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South Carolina Honors College

  • Novella Fortner Beski

Helping them see themselves

Of the many mementos Novella Beskid can take with her when she retires, the best are in her mind.

Here comes BARSC major Nicholas Miller, racing across the Horseshoe in November 2000. He’d just won the Marshall Scholarship, and personally wanted to share the news.

There’s the March 1995 fax from the Truman Scholarship Foundation, informing her that broadcast journalism student Steven Burritt had just been awarded the scholarship for public service.

And always in her ear is the voice of Caroline Parler, telling her on the phone in 1999 that her dream had come true. It was a Saturday night, and even though Beskid knew she’d be giving birth any day, she still could focus on Parler’s exact words.

“She didn’t say, ‘I’m a Rhodes Scholar.’ She said, ‘I’m going to Oxford,’” Beskid said. “And that’s the key. You have to want to be going to do the academic work. You can’t be after the prize.”

This summer, after an almost 40-year career at the University of South Carolina, 28 leading the office now called National Fellowships and Scholar Programs, Novella Fortner Beskid is taking leave of campus. She and her team have helped guide more than 4,300 students to 1,193 national fellowships and scholarships totaling more than $38 million.

It’s an impressive feat, but she will tell you in an instant that the biggest prize isn’t getting the scholarship or fellowship. It’s getting the self-awareness that comes from the lengthy process of trying to get one – the practice interviews and actual interviews, the application essays, the advisor and committee meetings. Students don’t snap their fingers and get a prestigious scholarship. They work for them, knowledgeable professors and advisors guiding them alongside. Often, when students don’t get what they want – or think they want – they’ve gotten the best dividend of all.

Case in point: McNair Scholar Patrick Kelly, ’03 history and political science. Intent on becoming a lawyer, Kelly applied for the Truman Scholarship his junior year. During his nomination process with the university’s Truman Committee, he kept talking about his volunteer work with high school students and as a tutor and track coach.

“Why do you want to be a lawyer? Why don’t you teach high school?” a committee member eventually asked.

Kelly was one of three nominees for the Truman, but he didn’t advance to the national level.  

“And a couple of days later, he sent me a long note that said, ‘the process has shown me I want to be a history teacher,’” Beskid said. “And the next year, he applied and won the Madison [fellowship].”

Awarded to secondary school teachers of American history, the James Madison fellowship jumpstarted Kelly’s career, which includes two master’s degrees from the university, awards for teaching at Blythewood High School, a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education, and now as director of government affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association. He’s just one of countless others all over the world who can trace their achievements in education, medicine, business, science, economic development and public policy to the fellowship process.      

“I think National Fellowship advising, done well – meaning working with an advisor and faculty and having time for writing a reflection and having interview preparation – if you’re going through that process, it is the most powerful integrative learning exercise that I know of,” Beskid said. “The reflection back on what students have done, how their plans have changed, what they want to do to impact the world – if you do all this, which you have to do to be competitive for a national fellowship – it’s extremely powerful to clarify who you are and where you’re headed.”

Like many of the students she’s helped through the years, Beskid, a Cayce, South Carolina, native, didn’t know exactly where she was headed at their age. She did know college was important — she’s first generation — and she learned eight semesters of undergrad were necessary for her interests to emerge and develop. At Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, she was in the fourth class of women residential students.

“It was a pivotal undergraduate experience to have in the early ‘80s,” she said.

She worked with the dean of students to help integrate residential women more inclusively, presenting a proposal to the college’s board of trustees and spending a summer overseeing the renovation of a dorm more central to campus with common areas for women students to gather. Those experiences gave her a taste of higher education administration, and after graduating with degrees in English and sociology, she applied for graduate school at South Carolina, earning her master’s in student personnel services in 1985. And she stayed on, working in Student Life completing a variety of tasks, from writing the federal grants that established the university’s Community Service Program to developing leadership training programs and Women’s Student Services.

In 1994, reporting to Don Greiner, associate provost for undergraduate affairs, Beskid lassoed individual professors’ efforts to help students get national fellowships and scholarships into a centralized office. She and an administrative assistant began recruiting students to consider and apply for a core group of 10-15 fellowships, and professors to mentor the applicants. A few months into 1994, then-President John Palms tasked her with establishing a program to support Carolina Scholars, which evolved into today’s Scholar Programs. Today she manages nine staffers; their database includes more than 220 scholarships and fellowships, and Scholar Programs includes the top five UofSC scholarships. She’s proud of her national fellowships and scholar programs teams and the developmental support they offer students throughout their four years.

She’ll miss those students, particularly the conversations to help them find their path.

“I would say, ‘what’s your dream job — just throw it out and let’s brainstorm all these possible options,’ and we would work back from there to come up with a plan,” she said.

Beskid says she’s leaving the office in good hands. Jan Smoak, director of scholar programs, has been with her for 24 of her 28 years. Business coordinator Ali Cook joined 20 years ago. Jennifer Bess, director of national fellowships, has been with her more than a decade. Made part of the South Carolina Honors College in 2016 — the same year Beskid was named assistant dean — NFSP staff work as family on DeSaussure’s third floor.

Calling herself an “encourager” and “connector,” Beskid describes herself as a behind-the-scenes person whose decades on campus helped students in various ways. She learned which fellowships might appeal to certain students and directed them to campus resources. She knew which professors could help which students, and which professors would be best suited to serve on certain committees. Some of those professors have served since 1994.

“They get a free mug — that’s it,” she said. “They don’t do this for a paycheck.”

Two of those professors, Shelley Smith and George Geckle, met serving on the Truman Committee, and later married. Steven Burritt, the Truman Scholar from 1994, also serves on that committee. It’s all a circular collaboration — “and that’s another word I love,” she said. “I like to collaborate.”

It emphasizes a guiding principle: “There’s no such thing as my students. They are our students. And all pieces of the educational path are critical so that they’re whole people when they’re ready to leave.”

Now she’s the one preparing to leave. She’ll pack her bulletin board collage and her copy of How to Be Human: An Autistic Man’s Guide to Life by Rhodes Scholar Jory Fleming. But the most important souvenir she’s leaving behind. It’s a 12x13-inch mirror, framed in mosaic tile. Matt Hodge, ’04 civil and environmental engineering, made it in Spain and presented it to Beskid, Smoak and Cook in 2005. They helped guide him during his undergraduate career, through the Goldwater, Truman, Soros, Tau Beta Pi and NSF fellowship processes.

While he didn’t get the Truman, which reinforced the intersection of his planned career in public service and engineering, he did earn an NSF graduate research fellowship. The NSF fellowship allowed him to do what he wanted most, enroll in an MIT graduate program combining policy and civil engineering — the program he had discovered through the Truman process.

Beskid has used Hodge’s mirror for 17 years to orient new staffers. “It reminds us of our goal,” she said. “It’s not to win an award — that’s the cherry on the icing of the cake. Our job is to help them see themselves.”

On the back of the mirror, in green ink, Hodge had written, “To Novella, Jan and Ali. For helping me to see myself.” 

In other words . . . Praise for the leader, connector, encourager

“Like probably every student who has competed [for a scholarship or fellowship] with that office's support, I believe there is no way I would have won without that committee's support under Novella's guidance. 

At the end of every meeting Novella manages, I find two things to be true: We achieve whatever we were there to do, and Novella has made every person feel valued. Not many people can always accomplish both of those things.   

Novella is part of why I chose to serve on the Truman Committee for more than 20 years now. It's been a pleasure to see the office grow and new staff step into Novella's vision. But Novella has never stopped being personally appreciative.” 

“When I first decided to apply for national fellowships, I didn't consider myself the type of student who fit the right mold for it. I wasn't an honors student and didn't see the things I was doing on campus to be especially noteworthy. Novella was not just supportive but also helped me to reimagine how I saw myself. Applying for fellowships allowed me to focus on my education and unlocking fantastic experiences, but what has impacted my life just as much is confidence in myself and my ability to positively impact other people and the environment around me.”  

“When I was appointed to the new position of Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Studies, the President merely asked me to ‘do something about undergraduate education.’ One of my first thoughts about the President’s request was to ask the following question: Why does this university, with so many brilliant and talented undergraduates, fall embarrassingly short in the matter of matching those students with such prestigious national fellowships as the Truman, the Rotary, the Goldwater, the Marshall, the Rhodes? There are dozens of these kinds of honors. A little probing here and there revealed that the university lacked a central office to match academically talented students with the appropriate fellowship. 

We needed an office of fellowships and scholars staffed with people committed to training our students in the arcane ways of meeting the requirements and expectations of the national fellowships. With the strong backing of President Palms and Provost Moeser, I broadcast a call for applications for what would be the very first director of the proposed office, narrowed the number of applicants to three, and, after two rounds of interviews, selected Novella for the position.  

I grinned when she accepted the offer, and I have been grinning ever since. In a word, Novella has been superb. I remember shaking her hand in my office and then explaining, with, I confess, a blush, that I could not hand her a file about how to organize and run such an office because this university had never attempted to prepare our finest undergraduates for such an academic adventure. She did it all. 

Novella has been so successful that even to mention the office is to visualize her at the helm. In just a year or two, she and her staff had successfully directed students to the Goldwater, the Rotary, the Rhodes, and more. She is a pleasure to work with, a leader, and an always encouraging mentor. The primary reason the university has been successful in this venture is that Novella led the way.  

I’m still grinning. 

“When I think of Novella, I think of patience, encouragement, and kind mentorship that recognizes potential and then holds up a mirror so students can see it in themselves. She makes it look easy, but it's a rare skill to open young people's eyes to what they can achieve. Combine that with an encyclopedic knowledge of opportunities and a global network of contacts and she is a formidable asset to the National Fellowships and Scholar Programs Office at the University of South Carolina.  

I'm grateful for the mentorship and encouragement I have received from Novella and Jan. At a crucial age, it taught me to aim high, believe in myself, and most importantly, to look for help along the way. No one gets anywhere alone! I hope to emulate their example and pay forward what I was given in teaching young doctors, and I think of them often.”  

If Novella hadn't been in her position, I would not have maximized my time at Carolina. I still would have received a world-class education, but in order to make the most of the opportunities presented in life, everyone needs a cheerleader and a coach to push you beyond what you think you are capable of doing. Novella was that person for me at USC. It is not exaggeration to say that no other individual at Carolina had a bigger influence on my life than Novella. 

"One of the many remarkable things about Novella is the way she is focused on other people — her staff, the students who are exploring what’s possible, the students who have come here with great expectations, her family, all the people she works with.  Her gifts to this university and to those who have had the good fortune to work with her have been enormous.  She is leaving a legacy that will carry forward for many years to come."

Working with Novella changed the course of my life. I would never have considered the Rhodes Scholarship for graduate study if Novella hadn’t suggested it, and I can still remember her shout of joy when I told her that I was going to Oxford. She had already been a wonderful support when I applied for the Goldwater and NSF programs, and we’ve stayed connected for more than 20 years – as both our families and the Fellowships and Scholar Program kept on growing! USC won’t be the same without Novella, who will always have my respect and gratitude.     

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