Advising Office Helps Students See a (Ful)bright Future
- By Jeffrey R. Wakefield
When Emily Lubell applied for an undergraduate research grant to continue a public health project she’d begun during a semester abroad in Chile, the psychology major from Natick, Mass. got a surprising response: UVM was happy to fund her work, but administrators encouraged her to stretch her ambitions and shoot for a Fulbright Scholarship.
Lubell, whose GPA was solid but not stratospheric, was nonplused. Even “in her dreams,” she didn’t see herself as Fulbright material.
But along with her experience and good ideas, Lubell had a powerful ally – UVM’s Office of Fellowship Advising. The office’s chief adviser, Britten Chase, guided, inspired, hand-held, and just plain exhaustingly worked Lubell first into believing in herself, then into the Fulbright winner’s circle.
Lubell’s experience isn’t unique. Since 2005, when the university first put a centralized fellowship outreach and support program in place, 39 talented UVM students have won (22) or been finalists (17) in the country’s most prestigious and competitive competitions, including the Fulbright, Rhodes, Goldwater, Marshall, Udall, Truman, Madison, Gilman, and Boren Overseas scholarships.
“For students who are motivated by issues outside the classroom, as well as by academics, there are real opportunities,” says Lisa Schnell, associate dean of UVM’s Honors College, who oversees Chase’s office. The fellowship office helps students “find those opportunities and get the mentoring they need to pursue them.”
The words hardly do justice to the wise – and seriously intense – services Schnell and Chase provide.
Take the case of Whitney Roth, a senior from Chicago who recently won a highly competitive Boren Overseas Scholarship, which the U.S. Department of State funds to launch America’s most talented college students on diplomatic careers.
Chase had a blunt assessment of Roth’s application essay, an analysis of the surprisingly amicable relations Jews and Muslims enjoy in Morocco, where Roth spent a gap year after high school.
“She basically told me, ‘This is OK, but it’s not going to win you anything,’” Roth recalls.
What weakened Roth’s essay was a flaw Chase frequently encounters with young adults only vaguely aware of the path their lives will eventually take: an organizing structure she calls “connecting the dots.”
To make an impression on reviewers, Chase says, “you really need to demonstrate how all your experiences come together to make you unique and able to make a very significant contribution in your field.” Also important, she says, is showing in concrete detail how you plan to achieve your goals, step by detailed step, in a way that seems achievable.
In a series of advising sessions, Chase helped Roth articulate why a Morocco specialist would be of strategic value to the State Department, and what role the Boren would play in her plan to become that go-to person – right down to the specific graduate program she planned to apply to after completing the fellowship.
When an L is a W
As much as they like seeing students win, Chase and Schnell believe the real value of the application process lies in the doing, not the outcome.
“The students who apply are all extremely talented, but many don’t win,” Chase says. “But if they go through this process, and it helps them figure out who they are and what their interests are and what they want to do and how to get there, then that’s almost more valuable.”
If Schnell and Chase have a mission in their own lives, it’s to puncture the air of elitism that surrounds their work. With a few exceptions – the Rhodes Scholarship accepts one in 20 applicants and winners’ GPAs never dip below 3.9 – fellowship programs are more interested in applicants who have passion, good ideas, and a plan than in cookie cutter, straight-A students.
Students like Lubell, in short.
While Lubell isn’t unaware of her abilities, she prefers to put the spotlight on Chase’s contribution to her Fulbright win.
“She just made me realize that I had a solid idea that fit perfectly with what the grant tends to look for and that my GPA and other credentials were still in the range of what you need,” Lubell says. “She believed in my project essentially, and talked me into applying. And then spent days and nights with me working on my application. She was a great mentor, and she’s really good at her job.”