Linking Research
and Fellowships

We spoke to two of the driving forces behind the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships: Dr. Arthur Casciato, the center’s director, and Dr. Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’72 GM’73, the provost. What follows is an edited version of those two separate conversations.


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Snagging the Big Scholarships

Maybe it was just a coincidence that a pair of Penn students won a Rhodes Scholarship and a Marshall Scholarship last fall, a few months after the new Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF) opened. After all, both Lipika Goyal (Rhodes) and Ari Alexander (Marshall) are highly qualified and engaging students with a proven commitment to research and helping others. They got their scholarships the old-fashioned way: they earned them.

Lipika Goyal and Ari Alexander: Shooting for the stars.

    But the fact is that, despite the very high quality of its student body, Penn has traditionally lagged behind its peers when it comes to these prestigious fellowships—both in the number of applicants and in the number of winners. And while winning was not the main reason for launching the center—which is located in the Arts, Research and Culture House (ARCH) at 3601 Locust Walk—Provost Robert Barchi Gr’72 M’72 GM’73 cheerfully acknowledged that he would “certainly consider it a measure of success if we had more students winning the Rhodes and Marshall.”
    Dr. Arthur Casciato, CURF’s director, was pleasantly astonished by the instant double win, noting that only one other time in the University’s history —1983—had that happened.
    “I think what it signals is that we can do much better in these kinds of prestigious international competitions,” he adds. “This year has proved that the only thing that keeps Penn from winning these things with the same regularity as their peers is that Penn students don’t apply. It’s simply a matter of numbers—not ability, talent, desire or anything else.”
    Goyal, he points out, is the 16th Rhodes Scholar to come from Penn. Harvard, by contrast, has produced 289 Rhodes Scholars; Yale, 203. Only eight Penn students applied for the Marshall and the Rhodes this year. Compare that to Harvard, which averages between 80 to 100 applications for the Rhodes, or Cornell, which has “something like 60,” and one can see why Casciato sees a lot of untapped potential at Penn.
    “I know there are more talented people out there,” he said. But if they don’t apply, they won’t fly.
    “What’s the saying? ‘If you shoot for the stars, you land on the moon?’” said Goyal, a senior from Scotch Plains, New Jersey, majoring in the biological basis of behavior. “Everyone should apply. You just never know. Someone’s got to win it.”
    And, she emphasized: “Even if you don’t win a Rhodes, there’s no losing. You learn so much. You’re still a winner if you go through the process.”
    Goyal’s goal of improving healthcare to children in developing countries was given an additional boost by Penn’s University Scholarships program, which funded summer trips to Ghana (investigating malaria and sickle-cell anemia) and New Delhi (studying zinc deficiency and the feasibility of a national program to distribute zinc supplements). “That’s been an enormous part of my success at Penn,” she says of the program, and a “big part of my trajectory towards the Rhodes.”
    Her own interest in medicine was developed “in utero,” she says wryly, noting that her mother is a doctor, as are a number of her friends. “Medicine turns on something inside of me that nothing else does.”
    In addition to being a Benjamin Franklin Scholar, a writing advisor, and a Pennquest leader—not to mention a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania—Goyal is also president of the John Morgan Pre-Health Society. “That’s been great, because you get to reach a lot of pre-health students,” she says. “The only reason I got to where I am is through talking to people who’ve been through what I’ve been through. A lot of people have helped me along the way”—including her parents, Casciato, and Clare Cowen, CURF’s associate director for international fellowships.
    Goyal intends to pursue a two-year master’s degree in developmental studies, which includes the economics, politics, history and social anthropology of developing countries, though she concedes that there’s a “slight chance” that she might stretch that into the three-year doctorate. She also plans to apply to medical school after her stint in Oxford, and acknowledges that she
has no idea where she will ultimately find herself.

    “I think these two years at Oxford are going to be very telling and direction-giving years, because I’ll be studying a lot of major issues in the developing world,” she says, adding that where she ends up depends on “where I can make the most change.”
    Unlike Goyal, Alexander, a senior American history major from Providence, Rhode Island, was not a member of the fellowship scene at Penn. But like her, his driving urge is to help people, and he has been deeply involved in campus organizations devoted to increasing dialogue between different ethnic groups. After spending a semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and working on a kibbutz for half a year doing research on Palestinian refugees, Alexander helped start a dialogue group of Arabs and Jews on campus and another cross-cultural group called Confronting Cultural Issues on Campus; he also co-chaired Alliance and Understanding, a group devoted to bringing together the African-American and Jewish communities on campus. He also served as the undergraduate student representative to President Rodin’s Affirmative Action Council, and as a student consultant to the Penn Public Talks Project.
    It was after working as a counselor at a summer camp for Israeli and Palestinian youth that he first thought about applying for a fellowship—although he originally planned to apply for a Fulbright.
    “My idea was to look at all the organizations that are bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, and find out which are effective and which ones aren’t, and why not,” he recalls. It would be independent research, supervised by professors, and when he went to meet with Cowen about applying, she suggested he shoot for a Rhodes instead. After thinking about it some more, he decided to apply for the Marshall, which “allows you to choose any school in the UK rather than Oxford,” where he did not especially want to go. When he found a program in comparative ethnic conflict at The Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland, he applied for it. In fact, he also won another scholarship—the Mitchell, which would have sent him to Ireland or Northern Ireland for a year—but opted for the Marshall because of its two-year grant.
    “My courses will only be for three nights a week,” he explains. “I’ll also be interning for a human-rights non-profit, and working as a bartender or waiter, and also going out at night to the music scene and theater. I think that overall that will be better than just sitting in the library every day.”
    After he finishes the one-year program in Belfast, Alexander is considering either a one-year program in modern Middle Eastern studies at Oxford or a master’s in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. Or he might decide to stay in Belfast and do a second one-year program at Queen’s University.
    “My emphasis is on wanting to understand more ways to help people,” he says. “Because of my background and my interests, I’ll probably end up doing that in the Middle East, but theoretically, I could end up somewhere else.”
    “Ari’s commitment to the resolution of conflict in the Middle East is the focus of his life,” says Casciatio, “but in some ways he has genuine questions of himself: ‘Should I be going to school, or should I be going to the Middle East to try to do something in a hands-on way?’ I think he’s honestly answered the question for himself that he needs to know more to be as effective as he can be.”
    Winning the scholarship, Alexander admits, “hasn’t sunk in at all.” (When he got the call telling him he had won, he thought it was a joke.) “It was a strange experience—everyone around is more excited and happy than you are. You feel kind of dazed, wondering what’s going on, or if you deserve it, but everyone in your world—your professors, your friends, your family—are going nuts. So I don’t really feel like I’ve internalized it. I have started to think about it a lot, how much I’m going to miss friends and family, but at the same time how excited I am about the opportunity.”


Penn graduates, “especially recent ones,” are also eligible to apply for many scholarships, points out Clare Cowen, CURF’s associate director for international fellowships. “In fact, Penn graduates often make compelling candidates because of their additional work and life experiences.” Among those for which some alumni will be eligible are the Rhodes, Marshall, Luce, Mitchell, Churchill, Fulbright, Thouron and Gates Cambridge. Contact her at <ccowen@pobox.upenn.edu> or check out (http://www.upenn.edu/curf/administeredbyCURF.html).


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