Things that are easier than earning a Rhodes scholarship: getting selected in the NFL draft, getting elected to Congress, hosting your own TV show, winning an Oscar, recording a hit single.
Rhodes Scholars, who win funding for up to three years of study at Oxford University in England, have done each of these and more. There aren’t many of them: Only 32 are selected each year, but they make an outsize impact on the world. Rhodes alumni include politicians Bill Clinton and Bill Bradley, football player Myron Rolle, pundits Rachel Maddow and Bill Kristof, Hollywood director Terrence Malick, and singer Kris Kristofferson. The list also includes UAB’s own Neel Varshney—who won in 2000, went on to graduate from Harvard Medical School, and is now a venture capitalist in Chicago—and Josh Carpenter, who won the Rhodes scholarship in 2012.
You have to be a scholar to win a scholarship, but grades are not enough. Neither are energy, activism, or a killer list of extracurriculars. The secret is in the story. “All of your fellow applicants will be smart and engaged—just like you,” says Carpenter, who is currently studying comparative social policy at Oxford’s St. Hilda’s College. “You have to identify what it is that makes you unique.”
Investing in Success
A scholarship is essentially an investment, Carpenter explains. “The committee wants to find the person who will give them the best return on that investment, and it’s important that you be able to articulate why you are that person.” (For more advice from UAB scholarship winners, see “Scholar Tips,” below.)
That’s a lot to ask of an undergraduate. But UAB students have the advantage of a well-honed system designed to identify, mentor, and prepare promising students for the challenges of the selection process. In the past 12 years, they have won more than a million dollars in prestigious scholarship support, including multiple Truman, Goldwater, and Fulbright awards. This success, UAB scholarship winners say, is a direct function of the university’s personalized approach.
"The Money Is Out There"
“We have incredible students here who have ideas that can change the world, but to do that they need to have funding,” says Ashley Floyd, director of national and international fellowships and scholarships at UAB. “The money is out there—I help them find it.”
Winning major scholarships is “a real point of pride for the university, and an important attractor for prospective students and their parents,” says Suzanne Austin, Ph.D., vice provost for student and faculty success at UAB. “Scholarship winners inspire younger students as well, giving them role models for future success.”
That is why Austin appointed Floyd as UAB’s first full-time scholarships director after the post’s previous holder, Nelleke Bak, Ph.D., returned to her native South Africa. (In addition to the scholarships position, Bak had been a faculty member in the Department of Philosophy.) “It is a lot of work to groom these students to apply for major awards,” Austin says. “As UAB’s undergraduate population continues to expand, we realized that this had become a year-round job.”
It Starts Early
The process begins by identifying talented students. “They have to have great grades, of course, and lots of energy,” says Floyd. “The faculty really take an interest in this; they do a great job of bringing these types of students to our attention. I also get involved in as many activities as possible to get to know these students. The earlier we can start working with them, the better chance we have to help them prepare their resumes to be good candidates.”
That doesn’t mean artificially directing students to “resume-building” activities, Floyd notes. “It’s about helping students find the best opportunities to develop their own interests: study abroad, student research, joining an organization, or starting an organization on their own.”
The biannual UAB Undergraduate Expo, which gives students a chance to highlight and discuss their research in front of a large audience, and the UAB-student produced Inquiro, one of the few undergraduate research journals in the country, provide invaluable experience, adds Floyd.
|To catch up with UAB graduate and 2000 Rhodes Scholar Neel Varshney, click here.|
UAB’s specialized honors programs, with focuses on research, community engagement, and global leadership, offer students a unique opportunity to stand out from their peers at other institutions, says Diane Tucker, Ph.D., director of UAB’s Science and Technology Honors Program. “Our students have a pathway to identify their passion and to accumulate a resumé and a personal portfolio that makes them very competitive.”
Students also have access to UAB’s STAR (Scholarship Tracking and Advising Resource) Web site, which offers personalized guidance as well as a searchable database of undergraduate and graduate scholarships. Once students are registered, they can enter a list of criteria—class standing, location, experience, and interests—to identify matching scholarships. Floyd helps students in the search for applicable scholarships as well, and she also keeps tabs on new funding opportunities; two or three new scholarships or fellowships may debut each year.
Preparing the Scouting Report
UAB’s first scholarships director, Lia Rushton, encouraged all applicants, successful or not, to write up their impressions of the entire process, from essays to the all-important interviews. “Whether they won or didn’t win, those records of their experiences have been an incredible benefit to other UAB scholarship applicants,” Rushton says.
Floyd plans to expand on this system, encouraging winning alumni to return to campus to speak to current students and serve as mentors. Josh Carpenter, who estimates that he went through 30 versions of his personal statement for the Rhodes application, is now helping senior Mallick Hossain, a 2011 Goldwater Scholar, with his Rhodes application. Hossain was one of only 15 students in UAB’s three-state region chosen for a 2013 Rhodes interview, which is a “huge honor,” Floyd says.
Asking the Tough Questions
Scholarship veterans can be especially helpful in preparing students for the stresses of the interview process. The Truman committee, in particular, has been known to reduce applicants to tears with its aggressive questioning style.
“I was being quizzed by UAB alumni who had already won these awards,” says Kimberly Everett, who was a 2011 Truman Scholar and winner of the Thomas Pickering Foreign Affairs Scholarship. “Akofa Bonsi, who won the Truman in 2004, was probably the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Everett says. “She was very tough on me in the mock interviews, but it was all about preparing me for the real thing. She actually drove me up to my interviews in Nashville, and we talked the whole way about what to expect.”
Floyd, borrowing a phrase from Carpenter, says that a successful scholarships advisor acts as a “thought partner” for each student. “I’m helping them organize their thoughts, making sure their personal statements really reflect all that they are, and helping them identify people on the faculty and outside who can help to mentor them,” Floyd says.
“My mission is to help students reach their goals. There are amazing funding opportunities out there for the right students, and we have those students here at UAB.”
—Written by Matt Windsor
1. Start early: “Don’t wait until you are a junior to start looking for opportunities. Don’t change who you are to get a fellowship, but open your eyes to things that would help. Look for a Study Abroad trip that ties in with your interests, for example, or start your own student organization. If you start as a freshman and let your interests be your guide for your college experience and work with the right mentor, you’ll go far.” — Kimberly Everett, UAB senior, 2011 Harry S. Truman Scholar, 2011 Thomas R. Pickering Graduate Foreign Affairs Fellowship recipient
“In high school, top students do everything. Once they’re undergraduates, it’s time to build a resume with depth. Find the opportunities that match your interests and focus on them.” — Ashley Floyd, UAB international fellowships and scholarships director
2. Know yourself: “Take time out of your busy schedule for ‘me’ time. Make sure you are doing what you want to do, not what someone else wants you to do. This self-discovery makes the process of crafting personal statements much easier.” — Mallick Hossain, UAB senior, 2011 Goldwater Scholar
3. Be honest: “In my interview for the Truman scholarship—which I didn’t win—I was trying to be who I thought they wanted me to be, not who I really was. Applying for a scholarship is an incredible process of intellectual refinement. You really do discover yourself. It’s a chance to think about your own narrative in a compelling, thoughtful way.” — Josh Carpenter, 2012 Rhodes Scholar
4. But don’t hold back: “Part of my role is to help students brag on themselves. Our students are very humble, and they often leave out details of what they’re doing. I know it, and their professors and peers know it, but the scholarship committee doesn’t.” — Ashley Floyd
5. Be focused, but not too focused: “Scholarship selectors are apprehensive of applicants who have clearly tried too hard to tick all the required boxes. Spontaneity, genuine interests, intellectual curiosity, and an appropriate humility tend to elicit selectors’ support.” — Nelleke Bak, Ph.D., UAB scholarships director 2004-2012
6. Practice public speaking: “We all have verbal tics. You need to have someone with experience to tell you what they are and how to minimize them. We also work with students on crafting the perfect pause. You don’t have to jump right at every question. Take some time to think about it first. That’s why practice interviews are so important. You can get the nerves worked out in advance before going on to the regional and national committees.” — Ashley Floyd
7. The gain is worth the pain: “There is an emotional component to applying for scholarships. You have to really put yourself on the line. But win or lose, going through the exercise is so valuable, because you become very much more aware of yourself, your goals, and what you want to get out of life.” — Lia Rushton, UAB scholarships director, 1998-2004
8. Take it step by step: “Start by applying for small scholarships—they can work like building blocks for bigger ones.” — Nelleke Bak
9. There’s more than money: “The most important benefit of a scholarship is the network that you gain. I met several Truman Scholars when I was working at the State Department last summer, and they feel a real connection to you. They are interested in seeing you become a success. That network is priceless.” — Kimberly Everett
10. Have fun: “Don’t look at it as a zero-sum game, where your gain is someone else’s loss. You and your fellow applicants are all going through this process together. A number of things go into the decision on the winner, and you can’t control them all. Make sure you enjoy the process.” — Josh Carpenter