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How Did You Win a Fulbright?

How Did You Win a Fulbright?

By Deborah Lohse

Fulbrighters left to right: Shawna Richardson ’18, Hollynd Boyden ’17, Erika Francks ’17, Marisa Rudolph ’18, Athena Nguyen ’18
Here are a few ideas for what’s led to a record number of these prestigious fellowships for Santa Clara students.

Erika Francks ’17 was in the Sundarbans, a coastal forested region southeast of Kolkata, India, interviewing school leaders about an environmental education program as part of her Global Fellows internship through SCU’s Leavey School of Business, when a teacher’s offhand comment changed her life trajectory. 

The teacher remarked in a resigned voice that—no matter how good the curriculum was—“on stormy days kids can’t see the blackboard, so they don’t even come to school.” Turns out the village didn’t have electricity. And Francks’ nascent interest in an environmental career took a focused, pragmatic turn—toward bringing off-grid electrification to villages like the one she visited that day.

Back on Santa Clara’s Mission campus, she applied for and won a spot in Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship’s competitive Global Social Benefit Fellows (GSBF) program. That took her back to India to work with an off-grid electricity provider. The practical experience was important. So was the inspiration. About a year and a half later, she won a nine-month Fulbright scholarship to conduct research in Lesotho into whether solar microgrids can spur business creation in that southern African nation.

“It all just kind of built on each other,” said Francks. “I would not have had one experience without the prior ones.”  

When it comes to leveraging hands-on work and ideas to set off on a fascinating trajectory, she’s not alone. Francks is one of a record-breaking eight Broncos who won elite Fulbright scholarships this year. Most come on the heels of multiple travel and research experiences. 

Eight winners is double SCU’s previous one-year record of four Fulbright finalists, in both 2014 and 2016. And that’s on top of other tremendous Bronco academic accomplishments this academic year: Environmental science and biology alumnus Sean Reilly ’16 won the internationally prestigious Rhodes Scholarship; biology alumna Hayley Raquer ’16 was named one of 48 inaugural Knight-Hennessy Scholars; and junior James Wang ’19, who is majoring in environmental science and electrical engineering, was chosen for a highly selective Udall Undergraduate Scholarship. SCU also produced a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program award winner, and runners-up for Truman, Udall, and Goldwater scholarships.

So, what is the “secret sauce” behind SCU’s phenomenal showing in elite scholarship ranks these days? 

Like many other of the Fulbright winners, Francks gives a lot of credit to the wealth of opportunities she received for global travel and real-world research. 

“The opportunity to do serious ‘action research’ in developing countries as an undergraduate is really rare,” she says. 

Francks also credits mentors like Environmental Studies and Sciences Professor Leslie Gray and Miller Center’s Keith Warner, OFM, who told her that her experiences, social justice passion, and maturity made her a great candidate for a Fulbright while she was a student—and tag-teamed her with reminder emails after graduation. To get through ten drafts of her Fulbright application, “I was probably on weekly calls with Keith, and weekly emails with Leslie,” recalls Francks.

Susan Popko, associate provost for international programs at Santa Clara, says that kind of attention and care is essential. “Santa Clara does a great job with Fulbrights, partly because of the close advising that students get, which helps them make connections between their academic work, their academic trajectory, and their goals,” she says.

Students, faculty, and staff like Popko explain that this is part of a formula for excellence that the University has been perfecting for years:

stellar students whose ambitions are identified and taken seriously early on


abundant international travel and research opportunities


tireless faculty and staff support


an extraordinary heaping of responsibility, often in developing countries 


Throughout it all, the mix is steeped in Jesuit values, reflection, and follow-through. 

From Indonesia to El Salvador, India to Cuba

Before coming to SCU, economics major Carson Whisler ’17 had hardly been out of his hometown of Astoria, Oregon—with a population around 9,800. But Whisler thrived during a Global Fellows internship in Indonesia. Back on the Mission campus, Associate Professor of Economics Michael Kevane saw in Whisler a rare combination: economic analysis skills ideal for research and a social conscience awakened in Jakarta. Kevane recommended him to Miller Center’s Global Social Benefit Fellows program, which led Whisler to northeastern India to help bring solar to rural communities. And, like Francks, that experience led to a focus on a new career path, and to his winning a Fulbright scholarship—in his case, back to Indonesia. 

“Now I yearn to search for ways to deliver energy to the communities that need it most desperately,” he wrote in his letter to the Fulbright committee.

For Hollynd Boyden ’17, traveling to Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador and to Nicaragua with the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education solidified her aim to not only work in public health, but also to be a teacher. In Nicaragua, “the students were really taught only to memorize. They were taught to copy the notes from the teacher,” she observed. With homework, Boyden was distressed to see that “their focus was really, ‘I just want the answer so I can go play’ as opposed to ‘Help me learn.’” That inspired Boyden to apply for a teaching Fulbright. She will go to Mexico to teach and conduct nutritional workshops. 

SCU in recent years has beefed up the number and quality of international travel opportunities offered to students—including ensuring that the experience is a fit for the student’s larger aspirations, and not just a fun trip. More than 30 percent of Santa Clara students study abroad, and more engage in some form of international programming—including GSBF; individualized social justice–focused experiential learning through the Ignatian Center’s Jean Donovan Summer Fellowships; and internships through Global Fellows. That is striking compared with the national figures for students who study abroad: 10 percent.

“The world is becoming a borderless, global workplace,” notes Popko. “We need people who can develop intercultural communication strategies; show competence with understanding; and approach the unfamiliar with curiosity and respect rather than judgement. That’s what we’re hoping to cultivate through a global experience.” 

Lauren Cloward ’16 is another Fulbright winner. In pursuit of her passion for food sustainability and justice, she traveled to Cuba with SCU’s Food and Agribusiness Institute; journeyed to Nicaragua with the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences; and worked in India with Global Fellows. 

“One of the reasons I chose Santa Clara in the first place was the [travel] opportunities they give students,” says Cloward. “Those experiences were really invaluable to getting to the place I am now and having that wider perspective and wider worldview.”  

For Fulbrights, it also helps that the research or immersions SCU students undertake is often focused in parts of the world where the need is highest. That gives students both a valuable perspective and an edge over other Fulbright applicants in understanding and showing interest in less-traveled corners of the world. 

“The placements are not in mainstream, ‘first-world’ countries,” says Shawna Richardson ’18, who is going to Taiwan as a teaching Fulbrighter. Traveling to developing countries, “you really get knocked down off this pedestal of being in Santa Clara, having the privilege of education. You get the experience of being the outsider, forced to the margins, and you have to grapple with that. It’s such a reality check.” 

Hands-On Research

Environmental studies and sciences (ESS) majors are required to identify an environmental problem—prescription drugs polluting waterways; trash not being diverted properly from landfills, for example—and research it for their capstone. ESS’s Leslie Gray—a three-time Fulbrighter herself—thinks the program’s intense mentoring and mandatory research are great pathways to elite scholarships. Four of the students who won Fulbrights this year—as well as Rhodes winner Reilly—were environmental sciences and studies majors. 

“The experience of being thrown out there, to have to do your own independent research project, is one of the most meaningful things you’ll ever, ever do,” Gray says. 

Before she was challenged through GSBF to write a 40-page research proposal, conduct customer research for a social enterprise in Ghana, and spend time examining how that experience fit in with her life goals, Marisa Rudolph ’18 had real doubts about whether she could plan a nine-month Fulbright research project. “I didn’t know if I could come up with my own research project, which is super intimidating, or whether I was passionate enough about something to spend nine months at it,” she says. But her GSBF experience gave her “the confidence, experiences, and push to feel like I could apply and put together a solid application.”  

Communication Focus

In some ways, great global research experiences that build global citizens are like the proverbial tree falling in a forest. If you can’t identify and communicate how they formed marketable or advanced skills—to a future scholarship committee, graduate school admissions office, or a future employer—to the outside world, it’s almost like it didn’t happen.

That’s part of why every major travel program at SCU requires students to reflect upon and contextualize what they’ve learned when they get back from their trips. This includes mandatory classes and writings; workshops and retreats; meetings with people in industry; and vocational discernment. 

Keith Warner underscores that students who participate in Miller Center’s Global Social Benefit Fellows program are guided to home in on key questions about direction and purpose: “‘Who am I? What do I have to give to the world? Where can I make the greatest contribution to advancing the common good?’” 

The students describe such exercises as crucial.

“I think that whole idea of educating yourself to be a human for others is something that was really lived through this fellowship,” says Rudolph. And, “being able to articulate that is something that a lot of other places don’t teach you how to do.” 

Icing on the Cake

To encourage students to see themselves on a path to elite scholarships or to graduate school, six years ago biology Associate Professor Leilani Miller, who is also director of the Office of Student Fellowships and the University Honors Program, and senior English lecturer Stephen Carroll, started a two-unit course for Honors Program students and others, called Fellowship and Grad Prep. The class, which attracted a record 66 students this year, helps students discern their life goals, identify fellowship opportunities, and create successful applications. Five of the students who won Fulbrights this year had taken the class.  

“What we talk about in this class is that the process is what is important,” Miller says. “They come to me with very meaningful experiences and strong mentorship, and we put together a fellowship application that is often the next obvious step for them. I am so proud of every single student who ends up submitting an application—winning one is icing on the cake.”

Professors also make themselves available for students and alumni. Graduating senior Marisa Rudolph remembers Warner talking her through one of the 30 drafts of her Fulbright application by phone while he drove 70 miles from Santa Fe to Taos on vacation in New Mexico. Classmate Shawna Richardson recalls waking up in India to find emailed Word documents marked up by Miller overnight. She told a Stanford student, who was also applying for a Fulbright, about the advice she was getting. “She was very jealous,” recalls Richardson. “She wasn’t getting support from her school.” 

Awesome Responsibility Abroad

When Richardson was in India, she went to a fourth-grade classroom thinking she would spend the day observing. But the teacher never showed up. Instead, Richardson ended up teaching the class of 9-year-olds to help them prepare for a math test in two days. 

Virtually every student has a story of unexpected twists abroad that required them to think on their feet—and then do. Francks and her team were supposed to travel by train to visit a customer for a case study on home solar systems—one of the few such examples their host organization could tout. But the area was experiencing devastating monsoons and flooding. So Francks and her team quickly decided to spend the next several days researching nearby solar irrigation pumps instead. 

SCU expects the students to handle such twists and not let it derail their research. “We give our students more responsibility than they have ever had,” observes Warner.  

Students agree, and they say SCU prepares them well for such extraordinary independence—through courses beforehand covering research, entrepreneurship, and logistics, and also through reflections to process the experience.  

“There were times where I felt alone,” acknowledges Athena Nguyen ’18, describing her travel and research in Myanmar through GSBF. “But I always felt supported, and I know how to access different resources.”  

Accompany Me

The Santa Clara students were also well prepared in the Jesuit value of accompanying—not imposing one’s own viewpoint—during their international travel. Many students are first exposed to the idea of accompaniment through Ignatian Center immersion trips and placements here in the Bay Area as part of a class.

“It’s not about coming in to help like a charity,” says Richardson. “It’s about being with the people and their community, learning from them, and then asking, ‘OK, within this context, what can I do to be helpful?’” 

Nguyen agrees. “I saw this in Peru, where people would show up for a week and say, ‘Well, my volunteer hours are done,’ or ‘I took all the photos that I wanted to take of me helping kids.’ And I remember thinking, ‘That’s not what it means to accompany someone or be a person for others.’” With her teaching Fulbright in Vietnam, Nguyen says, “I’m hoping to accompany my students, my colleagues, and other English teaching assistants in a process in which we not only learn about each other, but also leave an impact on our communities that extends beyond our time there.”

Overall, the secret sauce starts with students who squeeze the very most of their time at SCU. “I tell my students to be very greedy with their education,” says Tanya Monsef Bunger, who runs Global Fellows for the Leavey School of Business. The program provides six-to-eight-week internships in countries like Ghana, Morocco, and India. “We have so many opportunities here at Santa Clara,” she says. “Your potential is unlimited...You will know what you are capable of in a way that you couldn’t understand before, and you’ll understand that you can do anything in the world.” 

Rhodes winner Sean Reilly recently told SCU’s 2018 Fulbright winners: “The evaluators were able to see what an amazing, excited person you are... At the same time, you need a place that fosters that passion, and a place that will allow that excitement to grow and to shine through. And that’s what Santa Clara has offered us.”

READ MORE: SCU Fulbrighters tell their stories.

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