Attention, UND students: Consider pursuing national scholarships

It’s a lot of work, but Yee Han Chu, national fellowship and scholarship opportunities coordinator, stands ready to help

Seven national scholarship students were honored last week during a ceremony in the Columbia Hall Honors Atrium. From left: Austin Borren, Fulbright ETA Germany 2018-2019; Ashly Hanna, Udall 2019 and REU-NSF 2019; Merrick McMahon, Cobell Scholar 2019; Cecelia Castleberry, NIH Summer Opportunities to Advance Research (SOAR) Award; Joel Runnels, CLS 2019; Michelle Nguyen, American Dream 2019 and APIA Finalist 2019; and Ryan Gilbertson, Truman Finalist 2019. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Earlier this year, the Udall Foundation awarded academic scholarships to 55 sophomores and juniors from across the nation for their commitment and service to Native American communities.

One recipient came from the University of North Dakota. She is Ashley Hanna, a junior pursuing criminal justice and American Indian studies and the second UND student ever to have been named an Udall Scholar.

Around the same time, Scholarship America named 22 students its Dream Award winners for 2019, bringing the total to 86 student awardees in five years.

UND senior in political science and economics Michelle Nguyen is a Dream Award recipient for this year.

Hanna and Nguyen are part of a cadre of eight UND students who have earned major national scholarships – including Fulbright, Cobell and Critical Language scholarships – in the 2018-2019 academic year.

Last week, they celebrated their success together with their campus-wide mentors with a reception put together by Yee Han Chu, the University’s academic support and fellowship opportunities coordinator.

For months, Chu has coached and guided those high-achieving students in the challenging process of applying for scholarships and fellowships, many of which are extremely competitive and demanding.

“One thing I just wanted to make clear to others is that applying for scholarships is a very difficult task,” said Chu about the Oct. 7 event. “I call it a collective task, meaning that while you see the students with their accolades associated with their work, usually, it’s through the support of other people.”

Those other people are faculty members, core advisors and mentors and staff from various UND offices, from Career Services to the Chester Fritz Library.

Debbie Storrs, senior vice provost of academic affairs, presents awards to Merrick McMahon, right, and his mentor Keith Malaterre, program coordinator for student diversity & inclusion. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

At the Oct.7 reception, while expressing gratitude to all those mentors and supporters, Austin Borreson, who secured a Fulbright teaching assistant award to go to Germany, made a comment that stuck with Chu.

‘He said how nice it was that at UND, there are students who are just as competitive as students from other campuses to earn national awards,” Chu said. “He made it a point to say that it can be done here.”

So, what does it take to apply for a national scholarship? Chu, who’s in her second year in her current role, met with UND Today to talk about the support network she is building for students pursuing national scholarships and the efforts those coveted opportunities require.

(The below conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

UND Today: What do you do as an academic support and fellowship opportunities coordinator to help students apply and earn nationally recognized scholarships and fellowships?

Yee Han Chu: I help promote scholarships on campus with the hope of developing a campus community and culture to support students in their application for scholarships. I also help students in particular in their scholarship application by identifying what their strengths are, what their professional interests are, and aligning that with a particular scholarship that matches their pursuits.

And, hopefully in that process, I help them understand more deeply what it is that they want to do in their professional life, and how they can kind of see a long-term vision of themselves that brings them beyond the boundaries of UND.

What national scholarships do you focus on? Are there any that UND students tend to frequently pursue?

Fullbright, Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), Boren, Udall, Goldwater, Gilman, and Truman. These are the ones where I’m going to actively try to find faculty to help me promote and support students as they move through the application process. But with that said, if a student comes to me and says, ‘I need assistance on this,’ and it is of the scale of a national scholarship, I’ll be glad to help.

Do you also help students with smaller scale scholarships, maybe even some UND scholarships?

If they’re looking at a UND scholarship or a more local scholarship, I would refer them to somebody else who can assist them with that. I’m not familiar with all of those other types of scholarships as I focus on national and even international scholarships and fellowships. And, at UND, there are departmental scholarships. There are other opportunities through Scholarship Central.

We will have a conversation with Scholarship Central to see how they can support national scholarships, but also how we can support our local scholarships, so we have some coordination.

(Editor’s note: UND’s Scholarship Central is an online portal with more than 800 scholarships that allows students to easily apply for local and regional opportunities.) 

What type of students usually apply to highly selective, highly competitive scholarships that attract applicants from all over the country?

I always say that they have a bit of maturity about them, that they know what they want to do and they’re able to be vulnerable and take risks and do things that are hard. They don’t mind feedback from me and others who are helping them as they either rewrite their essays or think about what types of campus activities they should participate in.

Also, most of the students drawn to national scholarships have a certain leadership quality. They see a gap and then they try to address it in some way.

Yee Han Chu, UND academic support and fellowship opportunities coordinator, coaches and guides high-achieving students through the process of applying for scholarships and fellowships. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

So, do you work with undergraduate students primarily?

The emphasis is on undergrads, but I am also working with a few graduate students and even alumni.

When you work with a student who may have a scholarship or fellowship in mind, how do you help them try to reach that goal?

I call what I do talent development. I don’t expect students necessarily to be ready when they come visit me. Therefore, I like to reach out to them when they’re in their freshman year, when they’re just starting, because some of these scholarships require a lot of documentation of leadership or knowledge. They need references from particular types of people that they might have not yet established connections with.

When a student first comes to me, we have a conversation about what their academic and professional goals are. It’s kind of a big picture planning. I begin to tease out what scholarship might suit them. We talk about it from ambitious ones to intermediate ones to kind of low-hanging ones. We begin to craft these different levels of scholarships so we can build into them and then marry that with the types of resources on campus that might help them.

So, if a student is not ready, I say, ‘Okay, we have a plan, I will see you in a month or a year. In the meantime, I want you to go talk to A, B, and C.’ I might refer them to a peer for sustained support. I might refer them to Career Services that can help shore up their resume and maybe help them make clear what their professional goals are.

Doesn’t this sound like a student going through a punch list to get a particular reward?

No, earning a national scholarship is pretty much a reflection of you as a person and what you want to do, your change-agent capacity. I tell students that I truly believe that it’s not about earning the scholarship. It’s about the process of getting there.

So, it is all about asking, what do you find enjoyable? Do you like going to and participating in a campus club or community organization and serving in that way?

It’s kind of weird, but you have to be intrinsically motivated to be successful, even if the scholarships offer an extrinsic award. That is because applying for scholarships and fellowships on a national level can be as challenging as or even more challenging than taking a class.

Ambition and talent aside, what are scholarship application reviewers looking for?

Every scholarship wants a student to tell a story. One of the challenges of working with talented and ambitious people is that they can be all over the place. Scholarship folks want talent, but they also want talent in an organized, focused way. They want you to be able to tell them what you have done to achieve a certain end that aligns with their purpose.

So, we have to have a conversation about how to emphasize this part of your story and de-emphasize that part of your story.

Once a student has had some time to build their leadership and service on campus, the community, in the classroom, how much time should they give themselves to assemble all the application documents a scholarship committee requires?

I would tell students to give themselves on average six to eight months. With the Fulbright, I would even say a year or a little bit longer because it does require endorsement from an institution abroad that might be hard to get.

What are the basic materials that students need to put together, regardless of what scholarship they are applying to?

Across every scholarship, there’s some kind of personal statement. I would say that is the hardest one to write because you’re asked to explain your purpose. So, if you are an undergraduate in your early 20s, how do you know your purpose or what you want to do? Not only do you have to have an idea of what your major is, but also you have to be able to explain how you want to use that major in a way that’s going to serve other people. And I am going back to what I initially said that these are mature applicants who have some kind of answers to those kinds of questions. Of course, for graduate students, it may a bit easier because they have had time to work in labs or work in the community.

Students will need to think about that. They don’t have to come to me with a perfect answer. We work together to pull their goals apart and massage and polish an answer.

Another basic requirement is a resume or a CV. You also need letters of recommendation from people who can speak to your capacity to meet the mission of the scholarship. Recommendations are not straight-up or easy letters to write. So, I would advise a student, if they’ve named a recommender and if they have their personal statement done and have any other assets, share those with the recommender so they know exactly what the purpose of that letter is. There are a lot of elements involved in a task like that.

It all sounds like a freshman with little connections and experience may have a hard time applying. Do you recommend students pursue scholarships later in their four years at UND?

No, there are some scholarships that are freshmen oriented. I would recommend that you start in your freshman year, when we can have a conversation about what scholarships you are looking for. So, a student can get ready during their freshman year, and then they can begin to apply in the sophomore year. And, whatever happens in their sophomore year, they build a better portfolio for their application in their junior year. I lay out a sequence of scholarships that a student can apply for, whether they are a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior.

You also work with various members of the campus community to support students. Can you talk about that campus-wide collaboration you are fostering?

I’ve started what I call national scholarship peer advisors. These are students who are helping me to promote scholarships across campus. They are students who have presented an interest in national scholarships and they each have targeted a particular scholarship that they will become an expert in and will be able to offer help and advice to their peers.

I’ve been reaching out to faculty for support because faculty are in a great position to identify talent in their classes. They have been very good at offering some referrals and support. And each one of the faculty working with me is identified as a lead for a particular scholarship.

Overall, there is an amazing network of people. I’ve had positive responses from Career Services, the Chester Fritz Library, the Study Abroad Office, the Diversity and Inclusion office, various departments – the language departments, the political science department. A mathematics professor is helping out, too.

Also, I work with Administrative Secretary Carissa Green to help students craft their essays, and I have just begun to work with the core advisors to identify scholarship-suitable courses. In my year and a half doing this, I’m amazed at how quickly these folks have been able to come together to support students.

For more information contact Yee Han Chu at yee.chu@UND.edu or  701.777.4436. Chu, together with a group of peer advisors, is in the process of putting together a regular newsletter with scholarship and fellowship deadlines, must-dos and other useful information. Reach out to Chu to be included on the distribution list.