Q&A: Art Casciato

Art Casciato

The director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships brings the same determination to the scholarship competition that Penn's coaches bring to sports. It has already made a difference.

Photo by Mark Stehle

The first class of American Rhodes Scholars enrolled at Oxford University 100 years ago.

Since then, Penn has won very few of the prestigious scholarships compared to its Ivy siblings—15 as opposed to Harvard’s 300, for instance.

Why? One reason was that our peer institutions organized and focused on preparing their students for this unusual competition that includes not only personal essays and formal interviews but also even a test of a student’s ability to carry off cocktail party small talk.

That changed four years ago, when the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF) was established with Art Casciato as the director. Since opening an office on the second floor of the ARCH, Casciato and his staff of five have engineered a remarkable turnaround in Penn fortunes, not only for Rhodes Scholarships, but also for Marshall Scholarships, which also fund study in Great Britain, and numerous other less well-known awards for graduate study here and aboard.

Casciato, a South Philly native with several careers under his belt—tenured professor of English at Miami University in Ohio, concierge at a high-rise condominium complex in Seattle and House Dean at Harrison College House—brings a unique customer-service focus to his job.

With the announcement that David Ferreira C’04 had become Penn’s second Rhodes Scholar since CURF was founded, it seemed like a good time to talk to Casciato and learn the secrets of his success.

Q. What are the major awards that you administer?
There is a very clear hierarchy. The two that get the most attention for better or worse are Rhodes and Marshall. At a very basic level, the reason is that statistically they are the hardest to win.

There are only 32 U.S. Rhodes given out a year. [For the record, Ferreira won as a resident of Bermuda.] There are about 1000 to 1100 applications for that. They are the best of the best and it is a very rigorous competition.

Marshall’s numbers are not dissimilar. There are 40 Marshalls named every year and there are 800 to 900 people competing. But a lot of the awards bring similar benefits. Most of them are for graduate study abroad, mainly in the U.K. There is also the local Thouron Award, that only Penn students can win, that goes to any school in the U.K. and is very similar to a Marshall.

We also do Fulbrights. That is the one we have that is truly international. The applicants are about 50-50 between graduating seniors and graduate students. Penn’s never had much problem with Fulbrights—the first Fulbright ever came from Penn.

Q. What has been the most difficult part of your job?
We are in the business of changing a small part of the culture at Penn. The reason Penn has not done as well as one might expect given the stature of the University, given the abilities of its students and given the prestige of its faculty is the simple fact that people at Penn don’t apply for these awards. Culturally, Penn tends to have a pre-professional fast track and people, not just in Wharton, not just in Engineering, not just in Nursing, but also in the College, tend to get out of here and take a job.

Our job is to get people to slow down a bit—to realize that the big payoff is not irreconcilable with a year or two of experience abroad and seasoning and the kind of thinking that goes into this particular process.

I really think that more and more what we do here in terms of fellowships is really part of an educational process, an opportunity that comes to our very best students at the end of four years. It demands an introspection and the kind of thinking that an application for a job or even graduate school doesn’t. There is a kind of assessment of self, a kind of taking into account the trajectory of one’s life that students rarely get a chance to do.

If they have success with the interview process and the experience of traveling around presenting themselves to a group of fairly distinguished strangers, that experience too can be something to learn from.

Q. How do you measure success?
One way to suggest that we have been successful is to point to the increase in the number of applications. In our first year, we hit the ground running and had seven applications for Rhodes. In any given year, Harvard, for example—and they set the benchmark—will have anywhere from 80 to 120 applications that they cull down to 40 to 50 that they are going to endorse institutionally. Last year we had 41; that is more in keeping and was right there with Harvard, Yale and Princeton. We felt like we got were we needed to be. The same thing applies to Marshalls.

In the four years we have been around, we have won every award that we administer, and most we have won at least twice. We are looking for consistency from year to year. There is no way we are going to make up for 100 years, but from the moment CURF was established, we have begun to win what I think is our absolutely fair share. There is no trick to it. It is just recruitment, practice, support and building a sense that we are all in this together—faculty, administration and students.

Q. What is the faculty’s responsibility?
We have moved away from reliance on faculty to push people forward. My job is to reach out and identify people. What I have tried to do is acknowledge the hard work of the faculty and staff that goes into writing these things. At the end of every fellowship year, we painstakingly note every recommendation written for a student for any award in our office and then we write every person a thank-you note. These faculty recommendations are crucial. The committees rely on them to get a strong sense of these students and what their strengths and what their abilities are.

Q. What is the preparation process?
We don’t do anything too sexy. Most of our work goes into recruitment; We do the things that a lot of schools do. We give them mock interviews. For Rhodes and Marshall, we do one that is very formal. We enlist the help of faculty members. We hold it at the Inn at Penn. We have the students show up dressed as they would for these interviews and we do not break the frame. We want them to feel—more or less—what it will be like. Then we do a more relaxed informal practice over at Career Services where we will break the frame, where we will pause and comment.

Q. What is function of the large map of the United States on an easel in your office?
Once we have recruited students the main thing we do is incorporate them into a very supportive team concept. We make them part of this office. I spend a lot of time working with them individually on their personal statements and on their writing statements, but we also try to give them the feeling that we are on their side.

That is where my map comes in. These are all my Rhodes and my Marshalls this year. Talk about low-tech. But the students see this and see that they are part of a bigger complex of students.

However, it is the students who win these things. They are the ones who make themselves vulnerable to a process that is terribly demanding and terribly competitive and terribly rigorous. Neither faculty nor this office actually takes the brunt of that responsibility. We are there to help students emotionally and psychically to put their best foot forward.

I always talk about how talented Penn students are. But one of those talents may not be the ability to show how talented they are. That is where we help a bit.

Originally published on February 12, 2004