Issue 4, Fall 2009
Featured Collaboration: The Office of Honors Scholarships
The Office of Honor Scholarships (OHS) provides information, outreach, and support to Vanderbilt undergraduate and graduate students who have the potential to become candidates for nationally-competitive fellowships. Over the past several years, the number of students applying for these high level awards has grown significantly. As a result, the OHS and the Writing Studio began collaborating to provide guidance for these scholarship applicants and for faculty writing letters in support of them. This natural collaboration has had the effect of providing Vanderbilt candidates with multiple opportunities for formal, structured guidance as they master a form and style of writing that is often quite different from what they have done for class and for their research.
Guiding students through the scholarship writing process begins with in-depth conversations with them about their goals, motivations, and options. Most students completing applications for scholarships and fellowships are, at the same time, applying for graduate school, jobs, and a number of other post-baccalaureate opportunities. Each scholarship review committee, however, wants a candidate to acknowledge that particular scholarship opportunity as the one the candidate seeks more than any other.
So what’s an applicant to do? For the purposes of each application, a candidate’s goals, commitments, and desires need to align directly with the goals and commitments of the scholarship foundation. The more multi-talented the candidates, and the more divergent their interests (for example there’s the Fulbright ETA application for Germany, the Marshall application to study political theory at the London School of Economics and the Luce application for a work/travel project in Indonesia), the more challenging establishing this singularity of purpose will be. The good news is that this is where most students find the work involved in preparing these applications to be of greatest value to them. As writers, they get the opportunity to imagine themselves into each of these different futures and work out a short term (5 – 10 year) life plan for each one. In this imagining phase of the application process, most students find that some futures are more compelling to them than others.
Students are advised early on that, although a record of academic excellence and leadership is a necessary precondition for candidacy, these fellowships are not recognitions of past performance but investments in future potential. Writing scholarship applications seems especially daunting for most writers because the applications require them to reflect upon the past in order to imagine how the fellowship period will enable them to position themselves in relationship to their future goals.
Candidates write about formative experiences from the past to establish a history of experience, action and involvement which shows the reader that they are the kind of person in whom the scholarship foundation wants to invest. These stories are fairly well established, derived from what the candidates have done, the choices they have made, and the people, places, ideas and experiences that have shaped their interests. Candidates don’t have control over which stories are at their disposal, but they can choose which stories to tell and creatively determine how they will tell them. Identifying and selecting the stories comes out of the initial collaborations with both the OHS and the Writing Studio.
Stories about the future are much more difficult to write. To do this well, candidates have to know enough about their fields of interest to project developments in those fields and anticipate the ways in which their finished projects will align with the field at that time. Most candidates are knowledgeable about their disciplines but less so about the market forces – economic, political and social – that determine how their fields are or will be funded and where those fields will appear on the priority scales of the organizations that fund scholarships.
Though these tasks can seem daunting, Vanderbilt students are more than capable of handling them well. In late August, the OHS and the Writing Studio worked together to present the second annual scholarship writing retreat to help those writing applications for Fulbright, Marshall, Mitchell, and Rhodes. Initial OHS collaborations with the students serve to get them started on their applications; the additional support of the Writing Studio throughout the process helps students develop and complete their applications. Those chosen as finalists will be prepared by select faculty members for the interview process, and in the spring semester, the entire Vanderbilt community will celebrate the accomplishments of our award winners.