Jolly Good Fellowship Year Lucas Brown won a Rhodes Scholarship, Devin Goure became the first Oberlin College student since 1985 to win a Beinecke Scholarship, and Jonathon Harmatz became the most recent Oberlin student to win a Coro Fellowship for Public Service. This year, 14 students and alumni received Fulbright Fellowship offers, and 12 accepted, making 2009’s Fulbright tally the highest since 1958. In recent years, Oberlin students have also garnered Goldwater, Watson, Truman, Compton, Udall, Javitz, and National Science Foundation awards.
When Lucas Brown ’09 was first approached about applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, he found the notion "preposterous."
The Rhodes—which provides recipients with tuition and expenses to study at the University of Oxford in England—is, after all, one of the most highly competitive and coveted awards in higher education. Despite his doubts, Brown, an economics major from Virginia, respected the advisors and faculty members who were encouraging him to apply. So he did. When the Rhodes Trust announced this past November the names of 32 American men and women selected to study at Oxford in October, one of them was Lucas Brown. He became Oberlin’s first Rhodes Scholar since 1991.
Brown is not the only Oberlin student to receive a prestigious academic award. Devin Goure ’10 became the first Oberlin College student since 1985 to win a Beinecke Scholarship, and Jonathon Harmatz ’09 became the first Oberlin student on record to win a Coro Fellowship for Public Service*. This year, 14 students and alumni received Fulbright Fellowship offers, and 12 accepted, making 2009’s Fulbright tally the highest since 1958. In recent years, Oberlin students have also garnered Goldwater, Watson, Truman, Compton, Udall, Javitz, and National Science Foundation awards.
"These awards are a great tribute to the abilities and dedication of Oberlin’s students and faculty," says President Marvin Krislov. "Oberlin students want to make a difference in the world. These scholarships and fellowships give them a wonderful opportunity to do that. Our faculty and staff are always eager to help our students and graduates find and seize such opportunities."
The growing number of awards students have received is directly linked to an increased emphasis on identifying and cultivating early in their academic careers students who are good candidates for scholarships and fellowships.
That effort is being led by Manish Mehta, chair of the faculty’s fellowships committee; Carol Sedgwick, coordinator of fellowship advising; Kathryn Stuart, dean of studies; and other faculty and staff members who serve as advisors for various fellowships and scholarships. Within the last few years, this team has systematically identified high-achieving students for consideration in the all the various categories.
"We’ve always had the raw material here," says Mehta, associate professor of biochemistry and chemistry. "The students who choose to attend Oberlin College for their undergraduate work have always been top-notch. We’ve simply been increasing our efforts to pair the students with the appropriate fellowships."
Stuart says the faculty seeks to nurture every student on campus. For students identified as fitting the profile a fellowship or scholarship committee is seeking, the goal is to present as many highly qualified applicants as possible. "We know we can count on our faculty, our staff, and President Krislov to develop and encourage students," she says. "Our faculty are absolutely willing to go well beyond what anyone would expect in working with our students. And we will all continue to give every ounce of our energy to help students become successful fellowship applicants."
"The number of awards is one of the markers that Oberlin can use to indicate the excellence of our programs; it speaks well of the kinds of students we have on campus," says Sedgwick. "The faculty and staff have been working hard for the past several years to actively ensure our students are aware of opportunities that might fit their needs. We also get them to start thinking, planning, and focusing on activities that make them stronger applicants well before they actually apply."
Michael Fisher, Robert S. Danforth Professor of History and the student advisor for Fulbright Fellowships at the college, says Brown’s initial incredulity is fairly typical for many students.
"I think it’s difficult for Oberlin students to identify where they fit into the national body of students," Fisher says. "One of the advantages of having so many Fulbrights and other grants awarded here is that they bring to students’ attention that they can do very well. If they put in the time, they’re going to be very successful."
Mehta adds that while attention is focused on the students who receive scholarships and fellowships, the process of applying is just as important as winning. "Students who have not won tell us that writing the application and working with the faculty members clarified their goals and ambitions," Mehta says. "It planted the seeds for the future."
Oberlin students have won at least one Watson Fellowship each year ever since the program was started in the 1970s. David Walker, professor of English and advisor for Watson Fellowships, has a simple explanation: "Our students are great. We facilitate it, but our students win fellowships on the strength of their own applications. We have very strong students and they do a great job of representing themselves."
Brown would seem to fit the profile described by Walker, but he is quick to deflect the praise. Earning the Rhodes, he says, "was a team effort."
"Carol Sedgwick was extremely helpful, and President Krislov —who is a Rhodes scholar himself—was very helpful to me throughout the application process," he explains. "All the personal work and advice I have received has really helped me do what I want to do.
"The activities that ended up being very important to me here have only been possible because of the incredible work of dozens of other students and faculty members. They gave so much, and I have been lucky to be involved with them.
"When I called my mom to tell her I had won, she said, ‘Lucas, you know this wouldn’t have happened without Oberlin.’ She was right."
Ron Rajecki is a writer in the Cleveland area.
*Since the publication of this article, at least four additional Oberlin Coro fellows have been identified.