Whitman rakes in fellowship awards, grants

Mike Sado

Aisha Fukushima has travelled far throughout her four years as a student at Whitman, but as a recipient of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, she’ll be travelling even farther; to six countries, in fact.  

With her $28,000 grant, Fukushima will travel abroad for a year of study to countries such as Senegal, India and the United Kingdom to study “raptivism”: or rap activism.   “It’s basically how young people in these areas talk about social issues, environmental issues, economic issues –– whatever is pertinent to their locale,” she said.

Fukushima, a senior rhetoric and film studies major, was the only recipient this year from a Northwest school to win the grant from the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program, an organization that awards college graduates a year of independent research outside the United States to foster communication with the world community.  

Fukushima’s win is just one example of the large number of juniors and seniors who were awarded prestigious fellowships, grants and scholarships this year.  

Jackson Cahn, a biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology major, will be spending a third summer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland under the sponsorship of Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.   Cahn will work in the Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory/NIST Center for Neutron Research program.   Cahn intends to use this work to complete his honor thesis in his major, he wrote in an e-mail.

“The trick in each case is to find the right grant for the particular talent.”
-Keith Raether, Interim Director, Fellowships

Juniors Camila Thorndike and Lisa Curtis were selected as national finalists but did not receive the Harry S. Truman Scholarships, which is awarded to college juniors with exceptional leadership skills looking for future careers in the government, non-profit, advocacy or education sectors.   In a surprising turnaround, however, Thorndike and Curtis were awarded Morris K. Udall Scholarships along with junior Elena Gustafson.   The Udall is given to students interested in issues focusing on the environment, natural resources, health care, public policy and environmental dispute resolution.

With her scholarship, Thorndike said that the Udall gives her a “foot in the door” for a potential career in environmental conflict mediation, specifically in regards to water resources.

Students received help from both the Career Center and other support systems around campus when going through the application process for their scholarships, fellowships and grants.   Fukushima said that while she did “a lot of independent work” in applying for the Watson Fellowship, she utilized professors and mentors to help generate ideas for her essays and to edit her written work.

“I think I worked with [Associate Professor of English] Irv Hashimoto and some other academic friends at Whitman to ‘hash’ over ideas and go over the critiques that they had.   [I talked to] a couple of other people in the past who have done it, and was able to get a sense of the experiences they went through in applying for their fellowships,” she said.

Cahn similarly stressed the importance of connections when applying for his scholarship.   Since it was his third summer at the NIST, Cahn had the assurances of his mentor Dr. Wiederhorn that he would be able to return. Thus, the application process was “a relatively stress-free one,” he wrote in his e-mail.

According to Keith Raether, the interim director of post-baccalaureate fellowships and scholarships in the Career Center, the number of applicants at Whitman College increased in the 2008 to 2009 academic year.  

“This academic year we had more than 90 applicants for 21 fellowship programs.   In 2007 to 2008, we had 69 applicants for 17 fellowships,” said Raether.   Nationwide, students applying for fellowships and scholarships similarly increased.   Programs such as the Fulbright U.S. Scholars, Humanity in Action and the Gates Cambridge experienced an influx of candidates looking for post-graduate study in specialized fields.

Raether mentioned that the increase in applicants is due to the declining economy and increasing unemployment in the United States.   Students are scrambling for alternatives to a “paralyzed job market,” and are looking toward graduate school and fellowships to give them more opportunities after college, he said.

Although the full impact of the economic recession on fellowship programs is not yet known, Raether said that he is not holding his breath.   The Watson Foundation, for instance, awarded 40 fellowships this year as opposed to 50 in previous years.   Raether fears that for the 2009 to 2010 academic year, these foundations may cut back further and offer fewer fellowships.

Still, Raether encourages students to apply for fellowships, grants, and scholarships even in troubled times.   “The biggest challenge for me in concert with students is matching them to the grant that best suits them. Not everyone is cut of Rhodes or Marshall or Truman cloth, but they have significant achievements and remarkable projects and a sixth sense for innovation that sets them apart. The trick in each case is to find the right grant for the particular talent,” he wrote in a later e-mail.