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On Becoming a Marshall Scholar

by Zach Smith | University of Nebraska

F Posted in: College, Voices P Posted on: December 23, 2011
Zach-Smith2-250x200 Zach Smith

First of all, I want to start out with a short disclaimer. I was asked to write this by the editor-in-chief of NextGen Journal and am actually a bit uncomfortable doing it. If this piece comes off as self-congratulatory, it wasn’t intended that way. Because, in fact, that’s not at all how I feel. Winning a major scholarship leads one to focus not on his or her own accomplishment but on the help and assistance of others. I hope to describe below the process of applying and the components of a good application.

On Nov. 17 of this year, I sat at work stressing for hours. The day before, I traveled from Lincoln, Neb. to Chicago, Ill. and back for an interview at the British Consulate for a Marshall Scholarship. When I returned, I felt pleased with the interview, which centered primarily around my knowledge of the Middle East.

The thing is, with the two most famous British scholarships–the Rhodes, for study at Oxford, and the Marshall, for study at any British university–the committee lets you know, almost immediately, the status of your interview. For the Rhodes, the committee comes out at the end of the day, announces the two scholars, and sends everyone else home. For the Marshall, interviews take place over a two-day period, after which a member of the committee calls the winners; alternates and those not selected are notified by e-mail.

I knew from conversations with the coordinator at the Consulate that the interviews ended at 12:30 p.m. the day after my interview, and that phone calls were expected at about 4 p.m. Thus, without classes to distract me, I sat with stress levels rising from about 3:00 p.m. on. Finally, just before 4:00 p.m., the phone rang from a number I didn’t recognize.

My stomach twisted in knots–even though this could only be good news. I barely remember the details of that conversation or my walk from my office to that of my fellowship adviser. When I walked in to tell her the good news, my roommate (chatting with her about something) said my face was pale white. After a bout of screaming, I started to make calls, to my mother, father, grandmother, voice teacher–anyone who had any stake in the process.

Because, from the moment I heard, it really wasn’t about me. Success in these competitions is, frankly, not about the candidate. Sure, I put in hours doing this and that, prepared myself to apply, wrote the statement, and practiced for the interview. But around that path are a multitude of people without whom no candidate can succeed.

Take, for instance, my fellowship adviser, Prof. Laura Damuth. She and I have worked toward a Rhodes or a Marshall since my freshman year, but along the way something like a hundred of my personal statements must have crossed her desk, everything from study abroad scholarships, to the Truman Scholarship application, to the Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright. Without her there is no way I would have gotten an interview, let alone a scholarship.

My family’s support goes without saying, but without their 20 years of support, I would not have spent time abroad, done research, been a music major, funded college…well, I wouldn’t have done just about anything.

Bill Shomos, my voice teacher, was also integral to my success. Not many voice teachers can support their students the way Bill does. In freshman year, I dropped my music education major and was close to switching to a minor when Bill suggested a bachelor’s of arts. That turned out to be perfect–the degree allowed me add a political science major and take over 20 credits of Arabic, while graduating in four years. Through it all, Bill has been a rock I turned to again and again for advice and honesty–and finally for a letter of recommendation for the Marshall.

Of my four letters for the Marshall, I could not have had two without the confidence the National Council on US-Arab Relations showed in selecting me as an intern last summer. Through their program, I developed relationships with Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief of Al-Jazeera Arabic, and Dr. John Duke Anthony at the National Council. Without their support throughout the process, and their swift replies to both myself and my adviser, my application would have been rejected. I’m certain of that.

Another, my research mentor for three years, did yeoman’s work on this and literally every application I submitted. Prof. Michael Wagner in the department of Political Science worked closely with me on his own research and my independent research in Jordan. I joke with him that he must have over a hundred letters of recommendation written for me. That’s actually not an exaggeration.

So there are people who surround and guide you on the path to becoming a candidate. In addition to them are a myriad of organizations and employers that add depth and breadth to one’s application. In my own application, I highlighted Al-Jazeera Arabic, the UNL Young Democrats, political campaigns, the Daily Nebraskan (UNL’s student paper), and NextGen Journal, among others. An application without a rich set of organizations backing the applicant is no more than a sheet of paper.

International experience is important to winning a Marshall, or any postgraduate scholarship, in my opinion. No longer is it sufficient to sit inside the United States researching and working and studying. All college students should study abroad, and if I had my way, most would choose somewhere other than Western Europe. My seven months in Amman, Jordan shaped and colored my application and my life in incalculable ways and lent me stories for my interview.

You can find out the components of the Marshall Scholarship’s application in greater detail on their website, but let me detail them in brief here. An application consists of a narrative resume, preferred graduate programs in the United Kingdom, letters of recommendation, and three essays–a personal statement, description of the graduate program, and a “why the UK?” question. The Marshall is looking for people who will be good ambassadors between the USA and the UK–people who have a genuine desire not to just get a free education but serve both countries.

In your interview, questions are unpredictable. I came in prepared to answer questions about the Middle East–which I got–and random ones, like “What’s your opinion on stem cell research?” which I did not get. Being an interviewee itself is an honor: out of 204 applications in the Chicago region, only 25 are selected for interview. UNL was proud to have three interviewees this year, and I’m of the opinion that the other two deserved a Marshall, as well. While the winner gets the press release and the one-million-likes Facebook status, those selected for interview are bound to succeed and be tremendous leaders, as well. If they weren’t going to succeed, they wouldn’t have put the time and effort into applying.

Winning a scholarship like the Marshall, or the Rhodes, or the Fulbright, or others is far less about the person you are than the people who made you that person. My time in the UK will be amazing, and in studying Middle East Politics and Islamic Societies and Cultures I will gain the knowledge necessary to make a strong contribution to the US-Arab relationship. But behind every person there are a thousand others who deserve all the success and credit. Without these faceless people supporting a candidate, success isn’t even an option.

Zach Smith Zach Smith Zach Smith is a NGJ Voices Contributor and a MSc candidate in Middle East Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. In summer and fall 2010 and summer 2012, Zach studied Arabic and international relations in Amman, Jordan. He is a 2012 Marshall Scholar.

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