Good Fellows

Effort to groom top students pays off

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Brian Soucek could not help but feel a little taken aback when, a day after he arrived as a freshman, his faculty advisor - College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program Director Mark O'Connor - suggested he think about obtaining a Rhodes Scholarship.

"I had to laugh a little," recalled Soucek, now a senior. "I mean, I was supposed to start thinking about post-graduate study, when I hadn't even met my freshman year roommate yet."

Yet Soucek came to realize the wisdom of O'Connor's prompting, and it helped him to earn a Mellon Fellowship in Humanistic Studies this spring. "Even as I focused on what I wanted to study at BC," Soucek explained, "he wanted me to be open to the possibilities farther ahead. He also wanted me to know there would be people around to help me sort through those possibilities."

Soucek's story is the kind Boston College likes to tell: A student attaining a prestigious fellowship with support and encouragement from faculty. The tale has become an increasingly familiar one in recent years, as the number of BC undergraduate and graduate students earning major scholarship and grant awards has reached an unprecedented level, with 20 this year alone .

Administrators credit the efforts of the three-year-old University Fellowships Committee and its director, Prof. Donald Hafner (Political Science), to groom students for the fellowships process. The impact goes beyond students' resumes, they note, with implications for Boston College's institutional and academic aspirations.

Prof. Donald Hafner (Political Science) is the UFC director.
"Ultimately, a Fulbright, Mellon or other competitive fellowship is the individual's achievement," said Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties William B. Neenan, SJ, "but all boats are lifted. It is a positive reflection on Boston College when our students are able to pursue successfully these major awards. Providing students the necessary support to realize these opportunities is critical, therefore, and we are seeing that begin to happen."

"These fellowships have become instrumental to, and symbolic of, our goal of becoming a more international university," said College of Arts and Sciences Dean J. Robert Barth, SJ. "We needed an infrastructure to identify and nurture students, and give them skills and support to obtain fellowships. The UFC is certainly accomplishing this."

"The potential has always been there," said Hafner. "To move from occasional success to this level requires ongoing support, in a way that encourages a close faculty-student relationship. There are a lot of things about the post-graduate world an underclassman cannot know and the faculty member can offer this knowledge."

Hafner praises the work of his predecessor, Prof. Michael Resler (Germanic Studies), as well as a network of faculty who can respond to, or even spot, students interested in fellowships. He added that the University's increased emphasis on foreign study has spurred interest in fellowships, and that programs such as the Undergraduate Research Fellows have helped single out students with the right academic and personal qualities.

"What's important, again, is the faculty-student rapport," he said, "whether it's a student's advisor, departmental sponsor, program coordinator, or someone they simply regard as a mentor. In helping students with their applications, that person can also enable them to develop a well-rounded outlook on college and its role in their lives. We've gotten letters from students who were unsuccessful in getting fellowships, but felt the process was the best thing that had ever happened to them."

Soucek felt he benefited enormously from his association with O'Connor, and later Hafner, during his attempts to win a fellowship. Though he fell just short of becoming BC's first Rhodes Scholar, Soucek said Hafner's help was a prime reason why he was a national finalist for the award.

"I'm not used to revising papers and this is where [Hafner] really helped," Soucek said. "I must have gone through seven drafts. There were so many things BC had enabled me to do, but he told me I had to show that I was the one who seized the initiative. He helped me to say this in a way that was forceful without bragging."

Hafner feels there are many other Brian Souceks now, or soon to be, among the student population who are capable of landing Fulbrights, Mellons, Trumans - and, eventually, a Rhodes. He notes that the UFC will have a full-time professional next year to coordinate its activities, which could mean an even larger yield of fellowships by 1999.

"It's clear we can do this - succeed at a high level," he said. "The challenge is to find the students who are the most promising, who have the ambition and drive. That is a task for which our faculty are eminently suited, and well-needed."

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