Applying for a national fellowship is grueling work, and the chances of winning are slim. But the process alone can change a student’s life.
By Zelda Stern
Hanna Saltzman ’12 sits in her parents’ backyard in Salt Lake City, Utah, pen in hand, a thick notebook across her lap and a cast on her ankle. Laid up with tendonitis, she’s decided to use the month before starting her junior year at the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford to think deeply about her future. It’s her first step in applying to become a Truman Scholar.
The number of Williams students who apply for national fellowships such as the Truman is increasing, and, over the years, the college has had more than its fair share of success: 36 Rhodes Scholars, 16 Marshall Scholars, 16 Truman Scholars, 78 Watson Fellows. Williams ranks among the top 10 undergraduate institutions nationally for Fulbrights, with 94 recipients since record keeping started in 1991.
Still, the competition is fierce. In the case of the Rhodes, each year more than 1,000 candidates across the country seek endorsements from their college or university to vie for an honor ultimately awarded to only 32 U.S. students. And the work is hard, likened to adding a fifth class on top of an already full course load.
“Applying for a national fellowship is a long and difficult process,” says Katya King, director of
Williams’ Office of Fellowships, who, along with fellowships coordinator Lynn Chick, helps advise and prepare students and recent graduates from the moment they express interest in a fellowship through the final interview and beyond.
At nearly every step along the way, faculty, staff and alumni are there to help—whether they’re steering promising students toward particular fellowships, writing letters of recommendation, offering feedback on essays or drilling them during mock interviews. Alumni who were Rhodes Scholars and Marshall Fellows work one-on-one with current applicants. For fellowships that limit the number of students who may apply from each college, a committee composed of faculty, King and a dean (or other staff member) interviews candidates and selects nominees.
“We get to know the kids,” says King. “We push and we prod. We comfort and encourage. Then we send them off with as much confidence in themselves as possible.”
No matter the outcome, it’s the rare student who doesn’t gain something—clarity, confidence, focus, poise—from the process. In Saltzman’s case, the Truman application was “a launching point to think about my own future critically in a way I hadn’t done before.” For many, even if they don’t win a fellowship, the process is life changing, helping them to think about who they are and what they want to do, encouraging them to dream big and focus on ways to achieve their goals, and providing them with the confidence and critical-thinking skills to get them there.
“The insights you get from being forced to reflect on what you aspire to, what you’re passionate about, what you want to do with your life, are invaluable at this stage in life and so helpful for so many things you will do as adults.”—Katya King
Your Life Goals in 400 Words or Less
An anthropology major and premed student, Saltzman had been involved in community service since elementary school, when she campaigned to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She spent the summer after her freshman year at Williams as a hospital volunteer and accompanied a medical team on a service trip to Mexico and a research trip to Ghana. She taught an environmental class for sixth-graders at Williamstown Elementary School, wrote articles for the Williams Record about the impact of the recession on neighboring towns, helped found Williams Sustainable Growers and petitioned the college for a Center for Community Engagement, all while playing in the orchestra and leading the college cycling team.
So Saltzman seemed a good candidate for a Truman Scholarship, a highly selective national award for college juniors planning careers in public service. With a stipend for graduate school of up to $30,000, the Truman also provides counseling for graduate school admission, internship placement and career and professional development.
While Saltzman had plenty of accomplishments to tout in her application, the Truman folks also wanted to know her goals, asking questions like: What position do you hope to attain immediately after graduate school? Five to seven years after that? And what problem or social need do you want to address when you enter public service? About to begin her junior year, she had never seriously considered these questions before.
She began the work of answering them at her parents’ house, scribbling in her notebook. (“Writing helps me think,” she says.) And she continued overseas at Oxford—where she spent a full year—checking in with the fellowships office via email and video chat when she had a question or needed feedback.
She considered practicalities and made a list of things she wanted to be able to afford in life—sustainably produced food, a small house, a good education for the children she might have someday. She calculated what those things might cost and what she might earn working in public service versus a more lucrative career in the private sector. She listed her previous jobs and decided what she liked and disliked about each, noticing that she was happiest when her tasks were varied and involved doing research and lab work. She explored advanced-degree programs and realized that fields such as environmental health and global environmental health justice excited her.
She thought the hard work was over once she identified her goals—going to medical school, getting a master’s in public health and working with multidisciplinary teams to design environmental health programs or to translate research into improved health care. But it was just as hard to stick to the application’s word limits.
“I had to cut a lot of descriptions,” Saltzman says.
She also had to write a brief proposal addressing a policy issue of her choice.
“All the ideas I wanted to address were huge,” she says. “And I had only 200 words to propose a solution and 200 words to describe the problem.”
Saltzman thought through countless ideas and read hundreds of journal articles. “I went over the top,” she says, but she also educated herself about some of the most important health issues in her state. Her final proposal was a succinct, well-informed, four-part strategy to prevent childhood Type 2 diabetes in Utah.
Though she was chosen as one of Williams’ three nominees for a Truman, Saltzman didn’t get the fellowship. But she has no regrets and says the process—coupled with the time she spent at Oxford—has made her more inclined to apply for a Rhodes or Marshall Scholarship this coming year, as a senior.
“The application propelled me toward thinking about my future far more specifically—and seriously—than before,” Saltzman says. “I learned a lot about opportunities available, specific societal issues and myself.”
Transforming Passion into Purpose
Clint Robins ’11 had been playing football for 12 years when he was faced with a decision. As a sophomore he won a national Mellon Mays Research Fellowship, designed to help remedy a serious shortage of faculty of color in higher education. The fellowship enables a student to delve into a research project for a few years as an undergraduate to determine if graduate school is the path he or she wants to take.
Robins’ project—to assist biology professor Heather Williams with research on how Savannah sparrows communicate with each other—added many hours on top of an already heavy course load. During a football practice, his running back coach noticed Robins was struggling with exhaustion.
“He told me flat out, ‘I know you love this sport, but you can’t function,’” Robins, the Class of 1960 Scholar in biology, says. “‘Research is what’s making you happy, getting you places. Quit football. It’s not the end of the world.’”
So he made the unusual and difficult decision to give up football, creating room for someone else on the roster before the first game of the season his junior year. “When I left,” Robins says, “I felt like I’d lost a piece of myself.” But he relished the opportunity to focus exclusively on research.
His work on sparrows’ song structures evolved into a senior honors thesis, confirmed his desire to pursue a graduate degree and led him to another jumping-off point. During the long drive back to campus from a field research trip in New Brunswick, Canada, Williams suggested Robins apply for a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which awards a $25,000 grant for a year of “independent, purposeful exploration and travel” to 40 college graduates of “unusual promise” selected from private liberal arts colleges and universities around the nation.
Robins already had an idea in mind. Ever since he was a child, the biology major—whose mother is Rwandan and whose father, a cultural anthropologist, has studied social issues surrounding the killing of gorillas in the Rwandan National Park—had been fascinated by “the bushmeat crisis.” With a Watson, he would have the chance to explore the cultural and social issues surrounding this hunting of and trade in endangered wild animals in tropical countries.
He began the application process by sending out 100 emails to organizations and individuals around the world involved in wildlife conservation. Twenty people responded, offering additional names and specific information about the bushmeat crisis in each of their countries. Over several months Robins built a contact list for communities at risk in Ghana, Cameroon, Uganda, India and Chile, and he constructed an efficient travel itinerary for how he would spend his fellowship year.
He solicited ideas and feedback from across the Williams community. During his interview with the college’s nominating committee, which would select up to four students to apply for Watsons from a pool of 20, King and Chick suggested that he take advantage of his involvement in sports. His experience with soccer, in particular, popular in all the countries he wanted to visit, might be a useful icebreaker in his research—a way to win the trust of people he wanted to interview. A friend who won a Watson the previous year gave Robins ideas for how he could use his time between interviews overseas: “Hire a tutor to learn the language, go to the international student center, take a course…”
The more he fleshed out his plan, the more excited he became thinking about it. “You create a Watson from a personal passion,” says Robins, an adventurer who has helped rehabilitate eagles in Alaska, photographed sharks from inside a cage in the Indian Ocean and conducted field surveys of fauna in the Australian outback.
Though he was nominated as a finalist, and his Watson interview went well, Robins ultimately wasn’t selected. But he’s not ready to give up yet. Encouraged by his parents and the fellowships office, as of May he was looking for another source of funding to go overseas. He also was considering work as a lab assistant for a year at Duke, where faculty members have affiliations with Kruger National Park in South Africa.
“I am still invested in my project and will take every opportunity to pursue it,” he says. As he wrote in his personal statement for the Watson, “Each experience has reinforced my belief that the greatest learning comes from the most unfamiliar circumstances.”
“We get as emotionally invested as students do. It’s exhilarating when they win. When they lose, it’s our loss, too.”
Nurturing Personal Growth
“I never thought I would be saying this, but I consider myself a gay rights activist,” Emanuel Yekutiel ’11 wrote in his application for a Watson Fellowship. “Three years ago I was closeted in L.A., unhappy, and I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. Three years later, I was standing on the streets of San Francisco, fundraising for gay rights with a kippah on. We can never predict where we’re going to be.”
Yekutiel, an Orthodox Jew, came out in front of 250 people at the Paresky Center three weeks into his freshman year. The occasion was Storytime, a Sunday night event in which one member of the Williams community tells his or her life story to a college audience. Yekutiel had planned to talk about what it was like going from a yeshiva where everyone wore a kippah, or skullcap, to being the only Orthodox Jew at L.A.’s Harvard Westlake High School.
“That’s been a tough adjustment,” he told the crowd at Paresky. “I’m working through that part of my identity.”
Then, because the moment felt right, he said, “One other part of me that I’m coming to terms with is the fact that I’m gay.”
Looking back, Yekutiel says it was really helpful to come out early on: “Being out at Williams made this place safe for me, made it become a home really quickly.” He also found “an army of support,” especially among staff and faculty.
He felt comfortable enough his first year to run for class representative in the spring and would remain on the College Council throughout his time at Williams, serving as co-president his senior year. A political science major with a concentration in leadership studies, Yekutiel says he loved student government.
“College Council gave me a stake in the Williams community,” he says, noting that during his time the council worked with the college to change how the dining system worked, build a resource center in Paresky and create an orientation program to better prepare students for sophomore year. “I didn’t want to just complain, I wanted to be proactive,” he adds.
Yekutiel visited the fellowships office for the first time during his sophomore year to find out if he was eligible for any programs. That summer, he took an internship in San Francisco with the nonprofit Grassroots Campaigns to lobby for gay rights. As a junior, he applied for a Truman but didn’t win.
In the spring of his junior year, at a general information session run by the fellowships office, he learned about the Watson. “It sounded perfect,” he says. “Creative and adventurous, like me.”
He started working on applications over the summer. (Energetic and enthusiastic, he would apply for an astounding seven fellowships during his senior year.) For the Watson, he dashed off three lists: his qualities (“outspoken, an activist…”), his interests (“music, talking to people, coffee, gay rights, religion, the concept of love…”) and places he had always wanted to go (Brazil, India, Australia, Ireland, the U.K.). He posted the lists as sticky notes on his computer screen and stared at them, making connections.
His first idea was to study great change agents in countries around the world: Gandhi in India, Churchill in England. “Katya thought that idea was a little stale and not very ‘Watson,’” says Yekutiel. “Also a little too safe for me.”
Then he thought he might use the Watson to “try to investigate the concept of love,” he says. It was a good idea in theory, King told him, but it would be “difficult to construct a watertight proposal” to support it.
His third concept was to visit countries where gay rights existed but did not extend to same-sex marriage in order to see how activists were fighting for full equality. King approved the idea and gave him a copy of a Watson recipient’s successful application, also on gay rights, to look at.
Writing his personal statement “was kind of like going through the attic, opening up boxes I haven’t opened up in years,” Yekutiel says. “One box was, ‘Why did I leave yeshiva?’ Another was, ‘What did I come to Williams for?’”
He earned a place as one of the college’s four Watson finalists. But during his final interview, “I didn’t think I was able to convey my excitement for the project effectively,” he says. Afterward, he “plopped down in the fellowships office” and told King and Chick, “I just bombed that. I ruined it. I’m really sorry, guys.”
As it turned out, he did much better than he thought. (The interviewer would later say Yekutiel had him “in stitches.”) When, four months later, he learned he was selected for a Watson, he was “surprised at every level.”
With the approval of the Watson program, Yekutiel has since broadened his focus from same-sex marriage to studying global gay rights activism, building upon his interest in political organizing to bring about change. “I want to know what these activists are fighting for, how they are fighting and why,” he says, adding, “Part of my interest in gay rights comes from knowing what it feels like to fight for acceptance. Taking lessons from individuals all over the world who can relate is my way of dealing with that.”
Yekutiel credits the fellowships office with helping him build his confidence. “Katya and Lynn would tell me, ‘If you don’t believe that you deserve this fellowship, they won’t either,’” he says. “I can be very critical of myself sometimes. I needed to believe that I deserved a chance to do this. Katya and Lynn allowed me to feel qualified, which gave me confidence.
“It wasn’t ever about getting Emanuel the Watson,” he adds. “It was really about helping me grow.”