To describe the race to acquire national scholarships in higher education as competitive is a little like saying Niagara Falls is wet.
Under the tireless guidance of National Scholarship Officer Robyn Curtis, the University of Southern Mississippi has emerged as a major player in these fierce competitions. And nothing exemplifies that success more than the current year which has produced two Goldwater Scholars; a Truman Scholar and two Fulbright Student Finalists.
Since the National Scholarship Office opened in 2006, Southern Miss students have collected seven Goldwater Scholarships; two Truman Scholarships; 10 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships and numerous other prestigious awards.
“Nationwide, it’s not uncommon for certain schools to have two Goldwater Scholars in the same year. At schools like MIT or Harvard all four nominees could win in a given year,” said Curtis. “Not many state schools in the South have that kind of record. If you look back over the years, at times Mississippi had no Goldwater or just one. However, since 2006 it has been a rare year that Southern Miss did not produce a winner.”
For the first time since 1995, Southern Miss can claim two Goldwater winners in the same year – sophomore Hannah Roberts of Mount Olive and junior Michael Sims of Hattiesburg. Roberts, who also was named Miss University of Southern Mississippi during the current academic year, is a chemistry major, while Sims is majoring in polymer science and chemistry.
Southern Miss accounts for two of the three Goldwater Scholarships awarded this year to students at Mississippi universities. This year 271 students from across the country have been awarded Goldwater scholarships from 1,107 nominations.
“It’s been a hectic, busy year to say the least,” noted Roberts. “And I know it is about to get even busier.”
Speaking strictly in monetary terms, Southern Miss students have won roughly $2 million in scholarships since 2006. But Curtis is quick to point out that these awards include substantial non-monetary benefits in the form of additional training, priority admission to elite graduate programs and access to governmental resources.
“Many awards don’t carry a direct monetary award but come with significant benefits,” said Curtis. “We had a student who was sent to Indonesia for an internship for two months. All his expenses were paid; he was placed in an internship with an NGO and he received language and cultural training. Other programs include internships or super computer access.”
The first Truman Scholarships, established in honor of former President Harry S. Truman, were handed out in 1977-78. Lance Brown, competing in his home state of Alabama, was the first Southern Miss recipient in 1999. Just two years ago Marie Holowach Federer captured the prize and Brandon Hersey snared the award this year. Since 2006 Southern Miss has produced four other finalists for the scholarship.
Hersey, a political science/communications studies major,is the first African American student at Southern Miss to receive the Truman Scholarship. A Hattiesburg, Miss., native, he is the lone Truman winner representing a Mississippi university. The Truman Scholarship Foundation received 629 applications from 293 colleges and universities this year and whittled the field to 199 candidates from 136 institutions of higher learning as finalists.
Dr. Joe Paul, vice president for Student Affairs at Southern Miss, credits the trajectory of scholarship awards to unyielding diligence from the students and those charged with helping them reach academic goals.
“The accomplishments of our students in earning prestigious national scholarships is a tribute to their hard work and the support of their faculty and our National Scholarship Officer Robyn Curtis,” said Paul. “When these scholars earn national recognition, it raises the profile and value of a Southern Miss education for all of our students.”
Curtis estimates Hersey spent close to 200 hours first writing his application and then preparing for his interview before the Truman Foundation committee last month. This process dates all the way back to January, 2012 when Hersey and Curtis first discussed the idea of applying for the scholarship.
“We worked steadily on a daily basis for at least a month before the deadline,” said Curtis, who has served in her capacity since 2008. “Then we worked almost around the clock for the last 48 hours. It also took me several days to write my letter of endorsement which is the first piece of the application that reviewers see.”
Once selected as a Truman finalist the preparation process accelerated to include four official mock interview panels with post-rehearsal reviews. Curtis emphasizes that good fortune or “lucky breaks” play no part in determining who will receive a national scholarship.
“We never win because of good luck. These programs are too competitive for that,” said Curtis. “A lot of what I do is helping students to find the narrative of their lives and their work. Finding that thread is what makes an application stand out from 600 in some cases to literally thousands in others.”
Tyler Brown, a junior chemistry and polymer science double major from Biloxi, Miss., won a Goldwater Scholarship in 2012. Since his freshman year, Brown has assisted with research in the labs of polymer science professors Dr. Robert Lochhead, Dr. Charles McCormick, Dr. Sarah Morgan and her graduate assistant Lea Paslay. Brown’s current research involves synthesizing mimics of antimicrobial peptides.
He notes that the prestige associated with the Goldwater Scholarship cannot be overestimated. “I seem to be respected more as a student as well as a researcher because of this honor,” said Brown.
And his advice for students contemplating applications for national scholarships? “Do it. Do not wait until the last minute. Make sure you are well versed in your research area and don’t be afraid to ask for help from your advisor or mentor.”
To see a list of Southern Miss national scholarship winners and learn more about the application process call 601.266.4533 or visit: http://www.usm.edu/honors/recent-national-scholarship-winners-finalists-and-honorable-mentions