University continues to produce Fulbright scholars



Eric Bellomo

At this point in the semester most students find themselves in “crunch time”—the time when fall classes wrap up and final assignments are completed with finals rapidly approaching. For all the stress this breeds, and all the caffeine students are forced to consume, it does seem to be worth it. The University was named the top producer of Fulbright Scholars for the 2013-2014 cycle in the “masters” university category, by the Chronicle of Higher Education for the second year in a row. 

According to the scholarship’s official website, “the Fulbright U.S. program is the largest U.S. exchange program, offering opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching and primary and secondary teaching worldwide.” The program annually receives 10,000 applications for 1900 grants in 140 countries, according to the Fulbright website. 

Generating Fulbright scholars has been an asset of the University for nearly two decades. This is the second year in a row in which the University has been the top producer, producing the highest number of scholarships in its respective category. This follows its top producer status, receiving more than three scholarships in the master’s category, for each cycle since 2008-2009. Villanova has had at least one recipient every year since 1994, according to the University website. 

There are four possible categories for a university. These include bachelors colleges (Pitzer, Amherst or Oberlin College), masters colleges (Villanova, Rollins or Elon), doctoral and research universities (Harvard, Northwestern or Stanford), and specialized institutions (Rhode Island School of Design or the New England Conservatory of Music). 

One might then be curious as to how Villanova, currently classified as a regional, masters university, produces enough Fulbright Scholars to rank as a top producer (for the 2014-2015 cycle the University produced 14 scholars, and to be a top producer in the Doctoral & Research category an institution must produce at least 10), or in the upper echelon of larger, more endowed universities? 

Possibly contrary to conventional wisdom, the University’s size might actually be beneficial. 

“Undergraduate students don’t have to compete with graduate or Ph.D. students, which is a point of differentiation for the University,” Catherine Stecyk, assistant director of undergraduate research, said. “Villanova has shown a commitment to research growth, starting with the Match program.” 

The Freshman Match Research Program offers first-year students the opportunity to serve as a research assistant on a faculty mentor’s project. Since its inception in 2013 the number of applicants has surged to over 90, a vast improvement over the original applicant pool. By offering students an opportunity to research early on in their academic careers, the University is fostering a culture of research and innovation. 

“By demonstrating an interest and initiative in something specific you can more easily catch someone’s attention,” said Danny Shea, a senior Spanish and Sociology double major who has also applied for a Fulbright. “Sometimes at a larger university the resources might be in place, but it might be more difficult to find the right person to help.”

Also contributing to the sustained success has been the flexibility of the Fulbright program, increased awareness and university resources, like the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. 

The Fulbright program has two main grants, study-research grants and the English teaching assistant grants. Also under the Fulbright umbrella are special programs like the Fulbright-Clinton fellowship, the Fulbright-MTV award and the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling fellowship. Opportunities by field also exist. These include business, public health, graduate degrees, journalism and communication and science and public health. 

The depth and breadth of programs offered allows students to craft a proposal that showcases their unique talents and skillset, whereas programs like the Rhodes or Marshall scholarships offer similar prestige, but not a similar variety. 

While similarly competitive national programs have either implicit or explicit requirements surrounding grade point averages or extracurricular activities, the Fulbright program does not have a strict academic profile. 

“For the Fulbright there are no GPA limits, no requirements, and few parameters,” Stecyk says. “Essentially, for the Fulbright, if you can dream it, you can do it–as cliché as that sounds.”

The influence of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships has also been instrumental in Villanova’s success. The Center begins working with applicants nearly a year in advance. For a placement beginning in the fall of 2016 the deadline would be in October of 2015. An applicant will work directly with the CURF staff to hash out their ideas, passions, and field of interest. 

Throughout the summer, an applicant will work to turn an idea into a formal proposal that aligns with the Fulbright mission. A final draft would be submitted in September with an on-campus interview taking place shortly thereafter. This interview would include the CURF staff and faculty members and is used to get expert eyes on an application and to identify its strengths and weaknesses. 

“Working with the CURF staff was critical in developing my proposal,” Shea said. “They helped me refine my focus and pick a destination that was going to be a good fit.”

The University now finds itself at a crossroads. As it seeks to transition to a nationally ranked university, its ability to produce high quality students and competitive grant winners becomes critical. The success of the Fulbright program, coupled with the combination of Marshall, Rhodes, and Truman scholars in recent years, puts the University in special company and is factored into various ranking systems. 

“For a university, generating Fulbright winners is similar to winning a Nobel Prize,” says Kurt Davies, co-interim director and assistant director of fellowships at the Center. “The prize goes to the scholar, but validates the university he or she works for. Winning a Fulbright is an external validation of the quality of the university and the people who study there. It demonstrates that Villanova students can compete on a national level with some of the nation’s best students and universities.”

Despite the success, there is more to be done. 

“At this point, most of the grants are for ETA’s,” Davies said. “I think we can generate more research grants and capitalize on our young alumni—only one third of applicants this year were alumni—and we can increase the representation from some of the colleges. I think we can see 100 applicants in the near future.”

Within the last year Villanova students have spread all over the globe as part of the Fulbright program. With a presence in Turkey, Costa Rica, Mexico, Greece, Colombia, South Korea, Indonesia and many other countries, the Fulbright program has given the University a platform to go global.