpful in providing constructive feedback to make me the best candidate possible,” Kess said.
Most of the students Persels talks with cite faculty encouragement as a reason for their decision to pursue the fellowship. Jason Greene, a graduate student in the Arnold School of Public Health, was inspired to apply for the Fulbright this year by his mentor Donna Richter, executive director of the South Carolina Public Health Institute.
Greene was connected with professors and researchers at various universities across the country for his research proposal in Sierra Leone with help from Richter, who was a Fulbright scholar in 1994.
“It’s faculty that often push them to do it, and it’s faculty who really help form their essays in a way that’s incredibly helpful to Fulbright advisers,” Persels said.
The Fulbright process includes faculty in a committee review and interview, examining a student’s language skills and discipline specific research goals. Last year more than 60 faculty members helped with the Fulbright application review, said Novella Beskid, the office’s director.
“The faculty’s expertise in a variety of different ways makes them invaluable to the process,” Beskid said.
Kara Brown, an associate professor in educational studies, decided to join Persels in advising students on their Fulbright applications this year. Brown, a Fulbright winner herself, took on the challenge of advising students applying for the English Teaching Assistantship Fulbright grants, a time intensive but rewarding process.
“The Fulbright is such an amazing opportunity. If you’re invested at all in helping to expand opportunities abroad for undergraduates and graduates, and that is one of my commitments here at USC, then this is a natural fit,” Brown said.
Brown said she would like to get more former Fulbright faculty members connected with students who are interested in applying for the grant and to become a systematic resource at the university.
Faculty make a difference
Cantwell credited the faculty and staff involved with her application for her success in the Fulbright process and in giving her an edge over the other thousands of applicants.
“They’re all busy people with their own workload to deal with, and they willingly set out time to help me,” she said. “Without all of them, none of this would be possible. USC is lucky to have such great faculty members and an office devoted to these applications.”
USC’s Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs points to student success as proof that its hands-on approach has worked. Before the office was established in 1994, USC averaged 2.5 national scholarship winners per year. Now, the university averages 33 national winners per year.
And the office wants to see more applications. Persels said he would like to see more graduate students apply for the Fulbright award. Getting students to apply is the biggest challenge, Persels said.
“We’re trying to get the word out,” he said. “We find that the most successful way to get to students is through faculty. Because they don’t think they are good enough to apply for these things or they don’t think they could be a national contender and they really are.”
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