Wharton and College senior Vikram Balasubramanian was recently awarded the George J. Mitchell Scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy at Trinity College Dublin.
The Mitchell Scholarship accepted only 12 students out of 306 applicants this year. According to Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Senior Associate Director for Fellowships Wallace Genser, the first Penn Mitchell Scholar was selected in 2016, and Balasubramanian — who is majoring in statistics and philosophy — is now the sixth Scholar accepted from Penn.
The scholarship funds a year of graduate studies in Ireland and Northern Ireland, covering all living expenses, travel, tuition, and accommodations.
Balasubramanian told The Daily Pennsylvanian that Trinity College Dublin will provide strong opportunities for his interests in analytical philosophy, particularly philosophy of science, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind.
“I definitely see a bit of a gap in my knowledge that I'm excited to fill,” he said. “Being a dual degree student at Penn, I do feel that I sacrifice depth for breadth. So I felt that this was a necessary step before I could commit to a full career of research and a Ph.D.”
During his studies, he plans to further his current research on modifying statistical methodologies, particularly how to manipulate the causal effect of race using insights from the philosophy of race.
Balasubramanian said his interest in philosophy was cemented in a philosophy of science course with his current thesis advisor, philosophy professor Quayshawn Spencer.
According to Spencer, after the course ended, they started meeting at White Dog Cafe to discuss philosophical ideas Balasubramanian was interested in.
“He jumped right in headfirst in philosophy,” Spencer said. “And we've been talking ever since.”
While he said he could have pursued Economics or PPE, Balasubramanian felt it wasn’t true to his passions. With two summers of consulting experience under his belt, Balasubramanian admitted that he could continue working for the corporate world, but ultimately realized that “the one thing that has stayed constant throughout [his] academic journey is that [he] really loved learning.”
Balasubramanian credited his parents with instilling “hard work, drive and a love for learning” and his mindset to “always keep reaching for the next step, something bigger.”
Balasubramanian has been a leader in various Penn extracurriculars, including Penn Debate Society, MUSE, Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, Penn Baroque Ensemble, and more.
In particular, he said, participating in Penn Debate Society has helped expose him to philosophy and a wide breadth of fields, while also challenging him to think critically and reason in a non-dogmatic way. He also said he was glad to have amazing and diverse friends, who have encouraged and pushed him forward.
Compared to his competitive Bay Area high school, where everyone was singularly focused on the same goal of getting to college, he said he felt that Penn students have their own goals and passions.
“It was good for my self esteem and also for my growth to be able to say, ‘You know what, everyone else is doing their things. I'm doing my things.’ It’s not a zero-sum game,” Balasubramanian said.
Spencer told the DP that he believes Balasubramanian’s academic strength lies in his balance of inquisitiveness and ability to hear out the other side. He also commended Vikram’s initiative in creating relationships with professors.
Because of their continued interactions, he said, Spencer wrote letters of recommendation for Balasubramanian for his scholarships.
In his scholarship application, he reached out to CURF to help with the application process, which requires months of planning ahead and coordination with the university. A Penn faculty review committee had to review his application and put forward his nomination to the host organization.
According to Genser, the Mitchell Scholarship is powerful, but very niche because recipients need a specific reason to go to Ireland or Northern Ireland. Balasubramanian was someone who was able to identify a concrete reason and articulate how he was a good fit.
Genser said, “Balasubramanian was a wonderful example of someone who has identified an opportunity, took the risk, and went for it.”