Fellowships Open Doors in Students' Lives

Article excerpt

When Constance Chen turned in her senior honors thesis at Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges in Cambridge, Mass., she felt a surprising rush of emotion. Instead of being happy and relieved, she says, she felt sad. "There was so much more I could do," she says.

As it turned out, others who liked her work agreed. Ms. Chen received a $2,500 Pforzheimer fellowship, established by an alumna. The end result: a biography of 19th-century feminist Mary Ware Dennett, published this year by The New Press.

Each year, thousands of college students are awarded residential fellowships, outside scholarships, grants, or internships that offer financial aid designed to support expenses while they work in a specific field. The term typically applies to graduate and postgraduate students, but opportunities for undergraduates also exist. Competition can be tough, but the awards are well-worth pursuing, say recipients. Time and money "I think the advantages of a fellowship are really threefold," says Chen. First, she says, the money allowed her to do the research, which may involve travel, extensive photocopying, and library fees, for example. Second, "it legitimizes what you're doing, and that is so important." Finally, Chen found that a fellowship opens doors - very often leading to another award. An outside program can involve a year abroad or a summer doing work-study or even designing your own research project, says Mark Kantrowitz, a financial-aid expert based in Pittsburgh. "It's an enriching experience. It exposes you to new ideas and gives you a chance to dive into a particular topic." These experiences can shape a student's future career path. Mr. Kantrowitz recalls how as a high-school junior he spent six weeks at a program sponsored by the Research Science Institute, based in Leesburg, Va. At the time, the math prodigy was thinking of being a math teacher. But after doing research in natural-language processing and computers, he went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and developed an interdisciplinary degree that included a BS in philosophy in language and mind. Now he is getting his PhD at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in computer science. "Those six weeks woke up an interest in me," Kantrowitz says simply. Finding an outside scholarship - and being accepted - is sometimes a major hurdle and sometimes a pleasant surprise. Most of the scholarships are attached to disciplines and require applicants to meet specific criteria. "You have to be really committed, and that passion has to come through in your essays," says Jean Danielson, director of the honors program at Tulane University in New Orleans. There are all kinds of organizations that offer aid, ranging from the Rotary Club to corporations to Daughters of the American Revolution. For undergraduates especially, there are a lot of summer programs to explore, she says. James Fitzsimmons is one student whom Ms. Danielson helped usher through the fellowship process. He was awarded an NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) Younger Scholars Grant to spend a summer studying Mayan hieroglyphics. …