Fellowships Open Doors in Students' Lives

When Constance Chen turned in her senior honors thesis at Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges in Cambridge, Mass., she felt a surprising rush of emotion. Instead of being happy and relieved, she says, she felt sad. "There was so much more I could do," she says.

As it turned out, others who liked her work agreed. Ms. Chen received a $2,500 Pforzheimer fellowship, established by an alumna. The end result: a biography of 19th-century feminist Mary Ware Dennett, published this year by The New Press.

Each year, thousands of college students are awarded residential fellowships, outside scholarships, grants, or internships that offer financial aid designed to support expenses while they work in a specific field.

The term typically applies to graduate and postgraduate students, but opportunities for undergraduates also exist. Competition can be tough, but the awards are well-worth pursuing, say recipients.

Time and money

"I think the advantages of a fellowship are really threefold," says Chen. First, she says, the money allowed her to do the research, which may involve travel, extensive photocopying, and library fees, for example. Second, "it legitimizes what you're doing, and that is so important." Finally, Chen found that a fellowship opens doors - very often leading to another award.

An outside program can involve a year abroad or a summer doing work-study or even designing your own research project, says Mark Kantrowitz, a financial-aid expert based in Pittsburgh. "It's an enriching experience. It exposes you to new ideas and gives you a chance to dive into a particular topic."

These experiences can shape a student's future career path. Mr. Kantrowitz recalls how as a high-school junior he spent six weeks at a program sponsored by the Research Science Institute, based in Leesburg, Va. At the time, the math prodigy was thinking of being a math teacher. But after doing research in natural-language processing and computers, he went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and developed an interdisciplinary degree that included a BS in philosophy in language and mind. Now he is getting his PhD at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in computer science.

"Those six weeks woke up an interest in me," Kantrowitz says simply.

Finding an outside scholarship - and being accepted - is sometimes a major hurdle and sometimes a pleasant surprise. Most of the scholarships are attached to disciplines and require applicants to meet specific criteria. "You have to be really committed, and that passion has to come through in your essays," says Jean Danielson, director of the honors program at Tulane University in New Orleans.

There are all kinds of organizations that offer aid, ranging from the Rotary Club to corporations to Daughters of the American Revolution. For undergraduates especially, there are a lot of summer programs to explore, she says.

James Fitzsimmons is one student whom Ms. Danielson helped usher through the fellowship process. He was awarded an NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) Younger Scholars Grant to spend a summer studying Mayan hieroglyphics. The stipend of $2,500 was designed to pay for living expenses while he did research, supervised by a professor of anthropology and Latin American studies.

"It enabled me to work more closely with this professor, an authority on the subject who had access to knowledge and materials," Mr. Fitzsimmons says. With no job to worry about, he filled the summer months with intense study. The summer of total immersion culminated in "a very long paper," Fitzsimmons says.

Such concentrated research often yields valuable information, especially with scholarships and fellowships related to science and history. "Inevitably some sort of discoveries are made," says Fitzsimmons, who found a new application for one of the "glyphs" and is working on publishing his findings. He considers the grant a "great stepping stone.... It teaches you procedures such as how to publish for a wider audience." He plans to get his master's degree in anthropology/archaeology, then go for his PhD.

Hands-on projects

While Chen and Fitzsimmons concentrated on academic research, other outside-scholarship recipients sign on for more hands-on field work, such as in the arts, engineering, or social sciences.

As a student at the University of California at Los Angeles, Sarumathi Jayaraman immersed herself in community service and eventually became UCLA's Community Service Commissioner, overseeing some two dozen community-service programs.

Recognition of her far-reaching efforts brought financial support, including a Ford Foundation grant and a Truman scholarship. "Getting scholarships and fellowships really allowed me to do community service," says Ms. Jayaraman. "The idea is to give you money so you don't have to get a job."

Since a lot of students have to work, she notes, grant money that affords students the opportunity to do community service is very appealing.

Along with two friends, Jayaraman created WISE - Women in Support of Each Other - a program that enlists college women to serve as role models for middle-school girls. President Clinton praised the program in May 1994 when he spoke at UCLA's 75th anniversary convocation.

Clear-cut goals

Echoing other scholarship recipients, Jayaraman says that having a clear vision is paramount when applying. "I knew what I wanted to do and the reasons why before I applied and got the money." Currently, she is splitting her time between Yale and Harvard Universities to work on her public policy and law degrees.

Undergraduate fellows do tend to earn a superstar status, but grants are by no means restricted to the 4.0 set.

There are many myths out there associated with scholarships, fellowships, and other types of financial aid, says Daniel Cassidy, president of the National Scholarship Research Service. "One is that you have to be a straight-A student."

Organizations and schools that award scholarships and fellowships consider more than just grades, say administrators.

What's in it for them? The student's promise. Their contribution is seen as a way of facilitating the student's eventual contribution. And sometimes the donors get that recognition back.

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