Applying yourself

(Julia Kittle-Kamp/YH Staff)

The speeches were over; the hats came off. As the excitement of graduation came to a close, a member of the Class of 2012 reflected on what she would take away from her four years at Yale. Her mom raised one possibility: “Well, you definitely learned how to apply for stuff, and that matters a lot,” the graduate, whom this article will refer to as Rebecca Jones, recalls being told.

Though definitely not the only—or most important—takeaway of a Yale education, the ability to apply for extracurricular positions, jobs, and fellowships plays an instrumental role in the Yale experience. Again and again, students sell themselves on paper and in person, learning the language of persuasion and developing ideas into fully-fledged proposals.

As the end of the semester approaches, one set of applications looms particularly large in the collective consciousness on campus: fellowship applications. Every year, Yale funds student projects around the world, which range from examining the subway system in Hong Kong, tracing a novel through Paris, or broadcasting public radio in Alaska. Fellowships are ingrained in Yale’s institutional culture, and their abundance reflects the contributions of a loyal alumni network. Although the opportunities are numerous, the fellowship applications process is a competitive one, and success is far from guaranteed for all students.

In the 2010-2011 school year, the Office of Fellowships Programming, a division of the Center for International and Professional Experience (CIPE), received 1,780 fellowship applications, according to the CIPE annual report. Of those 1,780 applications, 559 students ultimately received a total of $3,089,015 in funding for independent research, internships, and study abroad programs.

Though the CIPE administers the majority of undergraduate fellowships at Yale, students can also receive funding through their residential colleges, academic departments, and other on-campus resources. “We’re the only ones that do advising, but we’re not the only place where fellowships live on campus,” said April Ruiz, MC ’05, assistant director for Yale College fellowships at the Office of Fellowships Programming.

The CIPE is a larger umbrella organization that manages study, research, and work opportunities for students; in addition to the Office of Fellowships Programming, it includes the Study Abroad Office, Yale Summer Session, and Undergraduate Career Services (UCS). Kelly McLaughlin, director of fellowship programs and outcomes assessment, said that this consolidation—a very recent one—was intended to make the process of planning summer and post-graduate work easier for students. “There wasn’t…a collective sense of how a student should best approach this variety of opportunities during [his or her] time at Yale,” McLaughlin said. Formerly just the Center for International Experience, “Professional” was added when UCS was incorporated last year.

Fellowships available through the CIPE are listed on its website. The Student Grants Database, an online resource administered by the university, includes all fellowship opportunities on campus. Beginning in the late fall, the Office of Fellowships Programming holds general information sessions for students, Ruiz said. Students can then opt to meet one-on-one with a representative from the fellowships office to discuss plans in greater detail. For summer fellowships, students receive notification of the decision during the spring semester. Ultimately, though, the final decisions do not lie in the hands of the fellowships administrators: committees of faculty members review the applications and select which students will receive funding.

The staff of the fellowships office emphasized that the funding should be the result of students’ interest in a project, not the motivation to plan it in the first place. “We want to make sure that students don’t feel they just need to check a box,” McLaughlin said. “We don’t want them to think, ‘Let me do one just because people told me I should.’ It should be something that is a thoughtful part of the reason you came to Yale.”

Jane Edwards, associate dean of Yale College and dean of international and professional experience, stressed the importance of setting realistic goals, and explained that students should reflect on their own experiences and skills rather than abide by perceived expectations. “If you have never lived any place but Yale and home, then it may be that [going to] Buenos Aires [and doing] a challenging internship where everybody’s going to expect excellent spoken Spanish and you have to figure out how to get around a city of 12 million with a complicated subway system—maybe that’s for you, but maybe it isn’t,” Edwards said.

The application process, then, gives students the chance to demonstrate that they have reflected on these questions. In their proposals, students must outline specific plans for the work they will complete, in addition to a projected budget, arrangements for accommodation, and travel plans. “If you want me to give you $5,000, you should be able to do the background research on this,” Edwards said. “If you can’t figure out how much it’s going to cost or where you’re going to live in Ghana or Kentucky or wherever it is, then you are not ready for this independent experience.”

Successful fellowship applications often tell a clear narrative to explain the project, according to students who have received fellowships in the past. Jones, who received a Bates fellowship for summer research during her time at Yale and is now a Gates Cambridge scholar, said she found her fellowships applications to be much more work than an academic class. “You need a compelling past, present, and future narrative, with the nexus of the story as the summer project,” she said. “That’s not to say that my whole life has been leading up to this summer project, but you just need to say what you’ve done, what you want to do, and how it will shape what you want in the future.”

Jones also highlighted the importance of striking a balance between showing you’ve done enough background research and that you still have unanswered questions. “That’s an art. That’s exactly how applications work for anything for the rest of your life,” she said. “I had to articulate a pretty specific version of what I wanted to do with my life in order to get [to where I am now]. Now that I’m here, I can step back and say, ‘What do I actually want to do?’”

Both Jones and Catherine Osborn, PC ’12, cited the influence of conversations with older students about the fellowship process. Osborn, who began research in Rio de Janeiro for her senior essay and is now continuing her work there on the Parker Huang Fellowship, said she found it helpful to talk to older students she knew from the Globalist, an undergraduate publication that focuses on international affairs, and other campus organizations she participated in. “There are certain people in college who you look up to and think, ‘I want to be like them,’” she said.

After submitting their proposals, some candidates get the chance to have an interview, in which faculty members ask students a series of questions relating to their proposal and their plans for the project. Each year, the fellowships office invites faculty members to volunteer their time to serve on these committees. These interviews can be challenging in their specificity but also “extremely fun,” said Elias Kleinbock, JE ’14, who last year received a Kingsley Trust Fellowship to trace the path of Hopscotch, a novel by Julio Cortazar, which takes place in Paris. Kleinbock said that the interview process helped shape his project by forcing him to reflect on his aims. “[One professor asked] how I was planning on balancing understanding Cortazar and emulating him—whether I was trying to imitate him in some way and do what he did, or just to try to understand what he did,” he said.

Professors interviewed for this article who serve on these committees said that they find the interviews both informative and rewarding. Through these conversations, faculty members can assess the sincerity of student interest in their proposed project. The interview is “the most telling and enjoyable part of the evaluation process,” said Christine Hayes, a professor of Religious Studies who has served on the faculty committees, in a Nov. 29 email to the Herald. “The faculty and fellowships office staff are pretty good at seeing through overblown rhetoric.”

For the lucky students who receive fellowships, the process involves more than just a check in the mail. The fellowships office requires students to come in and pick up their reward, in an effort to foster conversation and an understanding of the responsibility that comes with a fellowship. “We present them with award agreements. Receiving this money is a big deal,” Ruiz said. “We make sure to go over that this is a gift, and we remind them what the fellowship program’s policies are.” Upon completion of their projects, all students must submit a three-to-four page report to the fellowships office. These reports are typically sent to donors and made accessible to other students. Relatively speaking, this expectation is minimal—for many students, their summer work will ultimately contribute to a larger project in the future, such as a senior essay or master’s thesis.

But in some cases, students still do not meet these expectations, and their failure to stick to these guidelines can result in students owing money to the school, in addition to disciplinary action. This does not happen often, according to Edwards, but one or two students each year may face these consequences. “Somebody will take a fellowship on the basis of a proposal to go to China and will wind up in Japan, and we’ll learn about it when we get the report at the end of the year,” she said. Edwards explained that such behavior is not only dishonest but also violates the stewardship agreement between donors and the university. “If you’ve given money to Yale to do a particular thing, then Yale has both a legal and ethical obligation to report to you on what it is they have actually done with the money,” Edwards said.

This emphasis on responsibility does not come as surprise, given the absence of supervision on many student projects. Though internship programs and study abroad provide more rigorous structure and supervision, independent research by nature often comes with very little formal oversight. Both Kleinbock and Jones noted that they had very little supervision or direct correspondence with faculty members while completing their projects. “But, if you take it seriously, you can have a more stimulating, better for personal and academic development than you would otherwise,” Jones said. “Because at the end of the day you’re 20 years old and what’s best for you is probably just to explore.”

Reflecting on her experience in Hong Kong, Jones said she wished she had been required to produce a more substantive body of work. “I still…say I will write something about what I did in Hong Kong, but unless you have a deadline, that will be the last priority, even two years later,” she said. Kleinbock also planned to create a more organized project out of the work he completed in Paris but found little time to do so upon his return to Yale.

Edwards also commented on the intensity of student life at Yale, and explained how fellowships programming attempts to address this issue. CIPE’s “North Star” initiative encourages students to explore independently in preparation for life after graduation. She described our generation as “tremendously supervised”: “You grow up, and if you wound up at Yale, you’re here because you did everything right. And if you did everything right, it’s probably because you had someone over your shoulder saying, ‘This year you will take piano, and volleyball, and next year you will do this, and your service experience will be such and such,’” Edwards said.

Edwards said she hopes to help students learn how to handle challenging situations, when they no longer find themselves surrounded by campus resources and are forced to assume a certain amount of independence. “We have every imaginable safety net at this institution,” she said. “My question is how can I best help the students with whom we work be ready for life after graduation where none of this exists?”

Self-directed research can therefore be an experiment in independent living and work. The four-page report due to the fellowships office at the end of a project gives students the chance to reflect on their experiences, both their expectations and the reality. The fellowships office staff members are not the only ones to read these reflections; sponsoring donors also read them, thereby connecting students to the people who fund their fellowship experiences. Donor support determines how many and what type of fellowships are available to students. Donors work closely with the Development Office, the Fellowships Office, and the Office of the Provost to establish meaningful fellowship opportunities, ideally relevant to both current and future interests of
the University.

The development office works with the interested donor to strike an effective balance between honoring the donor’s preferences and satisfying the needs of the university. When donors give money to the university, they can give either a current gift, which can be used immediately, or an endowed gift, which will become part of Yale’s endowment and remain so for the foreseeable future. This balance, then, is especially important for endowed fellowships, because they will become permanent fixtures in the fellowship landscape. “We have to make sure we can honor the donor’s preferences, but we also need to meet institutional needs and be able to serve the students, [both in terms of] what the students need now, and 100 years from now,” said Martha Woodcock, director of development for Yale College.

The University must take into careful consideration the past, present, and future interests of the institution in its approach to fellowships programming. For this reason, the most enduring fellowships are those that are “most flexible,” said Provost and President-Elect Peter Salovey, GRD ’86, in a Nov. 29 email to the Herald. “Although students today may express interest in certain subjects—very important topics such as public health, or regions such as Latin America or Asia—it is hard to know what tomorrow’s students will wish to explore. Because most fellowships are endowments, it is important to remember that Yale’s forty-third president may wish to organize students’ fellowship experiences quite differently than its twenty-third,” he wrote.

When Robert Bildner, DC ’72, and Elisa Spungen Bildner, BR ’75, decided to establish fellowships for work in Judaic studies, they sought to address exactly this issue. The Bildners fund a fellowship that sponsors student travel to Israel, as well as a different fellowship for Judaic Studies, in the United States or abroad. “We intentionally created our fellowship so it’s very broad,” Mr. Bildner said. “Our fellowship has been supporting a wide range of students to do a whole host of projects—everything from research to working for nonprofit organizations, the arts, archaeology.”

Bildner remembered his experiences as a student funded by Yale fellowships as “almost transformative,” and consequently sought to enable other students to do the same. He also emphasized the importance of students sharing their experiences with the Yale community upon their return, through articles, presentations, art shows, and performances. Bildner recalled a particular student who used the fellowship to perform in the opera in Tel Aviv, launching her musical career.

Though many fellowships like the Bildners’ do cover a wide variety of projects, some areas of interest inevitably receive more funding than others. “If you want to do something meaningful, whether there is Yale fellowship support for you depends on whether or not someone has donated money,” said Osborn.

Currently, Yalies can find extraordinary resources relating to projects in Asia or Latin America. The 2010-2011 CIPE Annual Report stated that 45 percent of all funding administered that year went to projects in Asia. One opportunity for study in Asia is the Light Fellowship, which Edwards called “the 800-lb. gorilla” of fellowships at Yale. The fellowship was created in 1997, when it sponsored study for two students; last year, the Light Fellowship fully funded over 100 students to do language study in China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.

Moira Weigel, GRD ’15, who received a Light Fellowship to study in Beijing last summer, said that it was the best fellowship program she had ever participated in. “It’s one of the most smoothly-run, well-oiled machines I’ve ever been involved in,”
she said.

The structure of the Light Fellowship reflects the goals of Richard U. Light, YC ’24, who believed strongly in the importance of East Asian studies and the need for true cultural immersion. His son, Tim Light, a Light Foundation Trustee and Professor Emeritus of Chinese Religion at Western Michigan University, explained the legacy of this emphasis in a Nov. 29 email to the Herald. “America’s often severely tragic failures in international dealings are generally attributable to a lethal combination of ignorance and arrogance,” he said. “Through [my father’s] own travels and because of his interest in language-based study abroad…he became thoroughly convinced that the only possible antidotes to this problem must begin with being appropriately educated in ways which have not been a part of standard university curricula.”

Edwards remarked that Latin American studies have received comparable attention to East Asian studies in recent years, as have science, technology, engineering, and math activities. In contrast, she said that the arts and Arabic language studies currently receive much less funding, and the fellowships office hopes to expand programming in these areas. According to Edwards, the individual and generally less institutionalized nature of work in the arts may be partly responsible for this discrepancy. “The arts is complicated. You can’t set up an internship program in the arts,” she said. “It makes no sense because it’s so individualistic.”

Specific disciplines aside, the amount of money available to fund student projects at Yale is extraordinary. Eugénie Gentry, associate vice president for development for the university, attributed these opportunities to the ongoing legacy and loyalty that Yale inspires. “Yale is a wealthy institution, but it’s wealthy because lots of people have felt strongly about the quality and the importance of the education it provides,”
she said.

Gentry also acknowledged the finite nature of these funds, extensive though they may be, and the implications for competitive fellowships. “At some point, the money runs out. Not everybody gets it,” she said. “But the reality is that we provide an experience here that is really exceptional, and it’s possible because a number of alums and donors think that this is an important part of the learning experience and value it.”

Gentry’s point, though, highlights an important aspect of the institutional culture concerning fellowship programming at Yale. With such a wealth of resources available to us, the danger may be that students expect that funding should be relatively easy to secure because, well, this is Yale, and that, by virtue of being a Yale student, they are entitled to Yale funds for the projects they hope to pursue.

Edwards said she hopes to change the rhetoric surrounding funding opportunities in order to prevent this potential sense of entitlement. She recalled a career info session during Bulldog Days last spring, in which an alumni panel offered insight into career and fellowship opportunities at Yale. “The alumni essentially said, ‘There is money at Yale for anything you could possibly wish to do, and the networks are such that you are set for the rest of your life,’” she said. “For me, I think it’s lovely that our alumni feel that positively about the university. It’s wonderful. But I think it’s an unhelpful message because it’s not true.”

Students should see funding as a reward, Edwards said—not an expectation. “I think people feel that they’ve failed, if they want to do something and they put in a proposal and they don’t get money,” she said. “If there’s an understanding that it’s, ‘If I’m incredibly lucky,’…it seems to me that that’s a healthier environment.”

McLaughlin said that this expectation was much more apparent before the economic crisis of 2008. Before that, he said, Yale had been in “heavy expansion mode.” Establishing Yale’s international identity was a main priority of the Levin administration, and the fellowships office emphasized that every student should be able to have one of these experiences. After the crash, he noticed a significant increase in fellowship application numbers and, as a result, competition for limited funding. Faced with the prospect of a difficult job market after graduation, many students saw fellowships for summer and post-graduate work as a valuable alternative.

This process remains competitive, and no guarantees can be made. Murray Biggs, an assistant professor of English and theater studies who has served on many of the fellowship faculty committees, said in a Nov. 29 email to the Herald that these outcomes cannot be predicted. “Someone who seems to have everything needed to win may not,” Biggs said.

Kleinbock said that he never expected to receive the Kingsley Fellowship during his application process last spring. “I knew that it was selective, and I knew that a lot of people wanted it,” he said. “For me, essentially the entire process of editing this proposal and getting feedback was a process of making it more rigorous and legitimate.”

Charlotte Parker, BK ’13, echoed Kleinbock’s emphasis on hard work and revision. She compared the fellowships application process to “applied daydreaming,” encouraging students to pursue meaningful projects while remaining realistic about the competition and criteria. After she did not receive a fellowship she applied for sophomore year, Parker planned a more detailed proposal and received a different summer fellowship her junior year. “Everyone should think they can get money from Yale,” she said. “It is hard and it’s competitive, but if you have a project and you think it out, you can definitely do it.”

Behind the scenes of the fellowships process, then, is not simply a sum of money but rather a network of people. Donors, the development office, the fellowships office, school administrators, faculty members, and students must work closely to design programs that balance the interests of students with the wishes of alumni. The creation and maintenance of fellowships programming is inherently a collaborative project; though the fellowships office is the most visible to students, it alone does not determine the distribution of funding.

The skills that students learn from applying to these fellowships will extend beyond their summers and years at Yale. Depending on what paths students choose to pursue after graduation, the ability to articulate a concrete, convincing plan for the future will undoubtedly prove valuable. “That’s how life works,” Jones said. “Anyone who’s doing anything quasi-academic in life is going to have to apply for research grants, and you just have to learn how to play the game.”

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