Joe Joseph spent months last year applying to the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship. The rigorous process involved crafting a well-articulated personal statement and a detailed public policy proposal—one which offered a “fresh approach” to a pressing social problem—in just 500 words.
“It was grueling,” said Joseph, a fourth-year student in the College. “One of the most difficult application processes I have ever undergone.”
Joseph is one of hundreds of UChicago students who received help from the College Center for Scholarly Advancement, which the College founded in 2015 to raise awareness of nationally competitive funding prospects and post-graduate experiences, as well as undergraduate research opportunities. Since its inception, the center helped UChicago students and alumni garner a windfall of highly competitive awards, including the Fulbright, Rhodes, Marshall, Gates Cambridge and Churchill scholarships.
“We see our office as being a hub of resources for College students when it comes to advancing as scholars and as citizens,” said Nichole Fazio, the center’s director. In its first year Fazio and the center’s assistant director, Nicholas Morris, helped more than 240 students, including alumni, submit applications—triple the engagement from previous years. “Increasing numbers of students are coming to us for support,” said Fazio, “and we see that as a sign of success.”
“The work our students undertake in applying for fellowships reflects the deepest values of the College,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “The center helps students to articulate their own, personal vision and sense of purpose, and to realize this in their scholarship and plans for the future. This complements the formation that takes place over their undergraduate careers.”
Matching students with interests
After two years as a public policy consultant in Chicago, Aliza Warwick, AB’14, pivoted her focus to China and reached out to the center. Fazio noticed Warwick’s language proficiency—she had studied Mandarin intensively as an undergraduate, winning a prestigious Critical Language Scholarship. As a result, she was uniquely prepared to compete for the University of Peking’s Yenching Academy Scholarship, a fully funded master’s degree program in China studies.
“My engagement with the office helped me find something that really matched my interests,” said Warwick, who won the scholarship and is headed to China in the fall.
Each quarter Fazio and Morris offer a number of information sessions dedicated to specific awards programs or on topics such as writing strong personal statements. They point potential applicants toward their database of nearly 300 scholarship opportunities and to further resources on the CCSA website that support undergraduate researchers, including funding opportunities.
“Our staff members are particularly attuned to the characteristics of UChicago undergraduates,” said Jay Ellison, dean of students in the College. “As they work with students during their four years, our staff helps them focus on their scholarly aspirations and to identify and present their unique strengths.”
But the bulk of the work involves student advising. About two dozen scholarships are highly competitive, national awards—like the Truman—that require institutional endorsement and intensive applicant support. Among them are the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, which provide full funding for graduate school in the United Kingdom.
Fazio and Morris help students identify opportunities and support them—not only in application review, but with interviewing skills and helping candidates “learn how to listen well and talk on their feet.”
“A lot of it is confidence-building,” said Fazio, who has studied and worked within the British university system. “It’s not easy to talk about yourself or justify what you study or hope to do, particularly when you’re 20 years old.”
Preparing for ‘high-stakes moments’
Although she was living in New York last fall when she applied for the Marshall Scholarship, Erin Simpson, AB’15, said the center’s staff held several mock interviews via Skype.
“The interviews for these awards are pretty intense, high-stakes moments,” said Simpson, who won a Marshall Scholarship in 2016 and a Truman Scholarship in 2014. “The center staff’s wise guidance was a grounding force—they approach all of this in a healthy, holistic way, as a process of reflection.”
Simpson and others who have engaged with the center said they’ve found a kind of support there that has value far beyond the outcome of individual awards. As a UChicago nominee, Joseph worked with Fazio to hone his Truman application—she read several drafts of that policy proposal—leading up to the final national deadline.
Although Joseph did not advance to the pool of national finalists (only a third of applicants do), he considered the experience anything but a failure.
“It provided a rare opportunity to do some really deep introspection about what motivates me and what I truly care about,” Joseph said. And in a follow-up meeting, Fazio was quick to point him toward other possibilities.
“One of the things we present to students is the value of taking the time and space to consider the choices they’ve made, looking for themes, values, commitments,” Fazio said. “We value that deep dive into their developing notion of purpose—and we try to talk a lot about developing complimentary plans, not only Plan A but Plans B and C.”
Crucial in that exploration is engaging in undergraduate research or other experiences that begin to create a coherent trajectory. Last summer, after he didn’t advance with the Truman, Joseph worked closely with a law professor on a project involving police brutality and misconduct that “completely shifted his worldview and career path.”
With that professor’s strong letter of support and some scholarly research under his belt, he is now a national finalist for a Fulbright scholarship.