Thousands of dollars in national scholarship and fellowship money never reaches USF students.
All-expense-paid opportunities to study abroad at Cambridge or Oxford, participate in public service projects around the world and receive up to $50,000 a year to attend graduate school are missed annually.
The Resources for Educational Distinction program (RED) hopes to change all that.
Formerly known as the Office of National Scholarships, the program underwent a makeover this summer to better connect with the student body. In addition to its new name, RED coordinator Arnaldo Mejias has instituted a multi-phase plan to increase awareness of national scholarship and fellowship opportunities and to assist qualified students to become competitive candidates for these awards.
The first step is finding qualified candidates for these awards, which, historically, has been a struggle for the program, Mejias said. Few USF students apply for national scholarships and fellowships.
“A very large percentage of our student population … have never heard of Rhodes or Marshall or Truman, and they have no idea what that means,” said Sharon Geiger, Honors College academic adviser and former coordinator of the Office of National Scholarships. “If you can get to this population, you spend the first year or so just educating them to the possibilities. And then you’ve got to try to help them to develop a kind of package for application purposes to make them a viable candidate. So it’s doubly difficult in that sense.”
Though RED is based in the Honors College, all scholarships and fellowships are open to the entire student body. In years past, the office centered around the college, notifying Honors students of opportunities via e-mail or the bulletin board located outside the Honors College’s offices in the Student Services building. Increasing awareness is phase I in Mejias’ plan.
“Though I’m physically located in Honors, there are pockets of students we miss if we only focus on Honors,” Mejias said. “A lot of these scholarships are academically based, and obviously many strong students are in Honors. It’s a natural fit, but I want to reach as many students as I can.”
This year, RED hopes to connect with students from all colleges by hosting informational sessions and workshops in the Marshall Center, contacting students through Facebook and launching its own Web site at usf.edu/red. A one-credit course will also be offered in the spring to help students identify which scholarships they qualify for and groom them to become the best possible candidates for those awards.
Increasing student awareness isn’t the program’s only obstacle, however – the program also needs faculty and staff support to write letters of recommendation and form a selection committee to endorse students for an award. Creating this committee is phase II in Mejias’ plan.
Rene Sanchez, program coordinator for the Study Abroad Office, serves as the Fulbright program adviser for the University. Fulbright fellowships generally provide students with round-trip transportation, full or partial tuition, and living costs to study abroad, and require a similar committee to approve of students.
“The committee is comprised of at least five members of faculty and staff that have a high degree of international experience and, in most cases, received Fulbright grants in the past,” he wrote in an e-mail. “USF has not had the sort of Fulbright recruitment we should – this has changed as our University becomes a stronger research institution. Our applicant pool quadrupled from last year.”
Sanchez said the University used to average between one and five applicants, but last year that number increased to 21. Currently, the Fulbright committee forwards all qualified applicants to the next stage of the competition, though Mejias said this may not be the case for the RED faculty committee.
“There are universities, and we would be among them, that will straight up tell the candidate, ‘No, we will not endorse you,'” Mejias said. “We would rather not submit a candidate than select one that would reflect poorly on the University.”
Developing a system
One of the most prestigious awards is the Rhodes scholarship. Awarded to 32 students in the U.S. annually, the scholarship pays all travel and educational costs for recipients to study at Oxford. The University of Florida has had 12. The University of Miami has had three. USF has had none.
The University of Central Florida earned its first of two Rhodes Scholars in 2002, which the UCF Burnett Honors College Web site promotes as its common thread with Harvard, Princeton and Yale. In comparison, Harvard has had 322 Rhodes Scholars in its 371-year history, according to the Harvard University Gazette.
“This is only the fourth year we’ve had a scholarship office,” said Geiger. “Many other universities, especially those significantly older than us, have had people in place doing this for 10 to 15 years. And anybody will tell you that it takes a good five years of solid, conscious effort to get a viable candidate.”
Time may be a major factor in establishing a fine-tuned system for grooming candidates. Yale, for example, presents around 20 candidates a year for the Rhodes scholarship alone and holds mock interviews before the state competition for the award, according to the article “How to be a Rhodes Scholar” from Time magazine. While RED and its former incarnation have been around for only four years, that Time article was from 1956. Yale has had their program in place as long as USF has existed. Yale stills maintains its mock interviews, and its fellowship program Web site features advice and interview reports detailing what to expect from students who applied for fellowships in years past. This year, five Rhodes Scholars attend Yale, according to Yale.edu.
Impacting the University
Claiming Rhodes Scholars and other national award recipients earns more than Web site bragging rights, though – maintaining a percentage of scholars could help USF earn an invitation to the Association of American Universities (AAU), a goal USF hopes to achieve within the next five years, according to its latest strategic plan. Currently, UF is the only AAU member in Florida.
The AAU lists undergraduate education as part of its “phase II indicators” used to assess whether a university should be extended a membership invitation. While phase I indicators, such as competitively funded federal research support and National Academies membership, are the primary factors in membership, aau.edu reports that phase II indicators provide a “more qualitative set of judgments about institutions and their trajectories,” thus supplementing a university’s chances at admittance.
“We’ve identified measures that reflect the quality of undergraduate education, and one of those has to do with the quality of students that you attract to the University, and percent with national scholarships would contribute to that area,” said Dan Gardner, senior director in the Office of Decision Support. “What we’re attempting to do is improve our profile so that we resemble the very best research universities in the country; and hopefully, at some point in the future, we’ll be membership-eligible.”
USF’s planning and performance matrix – a guide to the University’s goals over the next five years – lists two national scholarship recipients as this year’s goal, increasing that number by two until 2011-2012, when the University hopes to have 10 national scholars.
“USF is the ninth largest university in the country,” Mejias said. “We are also attracting an academically stronger student body. The convergence of time – five years – (plus) University efforts – RED – and academically strong students will result in much success.”
In effect, having a number of national fellowship recipients from USF could benefit more than the winners themselves and the University’s prestige – AAU membership may also increase the value of USF students’ diplomas, Gardner said.
“The reputation of USF is going to really impact your life as you go through your career,” he said. “If USF’s reputation is one of an AAU university, that will enhance your reputation later as you apply from one job to another job. It represents an investment in the future value of students’ degrees.”
Mejias agrees with Gardner, but feels that AAU membership is only a small factor in RED’s benefit to students.
“It’s going to add a lot of value to their degrees – for both recent graduates and alumni,” Mejias said. “But right now, the most important thing to students is, ‘what can RED do for me?’ and the answer is money. We can help students identify scholarships that they otherwise wouldn’t know about, encourage them to apply for scholarships for which they don’t think they qualify and give them the support throughout the application process and become a potentially competitive applicant.”
Candace Braun can be reached at (813) 974-6299 or firstname.lastname@example.org