Office Gives Students Leg Up in National Scholarship Competitions
- By Jeffrey R. Wakefield
What Peter Doubleday is researching is interesting: an emerging area of cancer biology called autophagy, a process by which cells cannibalize themselves. Where he’s doing the research is also interesting: Cardiff University in Cardiff, Wales.
Doubleday, a biology major who graduated from UVM in 2013, is in Cardiff on a Fulbright Scholarship, which will pay the full cost of the master's degree in cancer genetics he’s earning there. Next year, he’ll enter a doctoral program in biology at Northwestern University.
Doubleday isn’t the only UVM student pursuing new knowledge, often in an international setting, under the aegis of a competitive national scholarship.
In the past five years, 114 UVM students have won or been finalists in scholarship competitions ranging from the Fulbright, Rhodes and Gilman to the Goldwater, Boren and Truman. This year alone, with many decisions still pending, UVM students have won 11 scholarships, including six Fulbrights.
At the center of this impressive winning record is a tidy office in UVM’s Honors College called the Office of Fellowship Advising. Britten Chase, who directs the office, brings unusual passion to her job, because, she says, the students she works with stand to gain so much.
“National fellowships really help students,” she says. “The scholarship money is definitely helpful, but it’s the recognition of a national award that can provide a lot of opportunity, especially by helping students tap into the networks” of others who have won.
Doubleday, for instance, has joined a community of Fulbright scholars in Cardiff and London, including several faculty, who’ve given him advice on “all sorts of things.” His doctoral adviser at Northwestern in also a Fulbright Scholar.
To say Chase and her colleague Lisa Schnell, associate dean of the UVM Honors College, go the extra mile in advising students during the application process is an understatement.
Katie Bashant, a sophomore microbiology-molecular genetics double major who won a competitive Goldwater Scholarship, says she sent the essays the application called for to Chase “probably five or six times” and always received quick and helpful responses. “Over the course of putting the application together, my essays changed dramatically. They got much better,” she says.
Chase uses the Socratic method in working with students on their applications, never making direct suggestions, but instead asking questions that make them think more deeply and often reformulate their answers -- frequently about the concrete path they propose that will help them reach their goals.
“The fellowships process is really about helping people figure out not only what impact they want to have on the world and what professional position they need to be in to have that impact,” Chase says, “but also, from where they're sitting now at UVM, what specific steps they need to take to get to that position.”
Not only for elite
An idea that makes both Chase and Schnell recoil is the notion that the award competitions are only for the elite.
“The stereotype that these awards are just for A+ students is completely untrue,” she says. “It's really more about what you're doing on campus and how you're making the most of it. One of the reasons we do so well is that UVM really allows students to tap into their potential.”
That potential can take them far. Madeline Murphy Hall, a 2010 alum who won both Boren and Fulbright Scholarships, had wanted to work for the U. S. Department of State since high school. Today, thanks in large part to the experiences and contacts the scholarships gave her, she is working as a junior global affairs officer at the federal agency, where she acts as an information liaison covering the Middle East and North Africa.
Winning a competition in nice, Chase says, but it’s not the only thing.
“By definition, the vast majority of people who apply" for the intensely competitive scholarships "don't win,” she says. “But there's still value in the process. If you choose to apply for a nationally competitive award, and if you commit yourself to that process, I can’t guarantee an award. But I can guarantee that you’ll come out of it with a greater sense of self, a greater sense of purpose, and greater sense of what you’ll be doing during and after your career at UVM.”
While Doubleday’s path is still unfolding, the Fulbright “definitely helped me get into the Northwestern” doctoral program, he says. It’s clear his own talent and hard work were key, but the advising he received, along with UVM’s unique character, also helped.
Chase and Schnell “were extremely helpful and offered really great guidance,” he says. “And UVM is like this great little bubble. When you’re in it, it’s hard to compare to other places. But once you leave, you really see how strong it is. It shouldn’t be surprising for anyone who goes UVM to get a grant like this or any other major grant.”