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When I administered the British Marshall Scholarship in New England a little over a decade ago, our finalists came almost entirely from the Boston-area Ivies and other elite private universities, with the occasional state university candidate. Reading their applications, it was clear which institutions had well-oiled fellowship machines. The essays and recommendations were consistently top-notch, and the nervous but polished students who interviewed at the consul general’s mansion on Beacon Hill seemed to have anticipated that moment since before their freshman year.

Nationally competitive fellowships and scholarships like Fulbright, Boren, NSF-GRFP, Truman, Goldwater, Marshall and Pickering cover or significantly reduce the cost of a degree or a study abroad program. Unfortunately, students at minority-serving institutions are far less likely to receive such fellowships than students at highly selective, better resourced institutions.

Take the Marshall Scholarship, for example. While this year’s cohort looks quite diverse, 83 percent came from a top-100-ranked college or university, and only 5 percent (two scholars) graduated from an MSI. Institutional diversity matters, because Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented at less selective, four-year public institutions and community colleges, and they are even more underrepresented at the top-100 public flagship universities and Ivy League schools than they were 35 years ago.

Winning a nationally competitive fellowship is a lot like being accepted into a top college or university—it helps to have access to social capital. White and some Asian students are more likely to have the social networks and financial privilege to get into the top universities that have robust fellowship-advising systems. Black and Hispanic students are more likely to study at institutions that do not have the resources to staff a prestigious fellowships office and thus produce fewer applicants for such awards.

Every one of the 2022 Marshall Scholars—41 in all—came from an institution that had a prestigious fellowships office, according to my research. That meant those students had access to one or more campus fellowship advisers to coach them on their application essays and to counsel faculty members on how to write strong letters of recommendation. The scholars probably also had classmates or alumni in their networks who had won similar awards. National scholarships like the Marshall may be merit-based, but opportunities to build the résumé- and proposal-writing skills that demonstrate merit to selection committees are not equally distributed.

That stood out to me when I founded the national fellowships office at the University of Texas at El Paso, a Hispanic-serving major research university where more than half of students are the first in their families to attend college. Like most MSIs, the university had many students who could win fellowships. As a person of color who previously studied and taught at predominantly white institutions, I wanted to cultivate a sense of community and belonging for students as they worked through months of application essay drafts and revisions. I set up learning cohorts where students met classmates who had won fellowships. I also organized a peer writing-coaching program to help students weave their personal and academic experiences into narratives about who they were and what they hoped to do in the world. By partnering with faculty and staff members, I doubled the number of students applying for prestigious fellowships, and by the spring of 2021, UTEP had its first two Fulbright awardees in six years.

“Congratulations,” the Fulbright U.S. Student program tweeted on April 30. “We’re grateful to schools like the University of Texas at El Paso for creating a Fulbright culture on campus. When students can access opportunities, everyone wins!”

“Access” was certainly the operative word. As news of our Fulbrighters and other awardees spread around campus, students came to my office and said that seeing other UTEP students win made them feel that they could, too.

To close the fellowships diversity gap, colleges and universities must build diverse applicant pipelines and inclusive support systems that affirm students’ identities and experiences, as well as address any doubts they may have about applying for fellowships. Equally, the philanthropists, foundations and government agencies that fund fellowships should reach out to MSIs to hold information sessions and panels with diverse alumni. Funders should also lessen the advantage of social capital by providing all applicants with detailed guidance on proposal development, as well as by being more transparent about the selection processes and other unwritten norms of competing for these awards.

5 Recommendations

Winning a fellowship can have a major impact on a student and their future. If you encourage students at your institution to apply for fellowships, you should always be mindful of the diversity gap. To help close that gap, I suggest the following.

Start outreach early. There will always be students who step forward to apply for fellowships. Maybe they heard about the award from an adviser or family member, or they travel in social circles where applying for fellowships is the norm. But if you want to expand and diversify your applicant pipeline, you should conduct broad outreach to students from the moment they arrive on campus. Begin marketing fellowship-information sessions to freshmen, sophomores and transfer students, even if it will be several years before they can apply. That’s especially important for first-generation college students who may be unfamiliar with national fellowships and scholarships.

At UTEP, I organized dozens of fellowship-information sessions and met with hundreds of students who were excited to learn about fellowships for the first time. I asked faculty members to refer students to my office, and I partnered with study abroad, honors, undergraduate research and first-year programs, as well as student clubs and organizations, to connect with students in smaller groups. Many of the juniors and seniors whom I worked with said they wished they’d known about fellowship opportunities and had access to writing support earlier. If we rely on students to self-select, we will miss many other ambitious and highly qualified potential applicants.

Build confidence by creating an affirming environment. Before UTEP, I managed postbaccalaureate fellowships for alumni of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, a program that seeks to diversify the professoriate. Most fellows entered Ph.D. programs directly after graduation, but many did not due to circumstances beyond their control. My job was to recruit students to join our graduate school boot camps to prepare them to pursue a Ph.D. after taking a gap year or two.

As a Ph.D. who stepped off the path to academe, I sensed my audience’s squeamishness when confronted with what felt like their failure to accomplish what they had wanted and what others expected of them. I reminded them that they were not alone—that many fellows before and beside them had rightly chosen to prioritize family, economic well-being, mental health and community activism ahead of a Ph.D. I presented a Ph.D. as one of many ways to contribute to the causes that mattered to them. One by one, students made eye contact with me as I spoke from the podium. I knew how important it was to feel seen, as I have been fortunate to have mentors in my life who saw me, too. 

I told my students at UTEP something similar: that fellowships are just one, not the only, way to pursue their goals. I wanted them to see fellowships as a means to an end rather than as a measure of their worth. I acknowledged how hard it is to hear “no” after pouring your heart into an application, and I reminded them that fellowships were not an objective assessment of their abilities or potential.

We did prewriting reflection activities to center students’ experiences, values and goals. Helping students root their actions and choices in deep self-knowledge helps retain their sense of purpose in a society where rising inequality has intensified competition over scarce financial and reputational resources.

Establish learning cohorts. Cohorts and peer mentoring can make the solitary experience of writing application essays more enjoyable and social. I held writing workshops for freshmen and sophomores where they gave each other feedback on drafts of their personal statements. They also met one-on-one with peer writing coaches and joined informal office hours where they chatted with students who had already won the fellowships they were applying for.

The peer-learning component of the course helped students feel comfortable exploring the experiences they wrote about in their personal statements before they shared their drafts with me and their professors. Students spoke glowingly about those conversations, which generated insights into the formative life experiences that drew them to their majors. Because they had this creative space, the essays they wrote were introspective, integrative and reflective, and the students were proud of them. Those are the kinds of essays that selection committees want to read.

Compensate for time and effort spent. Sustaining a culture of fellowships depends on the faculty and staff members who mentor applicants. It is important to affirm the value of mentorship by compensating those who give generously of their time to advise fellowship applicants. This labor isn’t free, especially since faculty with marginalized social identities, already underrepresented in the academy, often take on the additional invisible labor of mentoring students of color.

Faculty members who invest significant time in preparing fellowship applicants should receive stipends or course buyouts. This can be a good middle ground between hiring full-time fellowships staff and relying on the generosity and availability of faculty mentors. It is difficult to build and sustain a diverse pipeline of applicants when the value of mentoring goes unrecognized, even if it counts toward service in tenure reviews.

Equally, modest stipends for working students can offset lost income and make it possible for them to participate in applicant training programs. My Fellowships 101 students received a one-time stipend to incentivize participation. Preparing for fellowships is like an unpaid internship—it takes time to learn a skill, and if you don’t make it financially feasible, then it will perpetuate the class privilege of the unpaid internship model and continue to attract only people who can afford to live without pay for the time it takes to participate in the program.

Celebrate awardees and applicants. Finally, recognizing students who win awards as well as those who submit fellowship applications builds awareness of fellowships on your campus. Communications staff can interview awardees and mentors and circulate press releases to local news outlets. Awardees can be recognized at honors and graduation ceremonies. A “wall of fame” of fellowship awardees in a high-traffic area of campus reminds students of what is possible.

Fellowship awardees and applicants should also expect to pay it forward by encouraging younger students and by sharing their insights into the application process. That will multiply the effects of an award many times over when it comes to recruiting and inspiring additional applicants.

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