'Punching up': Students find value in fellowships process

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Hannah Kohler was in the same position as many other rising seniors: She was thinking about the big questions of the future and wasn’t certain where her path would lead.

After traveling extensively in the summer after her junior year, including to London, she said she began to think about attending graduate school there, but wasn’t sure where to start or if any fellowships might apply to her as an education major.

It’s students such as these that Caitlin Ting is looking for. Ting is the interim director for the University Fellowships Office (UFO), located in Boucke Building at University Park. Of the thousands of students that bustle past the building each day during the semester, Ting said many might not know that these funded opportunities exist, let alone think of competing for fellowships to help fund an extended academic opportunity.

“Students often feel intimidated by the thought of competing with so many others at Penn State — or in the U.S. – for opportunities such as Fulbright or Rhodes,” Ting said. “Others may not know what they are eligible for or what opportunities exist in their field.”

It’s the big, general questions like these that UFO can help with.

For Kohler, Ting encouraged her to try her hand at the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

Named for Cecil John Rhodes, a prominent 19th-century British businessman and politician, the scholarship has been widely labeled as one of the oldest and most competitive postgraduate awards available. Recipients are invited to complete postgraduate study at the University of Oxford, typically for two to three years.

Kohler was also encouraged to compete for Fulbright, a program sponsored by the U.S. State Department that sends students and young professionals abroad to teach English, study or conduct independent research. Penn State typically has several Fulbrighters and was named a top producer of Fulbright students for the 2018-2019 academic year, bringing in 11 awardees. 

“I really didn't know what was next for me until I met with that office,” said Kohler, who was the College of Education’s student marshal for Penn State’s spring 2018 commencement ceremony. “I did a lot of traveling the summer prior and I felt as if there was something for me after my time at Penn State, but I wasn't quite sure if it was going directly into a career.”

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program, like many other similar opportunities, has an internal competition process at Penn State. The University assembles faculty and staff campus committees comprised of experts in their field and/or chosen host country to interview each applicant in order to determine whether to provide University endorsement. Throughout the interview process, applicants also receive feedback on their application materials and are expected to reflect on and incorporate this feedback before submitting their applications.

Kohler said she felt, to a certain degree, that she was “punching up.” As it is sometimes when punching up, she wasn’t successful in securing either fellowship. But she said the process did help her figure out her next step.

“What it [applying] helped me to do was refine my goals for the future,” Kohler said. “It wasn’t until I reached out to the Fellowships Office that I was forced to confront the big questions of what I would like to do after my senior year. While most seniors are thinking about that in the spring of their senior year, I had to think about it early in the fall and even late into the summer.”

Ting said refining one’s goals and planning for the future are at the core of many fellowship applications.

“It’s oftentimes the personal statement that will set a candidate apart,” she said, since all those competing will have excellent GPAs and letters of recommendation. Some applications will also require the applicants to think through their research interests and propose an independent project.

Kohler said the process brought her to a realization about further study: that she wanted to do it whether or not she scored a fellowship. Next academic year Kohler will be studying at University College London at the Institute of Education, which focuses on postgraduate studies of teaching. She’ll be pursuing a master’s degree in English education.

To hear Kohler explain her journey in her own words, check out her video on the UFO website.

Even recipients aren’t confident when they submit an application. Heidi Foon, a graduate student in Penn State’s School of International Affairs, recently learned she earned the competitive Boren Fellowship.  

“It was a shocking moment,” she said when she found out she won. “When applying I thought I had maybe a 2 or 3 percent chance of getting it because it was highly competitive and I also didn’t know the distribution [of winners].”

For Foon, the process started when she came across the Boren Fellowship opportunity in an email and decided to go for it. It was a months-long process that required the help of fellowships office staff, as well as Foon's adviser and the staff at the School of International Affairs, where she is enrolled as a graduate student. She said it helped her to refine her professional and academic goals.

“Even if I had applied and didn't get it, I would still be proud of myself and for the work that I put into it, as well as working with others to put my materials together,” she said.

Even for those who ultimately don’t receive a fellowship, the process can be an opportunity to see just how prepared they are for life after school and evaluate how much they’ve learned during their years at Penn State.

Oversight of UFO falls under Alan Rieck, assistant vice president and assistant dean of Undergraduate Education. He said he is a believer in the power of a student’s engagement in their own educational achievements.

“We often say things like, ‘The ends justify the means,’” Rieck said. “Often, the means are the ends. In other words, going through the process is the true value of an experience. One of the most important processes in life is learning about oneself. Going through the application process for fellowships will almost always provide the opportunity for increased awareness, understanding and growth potential for the applicant.”

While it might not seem like an experience could hold a candle to actually receiving a fellowship award, the application process has a secondary function that students will definitely need to employ for the future: explaining their capability to potential employers. The ability to explain past work and weave a narrative for an application is akin to explaining accomplishments to employers. This all comes out during a process Rieck calls discovery.

“The people in the fellowships office are there to help students through a discovery process,” he said. “Everyone’s experience matters. Sometimes we just need to figure out how to share it.”

Students should allow, at minimum, a month or two before a fellowship deadline to get their application in order, Ting said. Even better would be to plan a year or two in advance to be most competitive.

Fellowship deadlines are spread across the fall and early spring semester. Visit UFO’s website to search for available fellowships.

First-year students interested in learning from faculty and former fellowship recipients about prestigious awards are encouraged to sign up for the Spark Program.  

The University Fellowships Office is part of Penn State Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at undergrad.psu.edu.

Last Updated July 18, 2018