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Over 20 seniors receive competitive fellowships, grants through CUSE

| Friday, May 21, 2021

A total of 22 graduating seniors have won a variety of fellowships and scholarships to participate in post-graduate programs. Awardees include 17 Fulbright finalists, two National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellows, one 2020 Truman Scholar, one Luce Scholar and one Yenching Scholar.

In years past, members of the class of 2021 have won many other prestigious undergraduate study grants, including three Goldwater Scholarships, four Boren Scholarships and 20 Gilman Scholarships.

Eight other applicants for this year’s Fulbright scholarship were chosen as alternate candidates — meaning if more funding becomes available for them, they can be promoted to finalists. Four other graduating seniors were also finalists for the competitive Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.

Of the Fulbright finalists — students who have received the award, but are only promoted to “Fulbright students” if and when they complete their program — three received a study or research grant, and 14 will partake in a teaching assistantship if they accept the award.

According to Elise Rudt, national fellowships senior program manager at the Flatley Center for Undergraduate Engagement (CUSE), applications for the Fulbright Teaching Assistantship “exploded” this cycle, in spite of — or perhaps because of — the pandemic. About 60 people applied, instead of the usual 30, she said.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program sends recent graduates and graduate students to over 140 countries across the world, where it seeks to facilitate “cultural exchange through direct interaction on an individual basis in the classroom, field, home and in routine tasks.”

Senior Jill Ruane has accepted a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Hessen, Germany, near Frankfurt. She will be part of a diversity program, teaching German to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in a school.

“I’m really, really excited to get involved in that community and help them learn about America, but also learn so much from them and their life stories, all the different, mixing cultures in Germany,” Ruane said.

Ruane was part of Air Force ROTC at Notre Dame, where she majored in mathematics with a minor in German. She will delay starting active duty until July of next year.

In the past few months, Germany has had a relatively slow vaccine roll out while the country has seen increased cases of COVID-19. Ruane acknowledged this, as well as the possibility that her placement will be postponed. But she also said she feels hopeful because the European Union recently announced American tourists who are fully vaccinated will be able to travel to Europe this summer — after more than a year of banning non-essential travel.

Ruane said she felt “blessed and lucky” to be able to take up every opportunity to go abroad through Notre Dame during her undergraduate career. During her sophomore year, she went on a fall break trip to Poland, and received a grant to visit Berlin for three weeks during winter break. She then received a Summer Language Abroad (SLA) grant to study German in Cologne for eight weeks over the summer before her junior year.

Then, during the fall of her junior year in 2019, she visited England, Belgium and France through a Nanovic Institute class called “The Great War.” In the spring of 2020, she studied abroad in Jerusalem, where she learned a bit of Arabic, before having to return back home at the onset of the pandemic.

“I think having interacted with … different cultures and societies, has really prepared me,” she said, reflecting on the usefulness of these experiences as she prepares to return to Germany in the fall.

Ruane said she believes other experiences at Notre Dame, such as taking a community-based writing and rhetoric class and tutoring at the Robinson Community Learning Center, helped make her application stronger as well.

Because they were in their second semester of their junior year when the pandemic started, most senior Fulbright finalists were able to complete a semester abroad, or at least experience part of it, like Ruane. However, not all the recipients have had a study abroad experience.

CUSE director Jeffrey Thibert explained that there are other ways in which students have gained and displayed qualities characteristic of a Fulbright grantee and a cultural ambassador beyond studying abroad.

“[Study abroad] is not a magical key,” he said. “I think that what they’re really looking for is resilience, adaptability, perseverance, people who can get along well with others, who are excited to learn about other people.”

Senior Theresa Azemar, who majored in English and American Studies, will travel to Belgium on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship. There, she will teach English at the University of Antwerp.

She did not study abroad during her junior year due to the requirements for her majors, Azemar explained. She planned to go to Ireland for a creative writing program in the summer of 2020, but that was canceled due to COVID-19.

Despite not studying abroad, she said she feels she has had a lot of experiences connecting with people of different cultures. Being raised by immigrant parents and growing up in an area with a high immigrant population, she added, has helped her gain the necessary cultural competency and social awareness.

“Though it’s not the same having a full, immersive abroad experience, it is the experience of walking into a new home, accepting traditions, learning to be respectful and managing your own expectations and biases,” Azemar explained.

Throughout a very introspective application process and while writing her personal statement, Azemar learned to verbalize her achievements, accomplishments and skills, she said. And, ultimately, she learned how to advocate for herself.

“I also learned that a lot of Arts and Letters students — maybe particularly Arts and Letter women or non-men — tend to be a bit more on the humble side when it comes to applying for things,” she said. “So, I learned to just really accept and appreciate the things that I know that I’m good at and I know that I’m strong at, and the things that I’m not so strong at, and phrasing it in a way that’s still something positive about myself.”

Azemar, who was vaccinated at Notre Dame’s vaccination clinic, said she is hopeful her plans will remain in place and she will be able to go to Belgium despite the pandemic.

“At this point, I think, if my Fulbright experience has to be a little bit hybrid or kind of warped, I think I’m still open to the weirdness of it all, especially after this past year and then some,” she said. “You’re just wanting to accept that things are just going to be new and different, but that doesn’t mean they’re less valuable.”

For senior Elsa Barron — a recipient of a Fulbright research grant — her plans to go to Bangalore, India, in November feel a bit more uncertain with the current COVID-19 crisis in the country.

Barron said when she first heard the news that she was a finalist, she felt surprised but grateful to have been given the opportunity to travel internationally and do research with a Fulbright grant.

“And then my second thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, should I accept this in this time of uncertainty? Even if I’m able to go, what are the ethical implications of that, when I have access to vaccines that many people in India likely won’t access for many months, if not years?’” she recalled.

Ultimately, Barron decided to accept the grant. She will be working at Azim Premji University in Bangalore in order to assist a professor and do research into positive environmental peacebuilding as a response to structural forms of environmental violence and oppression.

By engaging with non-governmental organizations, she hopes to continue her research into environmental peacebuilding at the grassroots level, which she started studying in Jerusalem and which built directly into her Fulbright proposal and the kind of questions she hopes to answer.

Barron did an International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP) in the summer of 2019 in Jerusalem, where she learned about liberation theology and worked at a refugee community center. She returned to Jerusalem in the fall of that same year and conducted an independent study into peacebuilding and the environment alongside a professor at Hebrew University.

Before then, during her first year at Notre Dame, she was part of the S.N. Bose Scholars Program, which sponsors research exchange between India and the U.S. Through this, she visited a different university at Bangalore, the Indian Institute of Science, to do research on yeast and mitochondrial and microbial defects and binary fission.

Barron acknowledged the help she received from her professors, fellow students and CUSE advisers. She said applying to “these sorts of fellowships [is] really collaborative … That’s certainly important to acknowledge — I’m very grateful for all that support.”

CUSE staff echoed that collaborative aspect of the long application process and how advisers react to the good news when a student receives an award.

“It is really exciting to see all of the hard work and energy and effort that they put into the application process because it’s a really personal process,” said Emily Hunt, student engagement program coordinator at CUSE. “They’re required to really dig deep and think about what they want and how everything they’ve done in the past has led to this opportunity.”

Learning that a student has been chosen for an award is thrilling, she added. Senior program manager Emily Rudt echoed this sentiment, saying it’s overjoying when students get to engage in these opportunities.

Of course, director Jeffrey Thibert added, most of these scholarships and fellowships are very competitive, so not all students who apply receive them.

“But I do think that, what we try to do as advisors and what CUSE’s ethos is, is that we want to make sure people are getting something valuable and worthwhile out of this advising process no matter what happens at the end,” he said.

Thibert said he hopes that the skills students learn when working alongside CUSE — writing personal essays, asking for letters of recommendation, introspection — will help them pursue their interests and grow personally no matter what they do in the future.

“On a personal note, working with all these students over the years — whether they’ve gotten the fellowship in the end or not — has really made me a better, more interesting person,” Thibert said. “Because we really get to work with some amazing students, and it really is the most gratifying part of the work is getting to know all of you.”

Out of over 770 applicants, one member of the class of 2021 was chosen as a Truman Scholar from last year’s 62-person cohort. According to Thibert, Truman Scholarships are received junior year, but the funding goes toward graduate or professional school. This merit-based award funds graduate studies in preparation for a career in public service.

Additionally, over 2,000 students across the U.S. have been accepted into the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The NSF GRFP seeks to recognize “outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited US institutions.” The NSF fellowship program includes financial support for three years, an annual stipend and a cost of education allowance to the institution.

Notre Dame’s graduating Luce Scholar was one of 164 semifinalists contending for 18 spots in the 2021-2022 class. Each year, the Luce Scholarship program provides between 15 to 18 scholars with stipends, language training and professional placement in big cities and small villages throughout Northeast, Southeast and South Asia.

Also located in Asia, the Yenching Academy of Peking University offers scholarships for an interdisciplinary master’s degree program in China Studies. Its participants include young people interested in leadership, innovation and becoming “global citizens with a nuanced understanding of China,” according to the program’s website

Annually, the Yenching Academy enrolls approximately 120 students from mainland China and abroad in their scholarship program — and this year, one Notre Dame senior has been accepted. The fellowship for Yenching Scholars covers tuition fees, accommodations, a monthly stipend, one round-trip travel fare and field study costs.

Some of these opportunities are not only open to graduating seniors, however. Many accept applications from graduate students or even young professionals. Thibert said if someone who is graduating wants to apply for a fellowship in the future, they can still do so.

“An important note —  especially for seniors looking at this issue, looking at this article — is that they can still apply for these, right now,” he explained. “Especially if they’re doing some kind of gap year experience next year, they could then go into a fellowship after that … We are still happy to work with people who are graduating.”

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About Adriana Perez

Adriana is a Notre Dame senior from Guayaquil, Ecuador, majoring in political science and minoring in the Gallivan Program of Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She is currently serving as Editor-in-Chief of The Observer for the 2021-2022 term. You can find her at @adrianamperezr on Twitter.

Contact Adriana