At the end of Pixar’s Ratatouille the elitist critic, Anton Ego, comes to a new understanding of Chef Gusteau’s egalitarian motto, “Anyone can cook.” The motto doesn’t mean that “anyone can become a great chef, but that a great chef can come from anywhere.” I often think about this line in connection with ONSF’s mission.
We work with applicants for some of the most prestigious and competitive academic awards in the world. One award recently announced that they had 2,200 applications for 30 fellowships. That’s a selection rate of 1.36%, which is not atypical of the awards we work with. So it would be misleading to say “Anyone can be a Rhodes Scholar.” (Or a Truman, Marshall, or Goldwater Scholar - we work with many more opportunities than just Rhodes.) It is an enormous accomplishment just to be selected as one of U-M’s nominees for these awards. The students who win them are exceptional. What we mean is that U-M’s next Rhodes Scholar can come from anywhere - from any background or from any of our academic programs on campus.
Therefore, ONSF was founded on the principle of providing equitable access to information about these opportunities to all students at U-M, as well as the advising and resources they will need to be successful in their applications and interviews. Although ONSF is located within the LSA Honors Program, we were created with a specific charge and support from the Provost’s Office to serve students from all 19 of U-M’s schools and colleges. We actively seek feedback about how we can better reach and support applicants from different student populations on campus. If students in your unit don’t already know about ONSF, please contact us to talk about how we can more effectively get this information to them.
Several years ago a Rhodes Scholar on our nomination committee remarked, “The tough thing about doing this at U-M is that it’s hard to know who our best students are.” As a philosopher, I have to ask the follow-up question: “What do we mean by ‘best’?” Different scholarships and fellowships will have different eligibility and selection criteria. The “best” candidates will be those who are the “best fit” for each particular opportunity. The same is true of U-M’s different academic units: each will have its own distinctive mission and criteria for excellence. As part of our commitment to diversity, ONSF seeks to promote scholarships and fellowships that will reflect many different understandings of “best students.” Still, the original challenge is a valid one. On a campus of more than 45,000 students, we are dependent upon academic and student life units to tell us who are the best students in their fields. If your unit has internal awards or processes for recognizing excellence in its many forms, please take a moment to tell us about them so that we can try to connect your best students with national scholarships and fellowships of potential interest. Or you can send us students’ names via the Refer a Student button on our website (www.lsa.umich.edu/onsf) and we will reach out to them directly.
As you might expect, U-M applicants do very well in these national competitions. In the three years since ONSF was founded we’ve had two Rhodes Scholars, including the first ever Rhodes Scholar from Saudi Arabia, three Marshall Scholars, and many more recipients of other awards. U-M currently ranks 7th on the all-time list for Goldwater Scholars, the premier award for undergraduate research, one behind Cal Tech but two ahead of MIT. Even so, with selection rates of 1-2% our best students don’t usually win. So the third founding principle of ONSF is that it’s not just about winning. Our mission is to help all of our applicants develop into self-aware leaders and citizens with specific plans to challenge the present and transform the future. In our most recent advising survey, 89% of the respondents said that ONSF helped them tell the story of who they are and where they are going, with a better understanding of their graduate school plans, career goals, core values, and how to identify and better use mentors in their field.
By engaging in these ultra-competitive national competitions, our best students are challenged to become their best selves.