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April 01, 2011

Q&A: Wallach, Staff Aid Students' Quest for Scholarship

By Abby Houck

Stephanie Wallach and her staff love working closely with students. And students love working with them.

Wallach is assistant vice provost for undergraduate education and has directed the Fellowships and Scholarships Office and Undergraduate Research Office since 2006. Since that time she and her staff have helped CMU students acquire more than 30 prestigious fellowships and scholarships, such as the Fulbright, Goldwater, Churchill, Udall, Truman and Marshall.

The Piper visited with Wallach to find out more about the role she plays.

Stephanie WallachIn October, you were selected to participate in a two-week trip to Germany through a Fulbright International Educators Award. How has the experience helped you?

There was a great diversity of participants in this Fulbright opportunity, with 17 other administrators representing major research universities like the University of Pennsylvania to community colleges out West. Germany has a very rich research and higher education landscape, and it offers opportunities for our undergraduate research students and national fellowships.

There were a lot of different views of higher education, which present opportunities for our students. I learned about different university structures by visiting universities in Berlin and Leipzig. I also went with a group to Chemnitz University of Technology, which has grown tremendously but also struggles to attract students to its remote location. I also visited Universität der Bundeswehr München, outside of Munich, which primarily trains military officers and officer cadets.

How do you identify candidates for national and international awards?

We have so many fabulous students, but on a decentralized campus it is difficult to find students and for students to find us. It’s a combination of both an interest on the student’s part and making a good fit. We have worked very hard at developing better ways to figure out who these students are and also to let them know about us.

The first thing that we did was join together undergraduate research and national fellowships. They have been under one umbrella for a while, but they didn’t really function in a way that allowed them to draw on each other. Students who engage in undergraduate research now become part of the cohort of students that receives messages about scholarship opportunities.

We’ve developed the Odyssey program, which invites a select group of sophomores to participate in a three-day workshop before the spring semester. We also work closely with Student Affairs, the advising network, coaches, athletic directors and faculty members.

Who supports students through the application processes?

There is the staff at my office that includes Jennifer Keating-Miller, assistant director of undergraduate research and national fellowships, and Jen Weidenhof, our program coordinator. We also have Elisa Tragni Maloney, who is our Fulbright adviser and a part-time instructor in the Modern Languages Department. In addition, we draw on Therese Tardio, associate teaching professor in Modern Languages, and Chris Menand, study abroad coordinator in the Office of International Education, to help us find and prepare students for international awards.

We have made a very concerted effort to draw faculty directly into the process. For example, a campus committee must approve every Fulbright candidate. We bring in research and teaching faculty who have expertise in the areas of interest to the student. Faculty can comment substantively on the student’s application and also help him or her make connections and research placements abroad.

When students make it to the finalist rounds, which include interviews, we involve faculty and the Career and Professional Development Center’s consultants. I would say that it is genuinely a campus-wide effort.

How do scholarship winners share their experiences?

We are always looking for intersections where we can use the expertise of previous award winners to help current students. We often have them read the applications, and they advise students before they are interviewed. For example, we draw on the Truman experiences of alumni such as Terry Babcock-Lumish, Amy Cyphert, Cameron Brown and Amy Nichols.

Swati Varshey, who won the Churchill last year, spoke with Rebecca Krall about what to expect during phone interviews. Swati is in Cambridge this year and connected two of our finalists for the Gates-Cambridge Scholarship with pervious award winners she met abroad. Although our candidates did not win, being a finalist is a big deal.

What scholarship and fellowship announcements will take place soon?

We had 22 applicants for Fulbright scholarships this year, and 11 are finalists. The Fulbright is a good fit for us because it is research driven. This is the largest group of Fulbright finalists we’ve ever had, and I think it’s really a result of a better-managed process on our end. We’ve helped students determine country placements that fit their needs and interests. Students are now working substantively on their proposals over a longer period of time. The involvement of the faculty committees also has translated into more Carnegie Mellon finalists.

We also are waiting to hear the results of the Udall Scholarship selection.

What are some recent additions to the URO regarding programs and funding opportunities?

We are continuing the Semiconductor Research Corporation Undergraduate Research Opportunities (SRC-URO) program. We have 12 students
conducting semiconductor and information technology research in the program. It starts in the second semester of the sophomore year, continues through the summer and concludes at the end of the junior year.

We continue to have interest in I-SURG, which is the International Small Undergraduate Research Grant program. Students already planning to study abroad propose research projects to conduct either while they are abroad or when they return.

In addition, we have the Jennings Brave Family Companions Fund. Larry Jennings, a trustee at Carnegie Mellon, has created this opportunity to support students who may not have the resources to go abroad in the summer. He is especially interested in students who want to go to underdeveloped countries. H&SS sophomores Prisca Ohito and Kimberly Josephson are this year’s recipients.

Can you give us a sneak peak at Meeting of the Minds?

It’s so hard to choose, because there are so many great projects.

We funded a SURG in Spring 2010 for Pigpen, a group of seven acting students who performed in New York last summer. They have spent the past two years exploring how to create highly atmospheric theater using shadow play, simple lighting effects, puppetry, live music and group music.

There’s also a research project in computer science on robot soccer.

Another student, Rebecca Potash, researched inkjet electronics with Vice President for Research Rick McCullough. She became a contributing member of an entrepreneurial spinoff, and she is learning about patents and business start-up methods.

CIT student Heather Dolan did research on DNA sequencing with Professor James Schneider, and she’s about to have a potential article in Science based on her findings in the lab. Kelly Bescherer is working with History Professor Donna Harsch to explore the feminist squatting movement in Germany in the late ’70s and the early ’80s.

Finally, Rachel Inman worked on a design project called “My City, My Block,” which advances design solutions for public spaces in Pittsburgh. CFA faculty members Donald Carter, Dylan Vitone and Joshua Welsh supported her project.

Stephanie Wallach has directed the fellowships and scholarships and Undergraduate Research offices since 2006.

Stellar Scholars

Stephanie Wallach’s team advises students throughout the application process for national and international fellowships and scholarships. Her team has celebrated the success of nine award winners this academic year and is awaiting the results of the Udall competition and additional Fulbright announcements.

So far this academic year, winners include:
Rebecca Krall, MCS senior
Churchill Scholarship

Mackenzie Smith, H&SS senior
Luce Scholarship

John Cooper, H&SS senior
German Chancellor’s Award

Jane Herriman, H&SS/MCS senior (Science and Humanities Scholar)
Fulbright Scholarship
to Switzerland

Eda Akyar, H&SS/MCS senior (Science and Humanities Scholar)
Fulbright Scholarship
to Indonesia

Marianna Sofman, CIT senior  
DAAD Scholarship
Fulbright Scholarship
to Germany

Benjamin Cowley, CIT junior
Goldwater Scholarship

Stephanie Guerra,
H&SS/MCS junior (Science
and Humanities Scholar)
Goldwater Scholarship

Robert Tisherman, CIT junior
Goldwater Scholarship