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43 Notre Dame students awarded fellowships in graduating class

| Friday, May 15, 2020

The class of 2020, with a total of 43 fellowship recipients, is heading into this fall with promising prospects. Of these, 25 are Fulbright grants, one is a Rhodes scholarship, 14 are Gilman scholarships and two are National Science Foundation research fellowships. 

Diane Park

With its largest number of fellowships awarded to Notre Dame students yet, Dr. Jeffrey Thibert, director of the Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement (CUSE), said the application process for all fellowships has become increasingly intensive. Thibert suggested this is due to the increase in selectivity in University admissions, an emphasis on cross-cultural experiences at Notre Dame, the expansion of “fellowships culture” and a more assertive effort on behalf of CUSE to educate students about opportunities. 

Fulbright Fellowship recipient senior Justin McLellan said the process was reminiscent of one he went through almost four years ago.

“It felt like applying to college all over again –– essays, short answer responses to directed questions, lots of humble bragging,” he said in an email interview.

Even with this increase in competition, Notre Dame remains successful in its number of fellowship recipients, showing an increase in acceptances for the most competitive fellowships in recent years. 

Thibert says this “consistent success” at Notre Dame is due to three things: teaching experience, study abroad experience and orientation towards doing good.

“First, a number of our students gain valuable teaching and, or tutoring experience during their years at Notre Dame, which makes them more competitive for teaching-centered fellowships,” Thibert said in an email. 

Truman Scholarship and Rhodes Scholarship recipient senior Prathm Juneja said his success reveals as much about Notre Dame as it does about his own talents.

It goes to show how much of this is a product of the people who help you in the process –– I would not have won if not for all of the support I got, even from people I had never met before,” Juneja said over email. 

Not only are universities equipped to prepare applicants for the process, but they are also providing opportunities for students to expand their worldview. McLellan said that it was his time studying abroad that convinced him to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship.

“I felt I grew significantly [while abroad] and learned a lot about myself by engaging with the communities I was in. I knew I wanted to do this on a larger scale after graduation,” McLellan said. 

Similarly, Sarah Duehren, a Fulbright Study and Research Grant recipient, said it was her experience away from Notre Dame that motivated her to apply. 

“I knew that I wanted to do something with my gap year that really shot me out of my comfort zone,” she said in an email. “I often felt very sheltered and stuck in the Notre Dame bubble during my time here, and I wanted to do something that exposed me to a world of different ideas and perspectives.”

After teaching and study abroad experience, Thibert said the mission of students at Notre Dame positively impacts their chances of winning a fellowship. 

“There’s a general orientation toward doing good in the world among the students at Notre Dame, and this is very much aligned with the general mission of the Fulbright, which aims to foster constructive cultural exchanges between the U.S. and other countries by way of educational exchange,” Thibert said. 

Examples of Notre Dame’s success are seen with two of their most competitive fellowships: The Fulbright Fellowship and The Rhodes Scholarship. The Fulbright Program only awards around 8,000 grants annually, according to their website.

Diane Park | The Observer

The Fulbright Fellowship can take one of two forms: an English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) or a Study/Research Grant. With 17 recipients at Notre Dame this year, an ETA entails living in a country of the recipient’s choosing for a year to teach English at the elementary, high school or university level. A Study/Research Grant, which eight Notre Dame students received, funds either conducting research on a topic of choice, receiving a master’s degree or a combination of both. 

For senior Emma Tam, who received the Fulbright Scholarship, becoming an English teacher in Malaysia was the perfect opportunity for her gap year.

“I was looking for something non-medical to do during my gap year before medical school and I thought teaching English in Malaysia would be an incredible experience,” Tam said in an email. 

Tam said she hopes her Fulbright experience will positively impact her future patients as a physician. 

“I ultimately hope to become part of my community and connect with students and locals,” she said. “I think the intercultural communication skills I will gain will make me become a better physician in the future,” Tam said. 

As for the Rhodes Scholarship, Thibert said there are 32 Rhodes recipients each year from the United States and 80 worldwide. This year, one was received at Notre Dame. 

Evidently, the Rhodes Scholarship is intensely selective, Thibert said. The Office of the American Secretary estimates that the acceptance rate for the Rhodes Scholarship is approximately 0.7%. 

Diane Park | The Observer

The sole Rhodes Scholar for Notre Dame, senior Prathm Juneja, said that it was friends, professors and CUSE that ultimately helped him win. 

Applying was an immensely stressful process,“ he said. ”But it was made much easier by all the support I got from friends, CUSE and plenty of professors.”

Juneja said he hopes his experience at Oxford, where he plans to study in the fall, will give him the skills needed to help  communities. 

I think the experiences I have at Oxford will make me a better public servant, and that was [a] huge motivator in applying,” Juneja said.

Juneja is most excited for the fellowship and scholarship that will come with meeting other Rhodes Scholars and Oxford students, he said.

“What excites me the most is the cohort of other scholars and other Oxford students I”ll be able to spend time with and learn from,“ he said. ”It”ll be just like Notre Dame in that regard –– a place where you learn the most from spending time with your peers.”

Although optimistic and excited about their fellowships, recipients are unsure how COVID-19 will impact their studies and research. 

Juneja said that his organizations have kept in contact with recipients, stating that information will come mid-summer. Though the outcome is not clear, he said the Rhodes Trust appears to be making contingency scenarios depending on the trajectory of the pandemic.

“It all seems pretty up in the air still, but I think they’re planning for multiple different options,“ he said. ”There’s no guarantee that Oxford is open in the fall and I have no idea if I’ll actually be [physically] attending, or if I’ll be attending online.”

McLellan, however, has less hope about his Fulbright ETA.

“It looks like it will be cancelled due to COVID,” he said.

Even if his fellowship is cancelled, McLellan is motivated to continue working with his intended community to have a positive impact.

“I think there is so much to learn about others and ourselves by entering into a new cultural context and learning a new language, so I hope to profoundly engage with these aspects of the experience,” McLellan said. 

Thibert said that some international fellowships, like the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and the Boren Scholarships, have been postponed until January 2021, at least. 

Additionally, Thibert said “some Fulbright programs, such as the Indonesia English Teaching Assistant program, have canceled the program entirely for 2020-21.”

Although Thibert nor recipients have a definitive answer, Thibert says that fellowships will follow suit once countries make their announcements regarding travel.

“My guess is that the international fellowships will follow whatever U.S. State Department travel warnings are relevant and that fellowships involving graduate study will follow the lead of the host institutions,” Thibert said.

For example, if the current travel warnings issued are extended into 2021, Thibert believes that all Fulbright programs will have to be canceled and Rhodes Scholars given remote instruction. Although a bleak prospect, Thibert hopes that all Fulbright Fellows will be able to continue their studies and research in a future year without needing to reapply.

When asked about cancelations and postponement, recipients reflected that the application process was a learning experience itself. Even if their fellowships are canceled, recipients said the application experience was helpful regardless.

Senior Adam Wiechman, National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship recipient, said in an email that everyone should look at applications as an opportunity for “personal reflection and growth, not a boring writing assignment. You’re the subject, so it has to be interesting, right?”

Tam further emphasized the invaluable experience she has gained from simply applying for her Fulbright Fellowship. 

“The Fulbright ETA application requires a lot of personal reflection and forces you to think about your goals and what you want to experience through the fellowship,“ she said. ”Regardless of whether you receive the Fulbright, the application process is so valuable in itself.” 

Diane Park | The Observer

Thibert said all applicants for fellowships deserve some sort of recognition for their hard work, because the difficult process necessitates dedication and passion. 

“We want to recognize the hard work and introspection that goes into applying for any fellowship, and because we believe that there is educational, personal and professional value in the fellowships application process, regardless of outcome,” he said.

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