Fellowship office finds success
Arthur Casciato, director of the Office of Distinguished Fellowships, came to Rutgers University seven years ago to help students apply for and win fellowships, ranging from the prestigious Goldwater to the ambassadorial Fulbright.
While the specifics differ from one award to the next, Casciato said his job is to help applicants find the fellowship that is right for them and evaluate the odds and strategies necessary to succeed.
“It isn’t a matter of me somehow acting like some kind of rainmaker at the 11th hour,” he said. “They fit into something, and we have to find that fit. I really believe the biggest part of my job is recruitment and encouragement to try.”
Casciato keeps two large white boards in his office in order to track applicants, nominees, finalists and winners of the various fellowships he coaches people for. The majority of that coaching goes into perfecting personal statements.
“The two main things about winning a fellowship are the fit between you and the fellowship and … your ability to articulate a coherent trajectory for yourself,” he said. “You have to be able to address the priorities of the fellowship you are applying for, but you also have to make sense to them.”
The articulation of the applicant’s self is where he helps the most by getting hands on with applicants’ personal statements and tailoring strategies based on the nature of the award in question.
Since Casciato’s arrival at the University, the success rate of applicants has dramatically increased. He said the credit was due to the creation of his office, and having one person whose only job is to keep tabs on fellowships is immensely beneficial.
Not only has Rutgers won its first Mitchell fellowship, but the University has also won both the Luce and Truman awards two years running, as well as seen a nearly 900 percent increase in the number of secured Fulbrights, he said.
“For the past four years, Rutgers has been listed among the top producers of Fulbrights in the country, and last year we were [the third highest],” he said. “The first year that I came [to Rutgers] we won four Gates-Cambridge scholarships and tied Harvard.”
The Luce Award Program places winners in professional positions in Asia while the Truman Scholarship provides winners with $30,000 for post-graduate study in public service, according to the Rutgers Undergraduate Academic Affairs website.
Casciato said it is difficult for a state school to tie an Ivy League school in the number of fellowships won and added that the University has secured seven Gates Cambridge scholarships, which allow fellows to study at Cambridge University, in the last seven years. In the seven years before that, Rutgers had only secured one.
Casciato said the watermark in his career has been the achievement of two ex-offenders, Walter Fortson and Ben Chin, who came to his office through the Mountainview Project for ex-convicts. Both went on to win the Truman fellowship back to back.
“I’ve been doing this now for 14 years both at Penn and Rutgers, but the high point for me has been Walter and Ben’s Trumans and now, Ben’s Luce,” he said. “It’s been really rewarding watching these two guys get the chances they deserve.”
David Kolchmeyer, a School of Arts and Sciences senior who has won the Goldwater scholarship and the Churchill scholarship, said the fellowships place a high emphasis on research and the potential for a candidate to do research in the future.
“Both scholarships are looking for people who tend to get Ph.D.s, and I would say first and foremost, research and academic ability,” he said.
The Goldwater scholarship finances education in general while the Churchill fellowship provides a full ride to Cambridge University.
Kolchmeyer studies high-energy physics, which attempts to determine nature’s most fundamental building blocks. His current research project involves analyzing data from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, for the Large Hadron Collider.
“We’re looking for things that could validate proposed extensions to the current model,” he said.
He attributes his achievements to his research project.
Musa Ahmad, an alumnus, said he was unaware of the multitude of fellowships available to him during his time at Rutgers.
“I really would have liked to know more about the [fellowships,]” he said. “I would have applied and then, who knows, maybe it would have paid off.”
Ahmad said after he has worked in the real world for some time, he might revisit the idea.
“I would consider giving it a shot now. Just because I graduated doesn’t mean I haven’t given thought to continuing my education somewhere down the road. A fellowship could be a huge help in doing that,” he said.
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