Duke Spotlight: Connecting Bright Minds with Unique Opportunities

Office of University Scholars and Fellows helps students blaze brilliant paths forward

OUSF team

The Merit Scholarship Program oversees the selection and administration of several scholarship programs that provide funds for tuition and enrichment opportunities for Duke students. These programs, which the OUSF team helps manage, include the David M. Rubenstein Scholarship for first-generation college students, the Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholarship for students with African heritage, and the Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship for students from North or South Carolina.

Meanwhile, the Nationally Competitive Scholarship Program helps identify and support students who are candidates for a wide range of prestigious scholarships from beyond Duke, such as the Rhodes Scholarship and Marshall Scholarship, which allow students to study in the United Kingdom, or the Truman Scholarships, which provides financial support and enrichment opportunities for students aspiring for careers in public service. 

Since 2015, when OUSF created the Nationally Competitive Scholarship Program, Duke students have earned more than 150 competitive scholarships such as Rhodes ScholarshipsMarshall ScholarshipsTruman ScholarshipsGates Cambridge ScholarshipsMitchell ScholarshipsSchwarzman ScholarshipsGoldwater ScholarshipsGaither Junior Fellowships and Fulbright Scholarships.

“It’s such a privilege to work with these students,” Office of University Scholars and Fellows Executive Director Karen Weber said. “We have some pretty significant 21st-century challenges, but I sleep better knowing that these students are on it. They are so committed to their fields and asking the big questions.”

How they make a difference: Members of the OUSF team are quick to point out that any merit or nationally competitive scholarship awarded to a Duke student is the result of that student’s hard work. However, the OUSF team does play a supporting role.

Mark Dudley and a graduating student.

For nationally competitive scholarships, the application process is long and involved, often featuring personal essays, letters of recommendation, selection committee interviews and important deadlines. Once a student has enlisted the help of the OUSF in their quest for a scholarship, team members guide them through the process, ensuring needed materials are included, deadlines are met and the ideas they choose to put forward for what they’d like to do with the scholarship opportunity are sharp and compelling. With the application process for prestigious scholarships involving self-reflection and high probability of falling short, the OUSF team plays the role of cheerleader, encouraging students to take the risk.

“We talk a lot about making yourself vulnerable and what it means to be courageous and willing to try something that may not work out,” said Director of Nationally Competitive Scholarships Gwen Volmar. “The process may be hard and involve heartache and fear, but it’s worth it.”

And for team members who work with merit scholarships, which, in many cases, are awarded to deserving students before they arrive at Duke, a satisfying part is seeing how the students grow over their four years at Duke.

“It’s such a joy, these students keep us young, they keep us engaged,” said Director of Merit Scholarship Programs Mark Dudley. They always come up with new, exciting and challenging experiences they want to take on, and opportunities they want to build into their college career. It’s our job to help them do that, so it’s really a lot of fun.”

Significant achievement: Any year that a Duke student earns a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, there’s reason to celebrate. But in 2018, when three Duke students were named Rhodes scholars – there were just 32 Rhodes Scholarships given that year – the celebration was especially sweet.

Senior Program Coordinator Carla Burkhard remembers that giddy period when team members celebrated the students’ accomplishment with a champagne toast led by Duke University President Vincent Price.

“It was so much fun,” Burkhard said. “Everyone was so happy for the students.”

Karen Weber speaking.

Big goal: While many students who receive merit scholarships or apply for nationally competitive scholarships are brought to the attention of the OUSF team by Undergraduate Admissions, faculty members or the ambitious students themselves, there’s always the chance that some students who could earn horizon-expanding opportunities may slip through.

That’s why the OUSF team spends plenty of time with campus outreach, holding information sessions for different scholarship opportunities and the weekly “Fellowships at 4:00” each Monday, giving students a chance to meet informally with OUSF team members about opportunities which may fit their goals. 

“We want to make sure that the students who may not be on our radar yet are aware of what we do,” Weber said.

Hidden fact: When students succeed in earning a nationally competitive scholarship, it’s certainly reason to celebrate. But the OUSF team has found that even in attempts that fall short, students often find value.

“Going through the process, students learn a lot about themselves,” Weber said. “They ask ‘Why is this my major? Why am I choosing this field of study? Why do I want to be a lawyer or a doctor?’ It crystallizes their plans and helps them be more informed moving forward whether they win the award or not.”

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