Win or Lose, Applying for Scholarships Is Rewarding

Learning a new language, exploring a career path, securing the resources to fund a community service program or research project. Living in a foreign country, pursuing a master’s degree before hitting the job market, finding one’s place in a cohort of interesting people. The impact of winning a scholarship or fellowship is often enormous, opening up opportunities and alleviating the expense of pursuing them. Every year, many Cal undergraduates and recent alums win such support from private foundations and government programs dedicated to making seemingly unattainable dreams possible.

Who are these winners? Some, like transfer student Aurora Lopez (’21), nearly dropped out of high school and never dreamed they’d go to college. Aurora, a Political Science major, is a 2021–22 winner of both a Critical Language Scholarship to learn Arabic this summer and a Gardner Public Service Fellowship that will match her with a senior-level mentor on either the Foreign Relations Committee or in the Department of State for an academic year. Aurora admits she wrestled for years with “imposter syndrome,” but she gradually found the confidence to put herself out there (and get rejected a lot) without taking it personally. “The worst thing that can happen is that they say ‘no,’” she has concluded.

Bioengineering major Anthony Neil Tan (’23) started the Maker Hub Club (now Student Makers) as a high school senior in SoCal. That club is now a student-led nonprofit that provides hands-on kits and workshops on 3D printing, hydroponic gardening, and Arduino programming to students at ten underserved high schools. Winning a 2021–22 Strauss Scholarship will enable Anthony to expand the organization’s reach and provide mini-grants to more budding scientists and engineers. He says applying for the scholarship was a valuable opportunity to condense his own journey and his day-to-day knowledge of the organization into an accessible narrative. In the application, Anthony simply aimed to convey his passionate commitment to the project. “Maybe the committee liked that I would be doing the project with or without the scholarship,” he reflects on being ask why he thinks he won.

Then there’s Charlotte “Three’s-a-Charm” McClelland (’22), who applied for a Critical Language Scholarship to study Arabic twice without success—the first time as a freshman—before finally winning this year. “I barely won off the waiting list,” she notes with self-deprecating humor, “probably because someone declined the offer since this year the program will be taught remotely, rather than in Oman.” Charlotte has applied for other scholarships as well while at Cal—sometimes with success, often not. The application process, win or lose, has made her “better at advocating for [her]self, which is an important life skill, and not something [she has] always been comfortable doing.” Her advice to students interested in applying for scholarships? “Do it!—It’s nerve-wracking but rewarding, even if you don’t win.”

Alex Zhao (’21) agrees that the process of trying to connect the dots of your life and narrate your experiences is one of the main benefits of the self-reflexive application process. Although he has won a Schwarzman Scholarship that will enable him to earn an M.A. in Global Studies at Tsinghua University starting this fall, Alex maintains that he “wasn’t particularly qualified—not the kind of person who wins that sort of thing.” He didn’t win all of the competitions he entered, but he is heading to Beijing in a few months (or studying remotely, if necessary) to join a diverse cohort of peers interested in developing their leadership skills and deepening their understanding of China’s role in today’s world. 

Naveen Durvasula (’23, winner of a Goldwater Scholarship for STEM undergrads) and Ramil Mercado (’19, winner of a Critical Language Scholarship to study Indonesian) learned about these, and other, funding opportunities from their research mentors and instructors at Cal. Faculty and fellow students are excellent resources for information on the many programs offering merit-based financial support. Naveen and Ramil also gained the confidence to apply, as well as constructive feedback on their personal essays, from advisor Alicia Hayes in the Prestigious Scholarships Office. Alicia’s fundamental advice? ““You are the expert on you and what you know.” Bottom line: it’s better to be accepted for who you are than to be accepted for who you’re not.

Two unsuccessful applications in the 2020–21 application cycle taught Blue Fay (’20) “a great deal about self-doubt, procrastination, the beauty of revision, and the value of starting early.” But, he is “genuinely grateful for those early failures because they helped [him] correct paths and steer [him]self toward the field that [he] really love[s]. This year, Blue was selected as a Yenching Scholar and also won a Critical Language Scholarship to study Chinese. He recognizes that the process of applying was itself “an incredible ‘writer’s workshop’” that “shored up [his] self-confidence and validated [his] career interests in world literature and creative writing.” The process of applying, he says, “gave [him] a new language to talk about [his] own hopes, dreams, and research interests—and to present them as actual career goals rather than undergraduate passion projects.” 

So, where do you spend your time and energy in meaningful ways? What interests and ideas do you wish you could have the opportunity to pursue? Are there issues bigger than yourself that you feel connected to because of your personal experiences? Do you want to gain insight from others and learn more about the world? Every one of the students profiled here—and many more who, like them, had no idea whether their applications would be successful—would encourage you to spend a little time researching funding opportunities you might be eligible for. And then, they would say, be brave, put yourself out there, and see what happens.

The Prestigious Scholarships Office manages the Scholarships Connection website (https://scholarships.berkeley.edu/), UC Berkeley's clearinghouse for information on scholarships that are funded by sources outside the University. The office also administers the application process for the prestigious scholarships described at http://scholarships.berkeley.edu/overview and offers individual advising and occasional workshops on selecting recommenders, preparing compelling personal statements, interviewing, and developing project proposals or proposed programs of study. You can read more about this year’s winners here.