The Scholarship Chase

Share Button

What is it like to apply for fellowships like the Rhodes and Thouron?

By Michael Brus

IN his biography of Bill Clinton, the journalist David Maraniss describes the interview process for Rhodes Scholar candidates as “equal parts dissertation defense, locker-room sizing up, television quiz show, cocktail party bull session, debating society, and drawing of straws.”
   Penn students Eugene Huang, SEAS/ W’99, and Dina Westenholz, C’99, would certainly agree.
   Huang and Westenholz both advanced far in Rhodes competition this year. Westenholz was among the final 13 candidates in Pennsylvania, while Huang advanced to the final 10 of the Mid-Atlantic Region (from which four Rhodes Scholars were selected). Huang, a veteran of job and scholarship interviews, said his Rhodes interview was unlike any he has encountered. Or, as Maraniss writes, it is one of “the most peculiar enterprises in academia.”
   The Rhodes Scholarship, which grants two years of graduate-level study at Oxford University, is only the most famous of the handful of prestigious scholarships bestowed on the best and brightest of each graduating class. While most Penn seniors have been busy dropping resumes at Career Planning and Placement Services and interviewing for jobs, a coterie of undergraduates has been aspiring to the loftier, even more cutthroat world of academic fellowships — the Rhodes, the Marshall, the Fulbright, the Truman, the Luce, the Mellon, the Thouron, and even the USA Today.
   The interviews “make you think seriously about what you want to do [with your life],” Westenholz said. “With the Rhodes in particular, you have to project ahead and behind. You have to justify yourself on a whole new level.
   “The crux of the interview is, ‘How will you make the world a better place if you get this scholarship?'” she said. “That’s more than just having a really good idea of what you want to study at Oxford. That’s a global life plan.”
   Most college seniors simply focus on what they will do upon graduating, Huang said, but the Rhodes makes you focus on your whole life. Applying for graduate scholarships becomes an almost all-consuming process, he added. You can’t simply block off time; it is a piecemeal process that tests your organizational ability as much as anything else. There are endless requests and reminders to professors for recommendations, and the writing, circulating, and revising of dozens of application essays.
   Huang said the Office of International Programs considers applying for a scholarship like the Rhodes equivalent to taking several extra classes. For him, the gamble paid off: Last month he won a Thouron scholarship, providing two free years of study in England.
   “It’s very consuming,” Westenholz added, “not just in terms of time, but in terms of emotional investment. Which is why the results can be so jolting, one way or the other.”    Everything is fair game during the interview, Westenholz said. “My opening question was to give a very detailed, but broad descriptive analysis of material covered in a class two years ago.” Some interviewers asked more personal questions, and some gave the applicants a chance to be creative.
   Thouron applicant Michael Pereira, C’99, noted that most scholarship interviews last all day and give you many opportunities to shine, whether it be informally over cocktails, lunch, and dinner, or formally during the interview. The 18 finalists for the Thouron were sequestered in a hotel outside Philadelphia from 7:30 A.M. to 7:30 P.M.
   Though Westenholz found many advisors willing to bend over backward to help her during the process, she thinks the University as an institution needs to devote more resources to recruiting and preparing applicants.
   “When it comes to institutional mechanisms to help students who are [applying for academic scholarships], one telling disparity is the degree to which the University helps [students] going into the job track.”
   Westenholz noted that most of the scholarship facilitators in the administration are divided among the Office of International Programs, the College office, and the Benjamin Franklin Scholars program. Westenholz only learned about some of the scholarships at the last minute through her BFS advisor.
   Pereira decided not to apply for the Rhodes because of the University’s poor track record — it has not produced a Rhodes Scholar in seven years.
   “In conversations I’ve had with people I’ve heard that the Penn administration does not cultivate a culture that encourages people to seek aca-demic scholarships,” Pereira said. “The emphasis is on a job after college. I wouldn’t attribute this to the quality of the students, but to the culture of the administration.”

Michael Brus, C’99, is a political science major from Madison. N.J.

Share Button

    Related Posts

    Siblings, Interrupted
    Microwaving in the Ivy League
    Waiting, on a Cloudy Day