Northwestern drops five spots in number of Fulbright Scholars

Peter Larson

Northwestern fell from the top spot to No. 6 in the number of Fulbright Scholars it churned out in 2010, according to recently released rankings from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Of the 111 Fulbright applicants from NU in 2010, 20 received the award -which gives students the opportunity to study or do research abroad for a year in any of more than 100 countries – putting NU behind the University of Michigan, Yale University, Brown University, Stanford University and the University of Chicago.

The drop represents an 11 percent decrease in the percentage of winners from the year before, when 32 of 109 NU applicants were named Fulbright Scholars.

Sara Anson Vaux, director of the Office of Fellowships, said the scale of the reordering is deceptive.

This year marked NU’s sixth straight year in the top 10 of the competition, which includes more than 600 schools with applicants.

And when you’re already at the top, some movement is expected, Vaux said.

“It’s very normal for Fulbright,” she said. “We look at most competitions over a three- or four-year spectrum.”

The accomplishment means more because NU doesn’t have the same level of area studies as some of its larger peer institutions, Vaux said.

Despite the setback, they were happy to send six students to the Middle East this year, a good sign the Middle Eastern studies department is expanding, she said.

But Vaux said they’re not in it for the numbers. Even when NU was ranked first, its motivation was giving students a more global perspective.

“That’s not why we’re doing it,” she said. “We are giving students a crash course on how to connect with other parts of the world.”

Three to four thousand students come through the Office of Fellowships every year, and about 2,000 of those end up working closely with Vaux and her staff. She said they aim to make the process as open and democratic as possible, a point of contrast between NU and some other universities known for picking out the cream of the crop and grooming a few students for success.

The Fulbright Scholarship program isn’t the only fellowship for which the University pushes students to apply. Vaux said they work in conjunction with about 200 different programs, 15 of which they aggressively pursue because they require internal nominations beforehand.

It’s also not the only program with which students are finding success. NU set a school record last year with 44 National Science Foundation winners and four out of four Goldwater scholarships.

Reviews for the first stage of this year’s Fulbright application process start in December, Vaux said. Students turned in applications at the beginning of September.

Weinberg senior Stephanie Letzler said she decided late in the process to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship, waiting until August to start her application to travel to Belgium and study the European Union.

In the middle of finding letters and writing her proposal, she began e-mailing back and forth with the Office of Fellowships. She said its winning record for Fulbright applicants was encouraging.

“It made me feel more confident about the process,” Letzler said. “You’re working with a top-notch team. The Office of Fellowships really knows what they’re doing.”

Vaux said NU has the talent to keep winning. She said the growing role of study abroad programs and other forms of independent undergraduate research has enormous potential to change students’ college experiences.

“It makes kids different,” she said. “It makes them more alive.”

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