Getting on the Rhode (or Fulbright) to Undergraduate Greatness

A stellar undergraduate performance shows a solid work ethic and a propensity to learn. Add to the mix, a Fulbright or Rhodes scholarship and you are among the most elite undergraduates in the country. Only 865 Fulbright Scholarships (to graduating seniors from US campuses—all told there are 8,000 Fulbright awards granted each year) and a mere 32 Rhodes Scholarships were awarded this past year. Aiming to be a recipient of either one is an excellent way to bolster your undergraduate experience. Even falling short will end in excellence—and that, after all, is the intention of your college years.

Fulbright Scholarships have been awarded since 1946 by the US State Department. Senator Fulbright, a former Rhodes Scholar himself, and a graduate of the University of Arkansas, proposed that the Fulbright serve, “to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and, thereby, increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.” It’s good to be optimistic. Since the program’s initiation, over 300,000 people have participated: 43 Fulbright alumni have gone on to receive Nobel prizes, and 78 have won Pulitzer prizes. 

Winning a Fulbright is a combination of hard work and entrepreneurial spirit. Most Fulbright applicants begin thinking about a project during the second semester of their junior years. The project needs to be important to both the US and a second country. Installing a utility grade wind turbine with a small carbon footprint, on a promontory in South Sudan, to supply power to a water purification facility, with a portion of the components to be manufactured in Juba, might gain the seal of approval. The key is to propose something that you’re passionate and knowledgeable about.   

To make the task a wee bit more challenging, the skills you are bringing should not be accessible in the host country.  Yet, you’ll need to note on the application the skills you’ll obtain through the proposed project, and detail how they might benefit the US. The whole process comes down to why should Fulbright invest in your project and your academic development? It is a lot like applying for a job: difficult and tortuous, but, with tenacity, eminently achievable.

To win a Rhodes, however, you almost have to be Clark Kent. The Rhodes scholarships were established in 1902, by Cecil Rhodes, the founder of De Beers. Rhodes scholars must first be nominated by their colleges or universities. They then are judged by scholastic attainments, athletic success, fellowship, and leadership prowess.  Candidates then must submit to a series of interviews, both formal and informal. Finally, each November, winners are announced, and the following October Rhodes scholars head to Oxford for two years to gain a second bachelor’s, an MPhil, or DPhil.

This year’s Rhodes recipients include a graduate from Bard College in New York, and another from Cal State Long Beach; neither school has ever graduated a Rhodes recipient before. Ronan Farrow, the son of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, graduated from Bard at the age of 15, and finished Yale Law School at 21, where he edited the Yale Journal of International Affairs. He speaks six languages and is currently a special advisor to the Secretary of State. Stephanie Bryson, a double major in German and International Studies, has won numerous German scholarships including a year at Humboldt University in Berlin, and is finishing her masters at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service studying German and European Studies.

With fewer than 1800 living Rhodes Scholars in the world, being among them is an unrivalled distinction. Its ranks include President Bill Clinton and Walter Isaacson (the former chairman of CNN, and biographer of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs).

Thinking about what it is that you want out of your undergraduate years is time well spent. Desire creates involvement, and the more consumed you become in accomplishing something great, something you may never have thought possible, the more likely you just might be awarded a Fulbright or, if all the stars line up, a Rhodes.