Often, scholarships are how you get to college from high school. But for some people, a very special set of scholarships are about opportunities that lead to amazing things after graduation.
Increasingly, those scholarships are going to Penn State students.
Chris Rae is a senior studying biochemistry. He didn’t come to State College thinking that maybe he would leave in rare company, but Rae is one of 40 Gates Cambridge scholars. He will go to the prestigious British college in the fall to work on his doctorate.
He won his spot based on his strong body of work while at Penn State. His senior thesis explores the identification of potential antibiotics for treating methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the MRSA bacteria that is causing problems in U.S. hospitals as it shrugs off standard treatments.
Ryan Henrici, a fellow biochemistry major, will head to the United Kingdom to study at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine thanks to scoring a Marshall scholarship. Henrici is also looking at drug resistance, with an eye toward malaria.
Pay attention to their names. The Gates and Marshall scholarships are among the most coveted and competitive in the world, alongside the Rhodes scholarship in prestige. Marshall winners have gone on to win Pulitzer prizes, sit on the U.S. Supreme Court and, well, compete on “American Idol.” The Gates scholarship, established by Microsoft founder Bill Gates in 2000, doesn’t have as long a history, but it has a wide swath of experience, with scholars studying everything from diabetes to sacred music.
“You become part of a global community of potential leaders in a variety of fields,” Rae said.
“I want to get abroad and make connections to forefront leaders in the field,” said Henrici. “Once I’m in the field, it’s no longer just about me and my institution.”
But wait. There’s more. A lot more.
With the announcement of this year’s Fulbright scholarships, offered by the U.S. State Department, Penn State continues its own tradition of leadership, being among the top research universities in the country producing winners.
There were 13 Nittany Lions taking Fulbright scholarships in 2014-15: Shayne Bement, Laura Dzwonczyk, Courtney Fowler, Leah Gillen, Winston Hamel, Marcy Herr, Sophie Huddart, Rachel Passmore, Trista Rappert-McGetrick, Kaylee Roupas, Emily Sabo, Jason Smith and Emily Zavodny. That is up from 11 in 2013-14. Students have gone to study in Tanzania, Romania, South Korea, India, Germany, Turkey, Cameroon and more.
Two undergraduate students, Stephanie Brown and Melissa Quinnan, were selected for summer internshps at the CERN scientific research center in Switzerland. This is the first time that Penn State has had two students selected for the honor in the same year, with just 15 from across the country taking part in the summer research program. Seven Penn Staters have participated since 2008. Brown is only a freshman.
“We had a very good year this year, but I believe we are just skimming the surface,” said Ruth Mendum, of the University Fellowship Office. “Penn State had 61 applicants for the Fulbright this year. Rutgers had 128. I am absolutely certain we have 128 students who could apply.”
Mendum credits President Eric Barron and Provost Nick Jones with making a concerted push to place the quality of Penn State students as a product front and center.
“Penn State is becoming a very special place. We’ve always been a special place, but it seems like now we’re a little more willing to talk about it,” she said.
Barron has proclaimed the excellence of students at trustee meetings and emphasized the importance of trumpeting the university’s accomplishments to compete with other top-shelf schools.
The scholarship committees seem to agree. Students like Henrici and Rae want to see more of their fellow students following them into the academic spotlight.
“I don’t think anything has changed suddenly in the caliber of our students,” said Henrici. “We aren’t less qualified to succeed. We can hopefully be an inspiration and encouragement. Penn State is producing outstanding scholars. You just have to try.”
“It’s not just about the winning. It’s great when students win. But it’s also about the process,” she said. “It’s about self-discovery and learning to talk about themselves, both orally and in writing, to see what they want to contribute to the world in a way that doesn’t make them feel self-conscious. We don’t want to boast and brag. We want the world to understand what they can do.”
Mendum says for some, that means they don’t actually pursue the scholarship they thought they wanted. The process itself can help them clarify objectives and realize they have goals that might be better served in another direction. And that’s fine.
“The take home message is we are really coming into our own. We have always had the talent,” she said, including the faculty under that “talented” label.
Does that mean that students have to keep a nose to the grindstone for four years to take advantage of these opportunities? Rae says no.
“I think that we know how to work hard, we play hard and we are part of a family that helps everyone succeed,” he said. “Just try to get involved in every way you can.”