Higher Education > Advanced Advice

Digging for Dollars?

Searching for minority scholarship money for grad school? Start your digging right here.

By Joe Schall

An African-American student from Pennsylvania, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in computer science, is simultaneously accepted to a summer internship and graduate school through a national fellowship program. A Hispanic-American student from Colorado, a college junior who just completed a semester-at-sea program, receives a letter from the Colorado Higher Education Partnership agreeing to help fund her senior year of college. A student from Alabama, one-fourth Cherokee, receives grant money so he can travel to a leadership conference sponsored by the Society for Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. What do these three very different students have in common? They all applied for and received scholarship funds to help them achieve their goals.

I always urge my students to avoid paying out-of-pocket for graduate education. For minority students in particular, scholarships and fellowships that help fund graduate education abound, and you don’t necessarily have to be a straight-A student to qualify. Many scholarships require GPAs of only 2.5 (a few even lower), some offer paid internships with companies as part of the package, and some are need-based or specific to a particular major or even a particular state. Also, some scholarships help pay for your senior year of college as well as graduate school, and motivated students can always find creative ways to combine monies rather than rely on a single source. A bit of study on your part about some of the nation’s top scholarships for minorities as well as strategies for unearthing lesser-known sources of funding can, literally, pay off.

Decipher Those Acronyms

Although it can feel a bit like wading through a bowl of alphabet soup, recognizing the acronyms of relevant professional organizations is a first step in chasing down cash. Professional organizations including SWE (Society of Women Engineers), SHPE (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers), (WEPAN) Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network, NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) and NACME (National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering) provide opportunities for both career and educational advancement. Such organizations charge themselves with the mission of advancing underrepresented groups within engineering fields, and sponsorship of graduate scholarships helps them to achieve this mission. By investing in your educational future, professional societies bank on your continued success.

Whether these professional organizations are new to you or not, you should understand that they thrive through networking. As you visit a Web site for a professional society, seek out a listing of its affiliations, sometimes called “member institutions” or “participating institutions.” Such a listing gives you a sense of just how wired together the societies and the institutions are, and it also reflects the caliber of both. Equally important is the connection that a professional society might have with industry. As you discover these alliances, you gain a deeper sense of the scholarship’s merit beyond the dollar value.

Let Your School’s Diversity Officer Help You

Many students, perhaps prideful about their independence and their ability to hoist themselves up by their own bootstraps, hesitate to turn to a school’s diversity officer (or, say, the director of a minority engineering program) for help when it comes to funding. Some assume that the officer’s job is over once the student has enrolled in school, but the opposite is true. My experience in talking with such officers is that they are highly informed, tightly networked and always eager to help minority students cash in on opportunities even beyond graduation.

Too often, though, they feel that they are the ones who have to do the chasing. Cyndi Freeman Fail, director of Diversity Enhancement Programs in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State, notes that students are often “shy about asking for help,” especially if they’re approaching their senior year and have not received scholarship money before. They assume, since they received little or no funding in the past, that there’s little point in seeking it now. However, as you enter your senior year or lock your sights on graduate school, new sources of funding emerge, especially for those who have proven themselves academically. Frequently, says Freeman Fail, diversity officers have scholarship money—especially money that could help fund your senior year—that goes untapped.

Another reason to work with your school’s diversity officer is that you can get the inside track on specific expectations that accompany a scholarship or fellowship. Some fellowships, Freeman Fail notes, carry with them unwritten expectations. Often they expect recipients to do such things as attend awards dinners and mix with faculty, or expect the student to remain professionally active through particular conferences or society membership. Many graduate scholarships include a commitment for you to work in the summer at a particular company—an opportunity that many students welcome, but one that could also help you choose against a scholarship because that company does not interest you. As with the school you choose for your graduate degree, you want to ensure the best fit.

Finally, remember that you have several different human resource persons to turn to when you apply for a scholarship: those from your undergraduate school, those from your intended graduate program and those administering the scholarship. It pays to turn to all of these sources for help.

Attend to the Application Carefully

Applying for scholarship money is serious business, and your first glimpse of the application form should confirm that you cannot do the job in a hurry. Pay attention to every minute detail to be certain you are not passed over or made less competitive for reasons you could have avoided. Jeannette Bouchard, manager for the annual competition of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), cites incomplete applications as the number one factor in some scholarship candidates being assessed below others. In the case of the GRFP, some students turn in an application without a transcript or with fewer than four letters of reference, thus greatly diminishing their chances of winning a scholarship. Even though 900 awards are granted per year through the program, last year it received 5,500 applications. Obviously, with such a vast pool for a selection committee to dive into, the judges must be picky and applicants attentive to every detail.

When seeking the GEM Engineering Award, for example, you are required to apply to at least three GEM member graduate institutions and rank them as your first, second and third choice. For the Microsoft Scholarship, you must provide a resume listing your computer languages in descending order of skill. These kinds of stipulations help the award judges achieve built-in selectivity, elevate the professionalism of the process and mandate that the best candidates will follow application instructions to the letter. Other issues are more qualitative. In a given set of applications, many students match up quantitatively; those who rise above the crowd do so by what they write. Even a short statement of purpose such as that required by the GEM Engineering Award becomes an important qualitative benchmark, and in applications such as the NSF’s GRFP, where a thorough essay on your proposed research plan is required, detail and clarity are critical to your success.

As Bouchard notes, the alpha of the pack is that student who can “demonstrate the ability to think critically and form a viable research question” through the essay. As you write an application essay, just as in a personal statement for graduate school, keep in mind that you are not committing to an unbreakable covenant but providing evidence that you have the work ethic, experience and mindset of a graduate student researcher. Bouchard advises students: “even if not wedded to a particular project, select one and write about it in detail as if you are.” Ordinary application essays can make remarkable students look unremarkable.

Be Web-Wise

To state the obvious, we live in a world that requires every student to be Web-wise. When finding scholarship money, such wisdom goes beyond just visiting a Web page to track down information, it requires that you use the Web to improve your odds. Conducting searches from pages with scholarship links is a beginning strategy. Use keywords that range from the identity of your ethnic background to the name of a scholarship sponsor to the state in which you would like to attend graduate school.

A more advanced strategy, once you have identified a desired scholarship, is to apply the same principle you would in a cover letter: Do your homework about the opportunity and showcase that homework in your application. Effective scholarship applications, especially when they involve substantive essays, are well-informed about the scholarship, the sponsoring company, organization or institution, and perhaps even about former scholarship recipients. Most scholarship Web pages, proud to publicize the award’s history or profile its past winners, provide links that you can follow to gain knowledge on these topics. The savvy student who finds ways to use such knowledge in an application essay shows that he or she aims to bring increased honor to the award and to those already affiliated with it.

One caveat, though, when surfing for scholarship information on the Web: don’t pay for it. Just as there are companies in cyberspace eager to post your resume to potential employers for a price, there are plenty of dotcoms out there trying to make money off of those seeking money. As you surf, you may find pages—typically unaffiliated with an established scholarship or organization—requiring you to register or pay directly for scholarship information. Diane Ross, enrollment assistant for the Student Financial Planning Office at Juniata College, Huntingdon, Pa., cautions students that they should “never pay for scholarship information.” Plenty of free information linked to reputable organizations is available on the Web, and those trying to get you to pay for it have no more of an inside track than you can create for yourself.

Combine Resources

It may be self-evident that you should apply for more than one scholarship at a time to increase your odds. What is less obvious is that you need not rely on a single source of funding. As Penn State’s Freeman Fail notes, many students make the mistake of taking far too narrow a view when it comes to scholarship money. “They look at a scholarship award of say, $1,000 or $2,000, and they figure ‘Why bother going after it?’ What they don’t realize is that they might combine that scholarship award with another one.”

Recognize that even in scholarship awards that are large, a typical breakdown of funds reserves a certain amount of money for books and living expenses and another amount for tuition. You can apply this same strategy to your search, using one source of funding for one purpose and a second source for another.

“I always encourage students to seek local or community based-funding—Kiwanis, Civitan, Dollars for Scholars, local churches, etc.,” says Freeman Fail. Be creative in your thinking about how money might be obtained and used, and don’t look on a comparatively small sum as being beneath your efforts.

Looking Under Rocks

Perhaps you have heard tales about unusual scholarships that help students pay for college—tuition money reserved exclusively for a redhead or the American General Scholarship earmarked for “Students With Good Hearts.” At my alma mater, Juniata College, in Huntingdon, Pa., a need-based scholarship ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 per year is available to a returning student who is left-handed. Why this stipulation? Because Fred and Mary Beckley, for whom the scholarship is named, first met when they were paired up as tennis partners at Juniata in the early 1900s and were delighted to discover that they were both left-handed.

Though most scholarships you apply for have a far different history, the Beckley scholarship typifies the fact that money is available if you just know where to look for it. Beyond the advice stated earlier (turning to human resource persons, surfing the Web and combining resources) there are other ways to excavate for funding—in a word, books. An excellent resource, bound to be in your library, is the Higher Education Money Book for Minorities and Women. Other recommended reference books are titled by ethnic group: Financial Aid for African Americans, Financial Aid for Asian Americans, etc. What’s especially useful about these resources is their demarcation and detail: they group awards within categories, profile special features of each and cite the number of awards given each year—something that scholarship Web pages don’t necessarily do. These books, along with others sporting “old- fashioned” hard covers available in “old-fashioned” libraries with hard-surface floors, can be among your best tools as you go digging for dollars.


Joe Schall is the Giles Writer-in-Residence for the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State. His book, Style for Students: Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age (Outernet Press), will be published in Spring 2002.

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