April, Spring and Fellowships

Higher Education

BY DONAL O'SHEA SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY APR 8, 2017

April is the cruelest month. In the northern states, it signals a spring that somehow never seems to arrive. At New College, it signals the announcement of winners of national fellowships and scholarships—Fulbright, Frost, Gilman, Hollings and Truman. Over the years, so many have gone to New College students that it obscures the low odds of obtaining one. It makes them seem easy to obtain, and it hides the silent anguish of those who applied and did not succeed. Let me assure you that there is nothing easy about obtaining such awards. 

The Goldwater Scholarships are a case in point. This week, we announced two of our third-year students, Caitlyn Ralph and Constance Sartor, received a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship—the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering in America.  A third, Lukas Heath, received an honorable mention. The scholarship recognizes students showing potential to make significant contributions to mathematics, science, and engineering.

If winning a national fellowship is improbable, earning a Goldwater is nearly impossible. To be eligible, a student must be a full-time sophomore at a community college or a sophomore or junior at a four-year college and university. There are approximately 12.2 million full-time, undergraduate students in U.S. colleges and universities, about a quarter of whom are sophomores or juniors. So, about 3 million students are eligible. 

Only 240 Goldwaters are awarded annually, with other 300 or so honorable mentions.  As befits the relatively small number of awards, the selection process is rigorous and demanding. Each institution can only nominate up to four students and each nomination must demonstrate a commitment to STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] above and beyond curricular study, including research projects, paid internships, conference presentations and published journal articles—as an undergraduate.  Out of the 3 million or so eligible students in the United States, only a tiny fraction is even nominated.

The application itself requires a research essay citing the student’s current and future contributions to their field, short answer questions and three letters of recommendations from faculty members. The total process takes about three months to complete and is judged by top PhDs in the STEM fields around the country.

This year, there were only four Goldwater scholarships awarded to students attending public colleges in Florida: two to New College students, one to student at the University of Central Florida and another to a student at the University of Florida. Two others were awarded to students attending private institutions, Florida Southern College and the University of Miami. The odds of two students winning this fellowship at random at a tiny institution such as New College are very low. Of course, there is nothing random about this sort of success. (For those who enjoy computing odds, New College has 860 students, a small fraction of over one million undergraduates in the State University System and the Florida College System combined.)

Scholarships have a powerful effect on a student’s future. About 92 percent of Goldwater scholars go on to earn PhDs in mathematics, science and engineering. In fact, New College ranks third in the nation in the proportion of graduates who subsequently earn STEM PhDs. In the face of challenges such as climate change and diseases like cancer, it is imperative that our country increase the number of scientists we produce. New College is more than doing its part. 

Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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