By Leigh Brown Perkins
For anyone who envisions a collection of full-ride scholarship students as a nerd parade, the Cornell Scholars are shockingly…well…cool.
Rock stars, actors, world travelers, hard-core runners, alternative music DJs, political activists, fraternity and sorority members—all rank among the elite few chosen to be Cornell Scholars. Of course, they all happen to be serious academics, as well, conducting world-class research in everything from astrophysics to anthropology.
Now in its fifth year, the Cornell Scholars program is supported by a gift from the late George D. Cornell ’35 ’85H. Each year, it provides up to 10 full scholarships, including tuition and room and board, renewable each year, for a value of more than $180,000. Scholars must maintain a 3.6 GPA and live on campus all four years, and are invited to enroll in the Honors Degree Program. They are also mentored in the application process for external awards like Rhodes and Truman Scholarships.
It is, as Cornell Scholar Eric Bindler ’09 says, “a sweet deal.”
Potential Cornell Scholars do not apply for the award, but are selected from the general applicant pool. Typically, qualifying students have high school GPAs higher than 3.6, with a challenging course load, and combined SAT scores higher than 1420 or ACT composites higher than 32. Once these criteria narrow the field to 75 possible candidates, it’s time for the Cornell Scholars Competition Weekend.
Held in the spring, the Competition brings all of the candidates (and their parents) together on campus for a full-immersion college experience. Mock discussion-based classes are held. Intensive interviews take place with faculty members, current Cornell Scholars, and admission staff. Essays are written, to be graded by professors. “These high-achieving students love competition,” said Provost Roger Casey. “They grew up watching Survivor on TV and they get really charged up by the notion of having to win their spot. It is a very effective format.”
Candidates know they need to make themselves memorable, so they come prepared, mannerly, and perhaps a little suspicious. “Everything was being judged—just pure scrutiny—so you knew you had to leave your mark with everyone you interacted with,” said Scholar Christian Kebbel ’12. “I made the joke that I was sure someone would pull the fire alarm in our hotel in the middle of the night, so anyone who made the mistake of coming down on the elevator could be crossed off the list.”
In truth, the weekend is not designed to set students up to fail, but to see where they succeed. Debra Wellman, who coordinated the last two competitions in her role as associate dean of the faculty, said high marks are given to students who ask thoughtful questions, have read the assignment, and behave respectfully to other students.
“What we’re looking for during the competition is young people who have a passion to make a difference,” Casey said. “These are the 10 best academic change agents.”
Crucial to the program’s success is not only the quality of the applicants, but also the enthusiasm of the faculty. More than 50 professors volunteer for the Competition Weekend. “Seeing the interaction with the professors, knowing they would be accessible, that was the main thing that made me realize Rollins was the right fit for me,” said Scholar Jessica Duran ’11.
Jay Shivamoggi, director of external and competitive scholarships, said the faculty is also essential to providing Cornell Scholars with support as they apply for academic awards such as Fulbright and Truman Scholarships. She organizes faculty interview panels and keeps track of the required faculty recommendations (and attendant deadlines) for Cornell Scholars applying for prestigious awards.
“All of the Cornell Scholars have gotten this far because they are very special people, but they are also very modest,” she said. Often, even the highest-achieving students limit themselves, believing certain awards or graduate programs are too competitive to attempt. Shivamoggi’s job is to reassure them that their academic future doesn’t end with their Rollins degree. “In our very first meeting, I ask them not to tell me about their goals, but to tell me about their dreams. Once I know what they’re passionate about, that’s when I start to push them relentlessly toward their dream, challenging them to take every opportunity this campus provides, to apply for prestigious scholarships, to think big about what programs they should pursue. Many times, even Cornell Scholars don’t know how good they are, how special they are. If they don’t try, they’ll never know, but if they try and succeed, the rewards are amazing.”
Obviously, providing full rides to 10 students every year is an expensive endeavor. But the returns are manifold. The Competition Weekend draws many more qualified students than there are awards, but it is so engaging and well executed that many of the also-ran candidates end up enrolling at Rollins, scholarship or not. In fact, according to Casey, before the Cornell Scholars program, Rollins enrolled less than 20 percent of the highest-achieving applicants. In the first year of the Competition, the yeses from top-tier applicants came in at 57 percent. “It’s legitimate to say we have doubled our yield rate on high-achieving students,” he said.
Recent graduate Joseph Bromfield ’09 believes the program is profitable in both directions. “As much as I benefited from the Cornell Scholarship,” he said, “the College also benefits immeasurably from having a dedicated core of scholars excelling in their chosen fields.”
Casey agrees, saying that Scholars add something “infectious” to the learning environment and are likely to be patrons of the College later in life. Attracting top-level students, he said, is no different than offering scholarships to talented athletes. “If you are on a mission to enhance the academic quality and national visibility of an institution, you have to find and attract those students who represent the best of the best.”