Mainhia Thao '18 (center) is a current Fulbright grantee teaching English in Laos. Allison Adrian, PhD, associate professor (left) and Mysee Chang '13 (right), both Fulbright advisors and Fulbright alumnae themselves, helped Thao navigate the application process.
St. Kate's both attracts and supports good candidates for competitive fellowships and scholarships
Fulbright fellow Mainhia Thao ’18 arrived in Laos in August, fulfilling a lifelong dream. The high-achieving daughter of Hmong immigrants, she’d always aspired to travel to the country at the center of so many of her family’s stories.
“I wanted to go back to my parents’ motherland — to see this place they’d talked about all my life and have a chance to make a real difference for the people living there.”
Thao’s journey to Laos began with a supportive encounter while crossing the quad at St. Catherine University. She met Mysee Chang ’13, a Fulbright advisor who had recently returned from teaching English in Laos as a grantee in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
Awarded by the U.S. Department of State, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program is a competitive grant for graduating seniors and recent bachelor’s degree recipients. Competition for the grants is fierce.
Having returned to St. Kate’s eager to share her Fulbright experience, Chang recognized Thao as an academic standout and a potential Fulbrighter. She explained what the program was all about. Thao was intrigued by Chang’s enthusiasm and encouragement. “Mysee planted the seed in my mind,” she says.
As Thao learned more, the Fulbright grant felt like an opportunity she couldn’t let pass her by. It seemed worth the one-year delay of her plans to study medicine after graduation, and Chang’s Fulbright experience was inspiring.
“I want to be a culturally competent doctor,” says Thao. “The experience I would gain in Laos would set me apart and expand my ability to understand more cultures.”
Chang explained to Thao that the Fulbright application process is long and involved, but she and Fulbright program advisor Allison Adrian, PhD, associate professor of music and women’s studies, would be there to help guide her through the process.
That was all Thao needed to hear.
“I knew I wanted to apply,” she says. And with Adrian and Chang in her corner, she was up for the challenge. “I knew it would be a year-long process. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was excited.”
After months of working with Chang, Adrian, and others, Thao learned she had been awarded the Fulbright—her hard work had paid off. Her parents, who had always wanted to return to Laos, were thrilled, and she was more than ready for the next chapter in her life to begin.
Building a supportive structure
Katies are poised to earn competitive scholarships and fellowships, and in recent years the University has provided additional resources. These efforts were spearheaded by Lynda Szymanski, PhD, interim associate provost. With more resources, advisors like Adrian and Chang are able to guide students through these application processes with increased focus.
Applying for a Fulbright — or other prestigious fellowships and scholarships like the Truman or a Rhodes — is an involved process. Targeted support helps keep student applicants and faculty and staff advisors on task and on track.
“The work is really relational and personal,” says Adrian, a faculty alumna of the 2016 Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program. “You are trying to make sure this person is a strong candidate. Once you have determined that they are, another part of the process is convincing the candidate they are prepared for the process.”
Members of the campus community can help St. Kate’s students uncover their own potential, Szymanski says, but it’s important for applicants to realize that this potential existed inside themselves all along.
Andrea Duarte ’19, a political science major and first generation college student, is a great example. She landed a prestigious Truman Scholarship in 2018.
“Andrea is a great example of a Katie with the potential to win these competitive fellowships,” Szymanski says. “[Center for Women director] Sharon Doherty and the Women’s Center staff worked with Andrea on her application for the Phillips Scholarship, which she received in 2017, and then told her about the Truman Scholarship. Sharon called me one day and said, ‘I think I have a candidate for you, but she doesn’t think she is one.’ It did not take long for Andrea to see her potential, but she needed encouragement from trusted faculty and staff.”
Once the candidate has committed to the application process, advisors like Adrian provide guidance throughout.
“You are trying to figure out how to translate a student’s knowledge and experiences into a one-page document that persuades a Fulbright committee that their entire life has been working up to this,” Adrian says. “If you are going to do it right, the advising process takes time and dedication. It is a pretty complicated application process. It is like holding a small seminar class in which you meet at least weekly with each student.”
As Thao moved through the Fulbright application process, she appreciated the close attention she received. “I had a lot of assistance from Mysee Chang. I also got a lot of help from Allison Adrian. These two became true mentors. They helped me hone my essays for the Fulbright program — plus, they provided me with a lot of emotional support.”
No matter what the ultimate result, Adrian sees the application as a growth experience for students.
“The overall goal is for them to get the Fulbright award,” she says, “but it also becomes a journey of growing self-awareness and self-knowledge about their capacities and what they want to do in life.”
She adds, “We are lucky to have a campus culture that prioritizes cultivating relationships with our students. Our work is to create more robust systems and structures within the University to make sure we are recruiting and supporting students who should be candidates for these competitive fellowships.”
Championing a supportive community
The spirit of collaboration is deeply rooted at St. Kate’s. The community naturally comes together to help one another, including when a student is competing for one of the world’s top scholarship programs. And that’s exactly what happened when it was announced that Maakwe Cumanzala ’19 had been selected as a Rhodes Scholarship finalist.
When a Rhodes applicant makes it to the final round, they must complete two important steps: a formal interview with a group of Rhodes panelists and, the night before the interview, a reception with the finalists and selection committee.
Once Cumanzala was announced as a finalist, Szymanski and the St. Kate’s community launched into action to help her prepare for the process.
“We hosted several mock interviews. A group of faculty and staff reviewed Maakwe’s application materials and then asked challenging questions,” Szymanski says. “We did the best we could to mimic what the actual interview would be like. I told participants that they couldn’t be the typical, supportive St. Kate’s staff and faculty. These interviews are challenging. We have to get our students ready.”
As part of the preparation process, Szymanski contacted alumna, Fulbright grantee, and Rhodes finalist Jordyn Arndt ’11 to see if she had any suggestions. “Jordyn told me that she had felt least prepared for the reception,” Szymanski says. “I realized that our students need to practice how to navigate this kind of situation [in addition to the other preparations they do].”
So, she organized a mock reception in the President’s Dining Room. “Faculty, staff, and members of our board of trustees were the guests at the mock reception,” Szymanski recalls. “I told them that they needed to be less than welcoming.”
At the reception, “Panelists are often in a closed circle,” Szymanski says. “Candidates need to figure out how to get into the conversation and leave the conversation.” The mock reception guests did their best to make it hard for Cumanzala, who passed their test with flying colors.
The mock-Rhodes process was “one of the most amazing experiences I have had at St. Kate’s,” Szymanski says. “To see our faculty, staff, leadership team, and Board of Trustees prepare for this was so heartening. The entire community comes together to support our students as they prepare for these novel experiences that are very stressful and high stakes.”
Cumanzala made it to the final round of the Rhodes Scholarship acceptance process, an impressive and arduous accomplishment. “Dr. Szymanski went above and beyond to make sure that I was prepared,” Cumanzala says. “She helped me understand that I was capable of going through the process and, whether I got it or not, I was still a phenomenal student. I am very grateful to her and the whole St. Kate’s community for their support throughout the process.”
“It was amazing,” Szymanski says. “Maakwe got so close, and in the process, she saw her true potential. We all came together for this amazing young woman, who is going to go so far. This is what these programs are all about.”
Impacting global change
St. Kate’s students have the exact qualities that competitive scholarship and fellowship selection committees look for in applicants. They seek applicants with a high GPA, community involvement, cultural competence, and compelling research or internship experiences.
“I go to a lot of the Fulbright conferences and meetings,” says Chang. “One of the things I’m always hearing is, ‘We don’t have enough students from underrepresented backgrounds or from the Midwest.’ They want to diversify the candidate pool and give more students opportunities.”
St. Kate’s students have those qualities in spades.
“We have really successful students,” Chang says. “Our curriculum puts our candidates at the top of the pool.” And since Fulbright is an international program, she adds, “One of the biggest skills we need in a crosscultural setting is to be able to work with people in a different cultural perspective. The curriculum at St. Kate’s encourages students to think outside of our American lens.”
Fulbright is also interested in candidates who are adaptable and bicultural, Adrian adds. “Some of our best-suited candidates are students who have parents who immigrated to the United States, because they grow up needing to navigate crossculturally. That’s exactly the kind of candidate that Fulbright is looking for. These scholars need to perform at a high level in different cultural contexts.”
Students who participate in competitive fellowship programs enhance their professional skills while also building their résumés, making them high-potential hires and graduate students. More than anything, these powerful opportunities allow St. Kate’s students to impact change.
“I haven’t met a student at St. Kate’s who said, ‘I want to do it because it will look good on my résumé,’” Szymanski says. “Our students say, ‘It’s important for me to help people and challenge oppressive systems.’ They want to help make the world a better place. These are exactly the kind of people that we need leading us into the future.”
Thao is a great example of the type of student Szymanski is describing. From the moment Thao heard she had received a Fulbright, she looked for ways to turn this experience into something larger than herself.
“As a Fulbright teaching assistant, I’ll be able to not only help students learn English, but they also will help me as well,” she says. “I’m prepared to be inspired by the people I meet — by my students and by the other people around me. This will be a real opportunity for me to make a difference in the world. I can’t wait to get started.”
by Andy Steiner, from St. Catherine University Magazine fall 2019 issue