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Every year the Rhodes Scholarship is awarded to a cross section of students from around the globe. One of the oldest and most prestigious educational fellowships, it provides them with a grant to study at Oxford University for one to three years. Since the award’s creation, Penn has produced 19 Rhodes scholars. The University of Oklahoma has produced 26, Stanford University 82 and Princeton University 192. Now, I am not an elitist who thinks that the Ivy on Penn’s walls means we are far superior to the rest of the world, but when we are losing out to other institutions by such large margins, we have a serious problem. That’s why the Center for Undergraduate Research needs to step up its efforts to let students know about fellowships and assist them in applying.

To CURF’s credit, Penn’s record was even worse before CURF existed. Previously, Penn had no central office for dealing with fellowship applications. Rather, a patchwork of different groups handled different types of fellowships. After CURF was initiated in 2001 both the number of applicants and the number of different fellowships Penn students apply to increased, Harriet Joseph, director of CURF, said. Now CURF provides assistance to Penn students throughout all stages of the fellowship application process, including by conducting mock interviews and reviewing applications, Associate Director of Fellowships Cheryl Shipman said.

Indeed, many Penn students find this new system to be both efficient and helpful. “Like most things administrative at Penn (declaring a major in history comes to mind) the process seems very complicated and daunting and then turns out to be completely and totally idiot-proof and populated by fairly nice, helpful and competent people.” College sophomore Emily Kern said regarding CURF in an e-mail.

Many students, however, feel that CURF is not accessible enough. “I generally think they’re an epic fail in terms of distributing and making available their services to a diverse group of students and interests,” 2009 College alumna Nicole Garmin said. While CURF has the services in place, these are not much good if no one comes to use them.

The second issue with the CURF fellowship system for some students is the process of working with the staff. “I did everything they asked and still felt like it was pulling teeth,” College senior Natalie Vernon wrote in an e-mail. “For the Rhodes, [Penn] can nominate something like 12 people per district … I am from Iowa. There is no way they filled the Iowa category.” If Penn is underutilizing its talent, then our lapse in the number of fellowships becomes much easier to understand. The fellowship process needs to be a smoother ride if we wish to become as competitive as our peer institutions.

So how can we improve this process? More clarity would be a good start. CURF should host general information sessions so that freshmen can get informed and find a faculty adviser early on. Informational meetings could generate e-mail lists that allow CURF to inform interested students of deadlines, procedures and all other minutiae necessary to be competitive applicants. CURF should also clearly spell out the Penn selection criteria for fellowship nominees.

More outreach is also crucial. This year the research fair, a good recruiting ground for fellowship applicants, was sponsored not by CURF but by the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education. There is a disconnect here, one that needs to be addressed if Penn is going to step up its game and start pulling in those awards. And pull in those fellowships we should, because I am done losing to Princeton.

Sam Bieler is a College sophomore from Ridgewood, N.J. He is a member of the NEC. His e-mail address is Bieler’s Day Off appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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