A systematic approach to the national awards process yields dividends, as students and alumni snag fellowships and scholarships in record numbers

By Chris Lewis

With the prospect of a five-year commitment to graduate school looming, Anton Molina '15, a chemistry and physics double major from Daly City, needed a reprieve from his typical academic workload. Yet he also longed to travel outside of the United States and experience an entirely different culture—all while conducting research related to his professional development. So Molina applied for a prestigious Fulbright grant, which offered a unique opportunity to work at a biomaterials lab in Germany. 

This spring, Molina was one of 10 Oxy students and alumni selected by the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, extending the College's impressive Fulbright run (which produced 25 honorees over the previous two years). "I can't imagine a better bridge from my undergraduate studies to graduate school than to experience a different culture, all while doing something that I love, namely research," says Molina, who will begin his studies at Germany's University of Bayreuth in August.

Oxy's abundance of Fulbrights is part of a bigger trend at the College, which has ­enjoyed a dramatic upswing in both Coro and ­National Science Foundation fellowships as well as a host of other honors. During the 2013-14 academic year, 137 students applied for scholarships and fellowships, nearly twice the number who applied five years ago. That's when Sue Pramov began to expand upon the College's systematized approach to the national awards process.

"I wanted all students to know there were opportunities available for them, and they could meet with me to discuss which ones best suited their goals and accomplishments," says Pramov, who retired this spring as director of Oxy's Office of National Awards.

Pramov created timelines for each award program, providing candidates specific dates to meet with her, as well as their faculty advisers, whether they were interested in submitting essay drafts for ­review or scheduling practice interviews before their formal interviews began. 

Under her guidance, the College began to offer multiple practice interviews for every candidate, which are overseen by faculty and administrators. In addition, nomination interviews are now provided to students who have applied to U.K.-based scholarships, such as the Rhodes and Marshall. And if students are living outside of the L.A. area during the application period, they can schedule practice interviews with faculty via Skype.

"Skype was very helpful for my practice interviews, given that I was off-campus at the time," says Libby (Evans) Blanchard '06, a two-time recipient of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. "It allowed me to receive feedback on my body language and delivery, so I could be as prepared for my real interviews as possible."

Some scholarships and fellowships also require finalists to attend formal or informal dinners with members of award selection committees. To prepare students for these dinners, the office also hosts formal luncheons so award finalists can interact with faculty in formal social settings.

Aside from interviews, the College also assists award applicants with the development of personal statements and other supporting documents by hosting a series of writing workshops each semester. Fellowship fairs are also held every February so that interested candidates can meet with advisers and award recipients to learn more about Oxy's fellowship and scholarship opportunities. "As a result, our candidates are well prepared for whichever award they apply for," Pramov says.

Potential candidates for individual awards are identified by those who are best equipped to know them: their professors. "Faculty participation is essential to the awards process," says Dale Wright, the David B. and Mary H. Gamble Professor in Religion and former chair of the National Awards Committee. "Their help in the conceiving of research agenda, oversight in the way a proposal is articulated, and assistance in practice interviews remain distinguishing marks of the program."

"The process of putting together applications, particularly crafting essays and doing well in interviews, requires intensive teaching, support, and mentoring," says Martha Matsuoka '83, associate professor of urban and environmental policy and faculty adviser to the Harry S. Truman Scholarship. "Because of this preparation, students often come back from their formal interviews feeling that they did well."

"As faculty advisers, it is important to also encourage students' optimism and be there with them if they aren't selected for awards," says Gretchen North, professor of biology, chair of the National Awards Committee, and U.K. scholarship faculty adviser. "Students should be motivated by what they learn throughout the entire application process. The award is really just the icing on the cake."

Bianca Fonseca Cervantes '14 of Phoenix, a current Truman Scholar, echoes North's sentiments. "I was really forced to think about my future and map out what the next few years could look like. The mock interviews especially have had a lasting effect on me," says Cervantes, a Latino/a and Latin American studies and urban and environmental policy double major. "I feel much more confident during every interview now, due to all of the great feedback I received from professors and administrators." 

After graduation, Cervantes participated in the Truman Scholarship Foundation's Summer Institute, a program that provided the resources she needed to intern at Washington, D.C.'s National Council of La Raza. Last August, she began a year of service with Public Allies Arizona, an AmeriCorps program that provides professional development training. She intends to enroll in graduate school within three years.

"I am currently placed at Boys Hope Girls Hope of Arizona as an academic success coordinator, where I am working with at-risk high school students in three major areas: service, career preparation, and academic success," she says. "Based on advice I received from Truman Foundation advisers, I thought it would be best to gain some experience before I return to school."

After earning a B.A. in English and comparative literary studies, Blanchard sought to pursue a master's degree as well, setting her sights on the University of Cambridge. Five years later, the Colorado native became the first Gates Cambridge Scholar in Occidental ­history, moving to England and earning a master's in philosophy. 

Blanchard enjoyed her study abroad experiences so much that she applied for the scholarship a second time, even though she was nearly 30. Occidental "was a huge source of support and feedback, as my advisers helped me proofread and finalize application drafts and offered advice on my personal essay," she says. "They also helped me prepare for my interviews. It would have been much harder to interview well without their assistance."

Since earning her second Gates Cambridge Scholarship, she has continued her studies overseas. With a focus on the politics of climate change mitigation strategies, she is currently pursuing a doctorate in philosophy. "My ability to dream big has dramatically increased because of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship," says Blanchard, who hopes to work at an institution like the World Bank or apply for a postdoctoral research position.

As CJ Faulwell '14 prepared his application for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, he found the entire process to be overwhelming. "I was required to fill out a long application, acquire three letters of recommendation, submit a research proposal, and write multiple short-response essays," recalls Faulwell, an economics major from Simi Valley. "The Office of National Awards helped me address the required steps in such a way that the process became manageable."

Since earning the scholarship, he has accepted a full-time position at a consulting firm that services all aspects of the real estate industry. Ultimately, Faulwell aspires to attend graduate school and acquire a ­research-related position. "My experiences with the Goldwater Scholarship have definitely sparked my interest in research," he says. "I have also been inspired to apply for more awards in the future."

Last year, Ryan Metzler '14, an art history and ­visual arts major from Doylestown, Pa., became Oxy's first recipient of a Fulbright grant in the creative arts. Throughout the ­application process, "Sue Pramov's personal guidance really made a difference," says Metz­ker, who is pursuing a master's in film and media studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. While there, he will interview Māori (the nation's indigenous people) who work as carvers, weavers, and playwrights for a documentary that will incorporate their art as well. "The Fulbright program has done an incredible job, especially in terms of connecting me with artists and scholars to further facilitate my research. It was a perfect match for my academic and artistic goals," he says.

Building on Pramov's foundation, Kim Babon, Oxy's new director of national awards and fellowships, hopes to expand the variety of awards opportunities available to students, while using technology to streamline the process. "Candidates, advisers, and alumni will also have more online tools and resources, including Moodle [the online learning platform], which will be used to upload virtual information sessions," she says. "These sessions will provide specific guidelines for students as they write their applications, as well as links to some of the major awards' Moodle pages so students and alumni can receive information without being limited by time or space."

In an effort to diversify the office's support base, Babon also wants to develop peer-to-peer mentor networks that will connect students with alumni, who in turn can share their own experiences. "Students will discover the long-term impact the award applications can have on their lives," she says. "By tapping into alumni, fellowship and scholarship opportunities will appear to be much more tangible to students."

As students acquire knowledge about themselves and their values, they are better able to take their next steps as they prepare to graduate and enter the workforce. "For many applicants, the process itself is worthwhile since they are able to better define their career goals," Pramov says. 

And more and more Oxy students are discovering these positive effects for themselves. "The National Awards Office is a great resource for building relationships with mentors who will support students and help them understand their potential, regardless of the outcome," says Eleni Duret '15, an ­independent pattern of study major from ­Astoria, Ore., and one of two Oxy recipients of the Davis Projects for Peace Award. Duret designed a project with the intent of bringing computer literacy to the students at Ecole Classic Bon Samaritan in Haiti.

If there is a poster boy for Oxy's national awards prowess, it's Juan Germán '12—a Public Policy and International Affairs Fellow, CBYX for Young Professionals Fellow, Thomas Pickering Graduate Fellow, and Fulbright recipient. "Scholarships and fellowships are a venue to gain experience, make a difference, and distinguish oneself from one's peers," says Germán, a diplomacy and world affairs major from Providence, R.I. "They can also have an impact on students' decisions to pursue certain careers over others."

Germán recently completed his master's in public policy and management, with a concentration in international politics, from Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College. This summer he will undergo training for the Foreign Service at the U.S. Consulate in Recife, Brazil. As a Pickering Fellow, he is guaranteed employment in the Foreign Service as long as he earns a master's degree, passes the Foreign Service Officer Test and the Foreign Service Oral Assessment, and completes an internship at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., as well as an internship at a U.S. consulate or embassy.

"After training in Brazil, I will move to Washington in September, where I will attend orientation for the Foreign Service and eventually learn about my diplomatic post," Germán says. "After I am assigned a country, I will probably undergo training as a public diplomacy officer and take language and cultural courses before I am deployed to my first post."

The work of the Office of National Awards "is an important part of Oxy's overall effort to move methodically and effectively introduce students to career discernment and get them to think about, and prepare for, their lives after they graduate," says President Jonathan Veitch. The office will have an even higher profile on campus when it moves into the renovated Hameetman Career Center.

To persevere throughout the entire application process, Molina and Cervantes advise students to focus on the journey, not the destination. "From my experience, the trick was not to find motivation in the prospect of receiving the award, but to find joy in putting together a proposal and learning from that experience," Molina says.

Cervantes adds, "Students should not doubt themselves. Regardless of the outcome, they will learn more about themselves and the careers they can pursue, while also meeting caring individuals who will guide them. The process can be tough, but it is totally worth it."  

Chris Lewis is a freelance writer in Troy, Mich. This is his first story for Occidental.

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