Pathways to success

In the winter of 2009, political science major Gabriel (“Gabe”) Felix Kofi Amo ’10 won a prestigious Marshall Scholarship, which supports graduate study at any university in the United Kingdom. In the spring of that same year he also won a Truman Scholarship in public service, becoming one of only 60 college student winners nationwide to earn the honor.

Summer 2010 awardsAmo exemplifies the stellar students who are racking up major academic honors. In the past decade, Wheaton students have won more than 121 highly competitive national scholarships and fellowships, including Marshalls, the Rhodes, Watsons and Fulbrights. In fact, The Chronicle of Higher Education ranks us in the top 10 of Fulbright winners among baccalaureate colleges, with six awards, for 2009. (We’ve won 52 total Fulbrights since 1998.)

The natural questions that arise are: Why is Wheaton winning so many national scholarship awards, and what do these achievements mean for our students and alums? Having taught at Wheaton since 1965 and having watched several of my political science students earn some of these awards over the past decade, I’ve seen the transformation in Wheaton’s approach to these competitions, and I know the answers.

The foundation of our success rests on three key elements. First, as an institution, we began to see ourselves as winners. Second, we began to strategically focus and commit to preparing our students to win. And third, our faculty members poured on the personal support that has long been a Wheaton hallmark.

The result has propelled Wheaton to an international stage, where the college’s goals and values are reflected, and has broadened our networks. However, we deserve more attention than we’ve gotten, even internally.

I’ve been thinking about all of this analytically since last summer, after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s article “How David Beats Goliath: When Underdogs Break the Rules” in the May 11, 2009, issue of The New Yorker.

What’s the story of our journey as the underdog who became top dog? Underdogs must overcome conventional ways of acting and thinking. What have we done?

Winning these awards obviously starts with students who have the potential to perform exceptionally. They need extremely high grades, the kinds of experiences that show initiative and leadership (increasingly in the Third World), and writing skills, because the first stage in every contest is an excellent original essay or set of essays. And, oh yes, they need the ability to concisely and good-naturedly carry on a 30-minute conversation with a distinguished panel of five to seven middle-aged adult achievers who can make your life with their decision.

But this is only the start.

The Marshall and the Rhodes scholarships are the most famous and competitive awards that any college senior or recent graduate can win, and they provide arguably the best graduate education in the world. In the past decade, Wheaton surged into the top tier of small private colleges in the country in winning Rhodes awards and Marshall scholarships-three Rhodes awards and four Marshalls.

Take a look at the numbers in comparison to other colleges [all data are from the Rhodes and the Marshall official web sites]:

Thus, with the Rhodes awards, Wheaton is among the country’s top six private liberal arts colleges. With the Marshalls, we are among the top five private liberal arts colleges.

Now, these other schools are all wonderful places and it is an honor to be in the list with them on these important student academic and leadership achievements. But as we all know, in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, these schools are in the top 10 and we are currently 58th.

Looking at our achievements reveals how far Wheaton has come, but also how unfair the usual rankings are to us, which I don’t think most people understand. The national panels that make these awards are very fair: they reward merit and achievement. The magazine rankings are not.

Continuing to look at the awards, let’s consider, in addition to the famous Fulbright Fellowship (sponsored by the U.S. government through the State Department for American graduates to teach English, study and do research abroad) there are also the so-called “French Fulbrights.” These are administered by the American government, but chosen by the French government for winners to teach English in France. Eleven Wheaton graduates have won these since 2000.

For non-seniors, the most important national competition is for the Truman Scholarships. Set up by an act of Congress in 1975 and in operation since 1978-1979, these awards reward leadership and require a commitment to future public service. They provide a cash stipend primarily for graduate school, plus various leadership conferences, institutes and internships.

The annual number awarded varies, but is between 75 and 90 awards. Wheaton won its first Truman in 1983 and its second in 1991. We have won seven since 1993. And in 2005, the Truman Foundation named us a “Truman Honor Institution.”  Here is the comparison:

So we are among the top seven schools in the country of our type for Trumans. What I have discussed so far is not the whole post-2000 story: we have also won two Borens, five international Rotaries, three Udalls, seven Watsons and one Mitchell, among other awards.

And winning did not begin in 2000. Thanks to the hard work of then Dean Tom Brooks, we won several early Trumans and some Watsons. We had a Rhodes semifinalist in 1980, 1991, 1992 and 1993. However, the big and astonishing jump began around 2000.

The dramatic shift came in 2000 when we began to overcome our negative thinking and our poor self-image. I know that many people don’t want to hear that. It is not the diplomatic thing to say about one’s college, but anyone who knows me knows that diplomacy is not my thing. Besides, it is the truth, as I see it.

Winning these awards requires institutional self-confidence and self-confidence from the students. As in any competitive endeavor, putting one’s school or self out there takes nerve. For a long time some college officials did not have that positive attitude.

Let me share a painful story. I do so to illustrate the depth from which we needed to climb to reach our current heights.

In the mid-1970s, my late colleague Political Science Professor Jeremiah Murphy wanted to nominate one of his seniors for a Rhodes Scholarship. Then, as now, all candidates for these awards had to go through our administrative committee. Our committee refused to put forth a candidate, on the grounds that it was presumptuous to consider that anyone from Wheaton was good enough to win the prestigious Rhodes, and that the process could only end in humiliation for the institution and the student. Around 1990, I wanted to nominate two students for the Truman Scholarship. This same internal committee administered its own quiz on politics and, for whatever obscure reasons, found them wanting.

I won’t go into the complicated causes of the inferiority complex. But it was a factor.

Also, our students often suffered from a lack of confidence when dropped into these competitions with Ivy Leaguers, who then and now win the lion’s share of prizes. In the final interview phases, in the same room with students who were ahead of them in high schools in their states and facing panels of adults who had won, they faltered. Comments, such as, “I was honored just to be in the room,” signaled doom.

To be successful, students needed to be identified and helped to bolster confidence.

Enter Alex Trayford, a special academic dean who made all the difference.

Trayford began working at Wheaton during the 1998-1999 academic year, arriving with an academic background in archeology and classical studies. He brought the passion of a great athletic coach to focus on each of our contenders.

He belongs to the National Association of Fellowships Advisors (NAFA), recently completing a four-year term on its board. NAFA members are acutely attuned to the national scholarship awards process. Dean Trayford knows the most important quality for students is self-confidence.

During the high scholarship season that is the fall semester, it is not unusual for him to give more than a dozen appointments to scholarship competitors per day, and his days can end around 9 p.m. The process often goes into weekends.

Before students actually apply for a contest, Trayford’s process involves finding them strong summer experiences. Oftentimes, these experiences are more like being in the Peace Corps than the old way of clerking in a law firm or bringing coffee to the boss in an advertising agency. Students make these experiences work because presidents Alice F. Emerson and Dale Rogers Marshall, plus the faculty and trustees, brought us the concept of “global citizenship.” Then, the Davis Foundation provided the funds.

But students also must be willing to take real risks.

As a junior, Alex Dewar, our 2006 Rhodes winner, thought he would go back to Oregon to work at a city planning agency. Under the dean’s pushing hand, he went to rural Uganda, heard of the village’s need for a preschool, got the support of the mothers’ council for one, raised the money in the U.S., bought the construction materials, oversaw the building of the school, and hired the teacher. He also lived in a polygamous society, was the only white person for miles, and became friends with the chief, with one of whose families he resided.

Myles Matteson, our 2006 Marshall winner, went to Rwanda with the help of alumna (now trustee) Alison Grant Small ’66 and former Wheaton president Alice F. Emerson, who both used their contacts there to get him an internship in the Rwandan Attorney General’s office. There he became extradition counsel and successfully extradited a number of those accused of genocide, who were brought back to Rwanda for trial. Our 2005 Rhodes winner, Carolyn Wills April, assisted in a rural medical clinic in a dangerous part of South Africa. This year’s Marshall winner, Amo, spent the summer of 2008 working with Liberian refugees in Ghana and the summer of 2009 helping to improve education in Uganda.

After adventurous summers, students have something to say and they have clarified their life goals. However, they need to tell their stories efficiently. The next stage is the personal essay. The dean puts each student through anywhere from six to a dozen drafts in on average three meetings per week per student on the writing part alone. It’s arduous, painful, aggravating and absolutely necessary.

After a national award board reviews a student’s written application and chooses that student, then, for many competitions, an “interview” follows. It is really an audition against peers. A Marshall regional committee with four scholarships to award may interview 15 or more finalists; a Rhodes regional committee with two awards may interview 12; a Truman committee with perhaps two or three, but at least one, may interview as many as seven or eight. How to get ready for this crucial showdown?

Wheaton faculty participate at various stages, beginning with identifying students with potential, calling them in to talk, and sending them off to Dean Trayford. Professors write the essential, very persuasive recommendations. Conducting mock interviews constitutes the most unselfish faculty contribution. Every Wheaton student who goes to an interview in a national competition first participates in a series of mock interviews on campus, and the faculty plus Dean Trayford and several other deans (and previously Filene Center Director Dan Golden) conduct the sessions. The goal is at least five sessions for each student. Since we cannot use the same interviewer more than once, if we have six faculty members on each panel, we use 30 different faculty members grilling each student! Faculty members sit on panels involving students who are not their departmental majors, and often whom they do not know at all. No one gets paid and apparently almost no one ever says “no.” Dean Trayford calls this help “vital.”

After each 30-minute session, the students get critical feedback, usually very frank. Session to session, they get sharper, clearer, quicker, better. We are often tougher than the real panels. This contribution of time and support by the faculty is collegiality at its best. Students report back that, while some other schools offer faculty help, most do not.

I interviewed several award winners by e-mail and they say that the extensive support was crucial.

“The internal process at Wheaton was absolutely essential to my being awarded both the Truman and Marshall scholarships, and it was also very formative for me as a person,” Myles Matteson told me. He won a Truman and a 2006 Marshall.

So what does all of this winning mean to Wheaton, the students and the alums?

Wheaton’s winners are a reflection of the college’s goals and values. They come from every region, race, gender, sexual orientation, and undergraduate major. Every competition sends our students out into the bigger world to meet other bright students, committees of high-achieving adults, and faculties and administrators of the finest graduate schools on the planet. And Watsons and Fulbrights take them to students and communities all over the world. It’s a network explosion-broader and broader circles of which Wheaton is a part. It’s a stage-by-stage transformation of our place in the world, and it’s growing.

And each of these awards advances Wheaton values by encouraging and underwriting international academic achievement and national and international leadership; supporting national leadership development and potential; sponsoring global research, service and understanding in the multi-cultural world; recognizing environmental contributions and potential; training students to contribute to regional and world peace; advancing American national security; and stressing global communication among people.

Wheaton’s transformation has not been fully appreciated. I believe that there should be a wall of achievement on campus with pictures and biographies of these national winners, just as there are pictures of our sports stars in the athletic center, our trustees in the library, and even our interns in the Admission Office.

And we need more national recognition. Getting it is not easy because the U.S. News & World Report system, which many look to as a guide to judge schools, does not take into account student achievement.

It is as if a baseball team would be ranked by the quality of its stadium or the taste of its concessions rather than by the games it wins. And part of the ranking system is “reputational,” in which competitors (labeled as “peers”) rank you. That’s really how it’s done! Students’ performance in national academic competitions is not counted at all.

Since Wheaton hasn’t been able to rise in the rankings under this system, we will have to spread the word ourselves, which is one reason I wrote this article.

The other reason I composed this essay for the magazine is because I’m not sure how aware alums are of what has happened regarding our wins and why.

Wheaton’s alums are a vital part of the college community. The ones I know are our strong supporters and best friends. They always root for us to be better and do better. Over the past decade, that has happened. I hope that they will now feel even better about their school and support us even more, with their good words, their time and their money. For myself, being a part of this award competition process and knowing so many of these students has been a thrill. The students’ triumphs gladden my heart.

Author’s note: I want to thank students Courtney Connors ’10 and Mark Anderson ’12 for their research help and my political science colleagues Gerard Huiskamp and Darlene Boroviak for their editorial suggestions. All opinions are completely mine.

Scholars applaud Wheaton’s awards process

Rebecca Chamberlain-Creanga '99“Dean Trayford’s biggest contribution was getting to know us as candidates, for one secret to winning these awards is learning how to talk and write about yourself, in other words, ‘to market’ yourself…. Faculty and staff like Dean Trayford help you ‘advertise’ yourself by way of knowing you…. I can think of many great examples of memorable one-to-one conversations. He used this knowledge to help me think about how to present myself. He and other faculty members also put a lot of time and energy into prepping me with tough interview questions.”–Rebecca Chamberlain-Creanga ’99, an International Rotary and a 2001 Marshall scholar, now finishing her Ph.D. in anthropology at the London School of Economics.

Derron Wallace '07“Of course, Dean Trayford was quite helpful during the application process. He is, for sure, ‘the fellowship guru.’ I must point out, though,  that Dean Trayford was not the only one who offered me support during the application process. [Associate Dean] Alex Vasquez was the one who convinced me that I needed to apply for a Marshall. If not for him, I would have never even looked at the application. I am now, and will always be, grateful for the consistent, high-quality mentorship Wheaton faculty and staff provide. For me, the ‘pushing’ and ‘dreaming’ started during advising sessions with them. They assisted me in identifying my academic interests, encouraged me to apply for Wheaton and Davis fellowships, helped me reflect on my international service experiences, and then challenged me to compete for national awards. Every so often, I am reminded that I would not be where I am without the support of Wheaton faculty and staff.”–Derron (“J.R.”) Wallace ’07, a Watson and 2008 Marshall scholar, now in the MPhil program of the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.

Myles Matteson '06“I have vivid memories of the interview preparation process. I came out of my first mock interview flustered and humbled after being challenged and questioned pointedly for an hour and a half. Dean Trayford said, ‘Well, your real interview shouldn’t be worse than that.’ After being exposed to that first aggressive interview experience, I went through a series of mock interviews with panels of professors to polish my arguments and communication skills, and learn to be myself even amidst the tumble of a fiercely inquisitive interview. I learned how to tell my story and vision accurately and succinctly.”–Myles Matteson ’06, a Truman and a 2006 Marshall scholar, now working for a New Hampshire law firm.

“The support I received from the Wheaton faculty was absolutely essential. Professor Goodman and Professor Pastra-Landis approached me very early in my academic career and as a result, I had three years to consider whether I wanted to apply for the national scholarships. Once I decided to apply, the support I received from my professors and from the scholarship advisors was overwhelming. Professors Goodman, Pastra-Landis, Partridge, Kendrick, McCafferty and Relihan generously agreed to write letters of recommendation for me, as did Athletic Director Chad Yowell…. Dozens of other faculty members from several different departments assisted in the mock interviews and spent hours coming up with questions and giving me feedback on how to improve. These faculty members and a large group of fellow students even conspired to conduct a mock cocktail party for me!”–Carolyn Wills April ’05, 2005 Rhodes Scholar, now at Harvard Medical School.

Zoe Lees '06“Dean Trayford was involved in my application process from the very beginning, which was extremely helpful. I wrote over ten drafts of my application essay, which I received notes on not only from Dean Trayford, but also some of my professors. Because we met at least once a week, I felt prepared for my interview and felt that the final product of my application was absolutely worthy of submitting.”–Zoe Lees ’06, a 2006 Fulbright scholar to Malaysia now applying to law school.

Jared Duval '05“Dean Trayford put so much time and effort in, above and beyond the call of duty. I remember him ordering Chinese food for delivery after the dining halls had closed and we were still up in his office in the Doll’s House, trying to put the finishing touches on applications. More than a scholarship advisor, he was a personal and career advisor. He helped give me confidence and he certainly improved my applications, from their content to their style.”–Jared Duval ’05, a 2005 Truman scholar, winner of two Udalls, and a Rhodes semifinalist, now finishing a book and applying to graduate school.