The NAFA Newsletter
Keynote Address in Tulsa, June 22, 2001
The quality of those sundowns and musings went way up a couple of years ago, and I credit Nancy Twiss with that event. And lately, if I swiveled in my desk chair and the light was just right—I could almost see her on occasion, shaking her head at me, as I pounded away at this story. She probably doesn’t like to be the object of our attention. But I’m going to tell what I learned in Nancy Twiss 101 anyway.
In April of 1999 Nancy Twiss accepted Baylor’s invitation to visit our campus. For two-and-one-half days I followed her as she talked to our faculty and students. Most of the scholarships she mentioned were brand new to me. The workshops and faculty forums she conducted were terrific. In fact, I was hurt, frankly, that she and Page felt compelled to leave Baylor at the appointed hour. I had hoped, as I watched her set electric questions for students and energize faculty to accept a role in scholarship development, that she might see the wisdom in a move. . . .
After all, would it not have helped Baylor ground its community in this scholarship initiative to have the person lead it who, in her 16 years as a scholarship adviser at KSU, established a record of being involved with more than 80 students who became national winners, including a combined total of 60 Rhodes, Marshall, Truman and Goldwater Scholarships? This record exceeds the record of any other state university in the nation (K State “In View,” April 20, 2000). So, yes, it would definitely have helped us to have her stay. But she and Page seemed determined to live their lives in Kansas. Their plane lifted off, and we were on our own. Or were we?
Looking back on those fine April days from this two-year vantage point, I have totaled up the things that stayed behind, aspects of Nancy’s philosophy and presence in the scholarship arena. What was it that she did?
First of all, she convinced me that the process is almost everything and likened it to a cake. This provides the students with “a supercharged” education. She added with passion, “The application process is a teaching opportunity that can make all nominees winners.” Our work is “to prepare our schools’ most promising students for the important contributions they will make.” She reminded us that winning is the icing (“And oh, how sweet it is,” I can still hear her say with a twinkle and a gleam.) Of course, the question quickly arises: Did Nancy Twiss ever experience "the cake alone"? Her record indicates a remarkable amount of icing!
Nevertheless, Nancy insisted on the intrinsic value of process and concentrated much of her time at Baylor on explaining the importance of asking the students searching questions that may help them develop their inner lives. She said (and I quote), “It appears that, for some students in this country, a scholarship application presents the only occasion in their educational experience where they are asked for their concerns, their ideas, and why they matter, and what they want their lives to count for.”
In a new book published by Harvard, Making the Most of College, Dr. Richard Light interviewed 1600 graduates of Harvard, including 30 Rhodes and Marshall Scholars regarding key insights they had gleaned as undergraduates. 1 One theme emerged: at important points in their college years, an academic adviser asked questions, or posed a challenge, that forced them to think about the relationship of their academic work to their personal lives. Light suggests that these sorts of conversations change students’ perspectives on what they are studying, why they are studying it, how what they study fits into a bigger picture of their lives, and what new ideas might be worth considering. Light does not say that non-prestigious scholarship-bound students are deprived of these conversations at Harvard. But it is the scholarship winners whom he cites.
There is a second theme in the work of Nancy Twiss that had resonance at Baylor. She asked, “How often, and where, in our public life (or for that matter in our academic life) do we honor this fusion of purpose . . . learning . . . and morality (responsibility to others) . . . other than in our Nominees and national Scholars?”
The feature article in The Atlantic Monthly in April 2001 asks the same question and surveys students at Princeton to seek the answer. David Brooks, author of “The Organization Kid,” says the students he interviewed were “clean inside and out.” Hardworking, cheerful, earnest, deferential, responsible, and mature—they are an elite meritocracy, a world of good “organization kids” whose lives are going to be pretty fantastic as they are lived out in commercial banking and law.
But Brooks does not stop there. He believes, as impressive as these students are (and he cites many ideal qualities), that some things are missing—a moral gravity, a sense of duty, an identity with a life of service, courage, courtesy, and an abiding sense of social obligation. He goes on to say, “Today’s students do not inherit a concrete and articulated moral system—a set of ideals to instruct privileged men and women on how to live, how to see their duties, and how to call upon their highest efforts.” Brooks believes today’s meritocracy has been left on its own by universities to figure out character and virtue: “You’re on your own, Jack and Jill, go figure out what is true and just for yourselves.”
Very, very few are able or willing to talk about what a person is, rather than what a person achieves. Comparing the world of the early twentieth century at Princeton to today, Brooks sees “moral combat” to have been central to the university’s charge in 1913. He reflects on that time, suggesting that “the stakes were higher [then], the consequences of one’s decisions were more serious, the goals were nobler.” Recognizing that these modern students fill their Daytimers with activities and are driven to complete extraordinary “to do” lists, Brooks nevertheless concludes, “Maybe the lives of the meritocracy are so crammed because the stakes are so small.”
Brooks does not speak to the role of scholarship programs in the development and sustaining of “moral gravity,” but Nancy Twiss does: “We realized that the scholarship programs were impelling us to do what we say we [at universities] are all about anyway: they provide the pretext for us to foster responsibility to others (that is, moral capability) as well as intellect—for the student’s own sake and for the sake of the larger community.”
There is also a third aspect to Nancy’s legacy that seems central to the scholarship enterprise. She embodied a gratitude for and a devotion to the genius of scholarship foundations (such as those whose representatives are with us tonight). Nancy says: “Because of them, students all over the country are: Identifying issues central to their concerns, investigating how their fields of study can serve the public good, weighing what they want their lives to count for, [and] determining concrete steps toward achieving those ends.” Ultimately this affects communities across the country—and even the intellectual climate of our own campuses. Nancy’s belief in these principles and her gratitude for scholarship foundations were so encompassing that she worked ceaselessly with applicants to enable them to be worthy of the opportunities these foundations set before them.
Perhaps most of all, Nancy lived out a phenomenal commitment to students. Her love of her students was woven into every breath she breathed. To meet some of the students who emerged from her 16 years as scholarship adviser would be ideal at this point, but that opportunity would take us far beyond the time constraints permitted for tonight.
So let’s go back instead to Baylor and the course we took from Nancy Twiss. As we tried to live out the values she embodied, we had an unforgettable experience. That fall of 1999, our faculty and nominees probed for authentic insights, for a respectable “cake,” and for clear applications that would put our candidates forward as well as possible. I wish I had time to describe some of the marvelous young people and their stories from that year and the year following. But you have worked as intensely as we have for and with young people whom you believed could make a difference in the world. You know as well as we now know that the efforts are huge and the rewards are amazing.
So I’ll tell a different story. On October 12, 1999, when you and I were mailing in our Marshall and Rhodes packets, two esteemed British historians, Drs. David Cannadine and Linda Colley (husband and wife) were on our campus. In question and answer sessions after their formal presentations, they each acknowledged Britain’s decline from political and economic world power at the height of the British Empire to its position today wherein it is important that a new, clear-headed engagement with the European Union be central to the nation’s identity. At a party that evening, I asked Dr. Cannadine to explain something to me: “How is it—if Britain is so diminished a figure and so in need of renovation—that every university in this country has killed itself this fall to put in the mail today a proposal that would send its best and brightest to Britain to study for two years?” Then I added, since we were standing on a patio, “Look up. Just beyond those trees, there are fat envelopes flying to the centers for the Marshall and Rhodes Foundations in every region of this country-- and I’m exhausted, as is every scholarship adviser in America today.”
“Well, that’s the point, isn’t it,” Cannadine smiled back at me. “When I was about to finish Cambridge, my tutor said, ‘Now you must prepare to study in the States.’” Cannadine continued by explaining that no one doubts the cultural and educational advantages one finds in the British system. But America has many important and different educational advantages to offer. He said, “I love America. Our finest students on both sides of the pond—the ones who will lead our nations—deserve the best of both.”
Well, so far under my tutelage of our undergraduate scholarship applicants, we have not yet obtained the win that would give one of our fine young people “the best of both.” But—one of our graduates who was completing her law degree at Boalt Hall, Berkeley, this year asked that her endorsement come from Baylor. We wholeheartedly supported her nomination. And she won. I had to explain to quite a few people at Baylor what the Marshall Scholarship was. “This is big,” I told them. Cinnamon Gilbreath will study international environmental law at Oxford this coming year.
Many benefits have accrued for our undergraduates as part of “the value of the cake” Nancy described. For one thing, the scholarship process “saved” some extraordinary students from leaving Baylor slightly disappointed with their overall academic experience. Because of the scholarship process-- complete with its mock interviews, one-on-one conversations with many of our finest professors, and carefully honed essays-- these seniors received the “supercharged” education Nancy had so aptly described and they had dreamed of. Is it not exceedingly important that remarkable students leave our schools feeling they could not have gotten a better education anywhere?
Of course, dangers lurk in our new endeavors. Having been focused and more intentional about scholarship support for two years, we now have rising juniors who were freshmen when Nancy Twiss visited us. We must watch out—as you must—for the applicants who have figured out a formula and created a checklist (internship, Habitat House, trip abroad) but have not yet developed a larger worldview, an interior conversation, or any genuine passion or “calling.”
Pushing beyond the idea of checklists and “organization kids” are leaders from intellectual centers such as Yale. Designed largely for graduate students, a new, yearlong course, offered every two years, aspires to address and enhance leadership for young people who should be the next generation of influential decision-makers in a variety of public and professional fields. Professors Paul Kennedy, Charles Hill, and others have implemented this course designed around intensive readings, discussions, internships, and writing components that will prepare the participants to affect globalization, national politics, culture, new security issues and beyond in substantive, positive ways. 2
Finally for us, these two years have produced a cadre of students who have found one another and formed a new conversation about things that matter in their souls. They have come to have deep regard for one another; they cheer for one another. Many of these students completed their degrees without the prestigious scholarships in hand for which they had bid, but they will take their places next year at Yale, Princeton, London School of Economics, and, yes, in the Housing Dept. of the City of Waco. Some are convinced they would not be going to these places if they had not first tried for the Marshall or the Rhodes.
For Baylor, Nancy Twiss 101 has been a foray into the lessons and rewards of scholarship competition such as we have never quite known before. We hope we passed. It has been an invaluable, unforgettable course. Dare I say, even, transforming?
I wish Nancy could have been here tonight. Unfortunately, she continues to see her life with Page as more sensible and central to her days than a chance to hear someone praise her. (She and Page are vacationing in Canada, even as I speak.) Her vision, her example, her expertise, her standards, and her generosity have been inspiring; she encouraged us as advisers to talk to one another and to reach new levels of service to the ideals of the foundations, as well as to the needs of our deserving students.
There won’t be a clone of Nancy Twiss. And it is going to take many dedicated advisers to carry forth the standards she has set for scholarship. Fortunately, we can accept the challenge—not as individuals but as an organization. I’ll bet she is popping proud of NAFA!
I have not dared call her since setting the title of this musing, but if I could speak to her right now, I’d say, “Nancy, thanks a million. We are here in Tulsa to begin an exciting adventure, one that will be, no doubt, filled with challenges. Yet wherever we go, as your students and as an organization, we will remain, ‘warm still in the fire of your care.’” 3
Elizabeth Vardaman, Baylor University
1 Richard Light, Making the Most of College:
Students Speak Their Mind (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
|Positive Reframing as
a Strategy in Scholarship Advising
“Naïve Norah…she always sees the world through rose-colored glasses,” was how someone referred to me in the tenth grade. I was surprised. At the time I took this reference to naïveté to be akin to the claim that I was born yesterday or clueless. What I now see my tenth grade friend referring to is my tendency towards positive reframing. Such a tendency can seem Pollyannaish — constantly taking lemons and making lemonade — don’t you hate those people? Yet isn’t it better to have the lemonade than complain about the lemons if you can’t change the fact that you have them?
Positive reframing has proved a very useful strategy in scholarship advising. You cannot change the facts about a person’s life, but you can change the way you see those facts and that in turn changes the life.
What do I mean by reframing? Take a picture or painting out of its current frame and put it in a different one. Is it the same picture or painting it was before? Of course. Does it look the same? Often not. A new frame can bring out different colors or aspects in a picture, can draw your eye to the picture differently, and sometimes the right frame can make a picture far more appealing than it seemed before. Several years ago I had framed a page from an antique book on wildflowers. The print was pretty, but on the whole, the picture was no big deal. Framed, however, it is stunning; it looks wonderful in the front hallway. This magic of framing has frequently led me to spend far more on the frame than the print is worth.
How do you put a frame on experiences the way you put one on a picture? In fact, we often already have. We all have a perspective, a way of seeing, that we bring to bear on our experiences. In scholarship advising, I frequently find that I am helping the student to reframe his or her experiences, that is, to see them in a different light, to give them a new meaning, a new significance. The psychiatrist Milton Erikson used the metaphor of framing and reframing as a key element in his psychotherapeutic work. An oft-cited example is the client who comes in suffering from insomnia. Erikson says, “Insomnia is your misuse of time… those are bonus hours.” By seeing wakefulness as an opportunity rather than a problem, the client changes the way s/he responds to his/her wakefulness. A liability is turned into an asset. Why is it that people who claim to need only a few hours sleep (like Bill Clinton) are not considered to be insomniacs? Their sleeplessness is seen as an asset rather than a liability. In the case of Erikson’s client, seeing wakefulness as an opportunity relieved a lot of the stress involved in lying awake at night worrying about not sleeping. The insomnia resolved itself.
For me, reframing is the basis of my approach to scholarship advising and, in particular, helping students with personal statements. In scholarship advising, at least in the first instance, the goal is not to change the student’s behavior as it is in psychotherapy. The goal is to help the student to see his/her experiences as a coherent narrative in which the next step is, for example, study at Oxford.
Suppose a student says that she cannot be a Truman scholar because she has not held any leadership positions — she has never been the president of a club or part of student government. You subsequently find out that in her work as a tutor to struggling high school students she has served as a role model and has inspired a number of them to persevere and go on to college in the two years she has been a tutor. She may see herself as just a math tutor, but is this not an instance of leading by example? There are lots of ways to be a leader besides holding an office. One simply has to see one’s experiences in that light and it is our job to help students to do this. Of course, one does not make up experiences. Rather, one frames the facts a certain way. It’s possible that the student is simply a math tutor, who puts in the time and that’s it. Such a student would not be able to frame that as an example of leadership. One changes the student’s perspective with regard to the truth rather than changing the facts. I cannot change the student’s past, but I can help her to rethink the truth of the experience, by helping her to see the ways in which she did exercise leadership.
Reframing isn’t just helpful in the construction of personal statements; it also helps to alter the student’s view of herself. Previously she didn’t see herself as a leader; now she does. This in turn may change her behavior. Seeing herself as a leader, she may, for example, be more likely to take official leadership positions when called upon to do so. She may also be more likely to speak up in public settings. I have seen students grow in confidence and self-possession as a result of winning prestigious scholarships, but I have also seen students blossom simply as the result of conceiving of themselves as having the qualities of a Truman Scholar or a Rhodes Scholar. The revelation comes in the form of something like “Gosh, I guess I am a leader!”
In working on a Truman application with one student I started to wonder if he might not seem too “local.” He had lived in the Portland area all of his life, was attending college here, and was proposing the Northwest School of Law (also in Portland) as the best place to pursue his study of environmental law. As I thought about it, I began to see this not as a liability, but, if framed in terms of a commitment to Oregon and to serving his state, as an asset. I suggested this possibility to him. He had never thought about it before. But he began to see it as true — he was committed to his home state. As he started to think about himself in this way, he came up with a new essay describing his most rewarding public service experience. It was a much better essay and it certainly captured the importance of serving his home state as well as demonstrated his commitment to public service. What became clear to me in talking with him was his commitment to his community and the links he has to it. That community may change. He may no longer identify himself as an Oregonian at some time in the future, but he will be committed to serving whatever community of which he finds himself a part. This student won a Truman Scholarship.
One might well ask if there is not something disingenuous in reframing. If this student had not thought about himself as committed to his home state, then was it true that he had such a commitment? Am I not just making things up to make the application stronger? These objections rest on two misapprehensions. The first is that students are already aware of their motivations and values. Often they are not and require a certain amount of dialogue and self-reflection, especially if tending toward humility in the first place. All too many of my students tend to downplay their accomplishments and need help seeing the qualities they clearly already demonstrate. Part of my job is to make the invisible visible. The second mistake is to think that there is only one true story to be told about a person, when, in fact, numerous stories are true. Of course, many are also false. The student I describe could have hated his home state, but felt stuck here for family reasons. If this were the case, then another approach to addressing his localness would have to be taken.
Sometimes excellent students apply for scholarships but have a semester in which their GPA is much lower than normal for them, pulling their overall GPA down below what we would normally consider competitive. In such cases there is often an explanation, such as the death of a parent, that we use to argue that this semester’s low grades should be discounted. But consider the student who entered college as a National Merit Scholar, who had a 2.1 for the first two years of college and who then had a 4.0 the last two years. The student now wants to apply for a Mellon to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy. His GPA was a 2.9 at the time of application. Do we look for some extenuating circumstance in an effort to get the first two years discounted? In this case that was not the way to go. Rather than asking that the low GPA be excused, the student instead argued that his record was evidence in favor of him getting the scholarship.
Here is how he did it. In his first two years of college he had approximately six different majors ranging from business to English, but none interested him. His courses did not excite the passion that such an intelligent student needed in order to be engaged in his studies. Then in the first semester of his junior year he took his first philosophy course and everything changed. Not only did he earn As in all of his philosophy classes, but also in every other course he took. Once he began to view whatever he was studying through the lens of philosophy, and to see the interconnections among ideas, every class became interesting and exciting to him. His professors testified to his unusual talent in and passion for philosophy — talking about philosophy with him was like talking to a colleague. Rather than discounting the 2.1 GPA of his first two years of college, this student asked the Mellon readers to consider it as important evidence of the intellectual passion inspired by the study of philosophy. He was invited for a Mellon interview.
Another aspect to reframing concerns giving advice to students in interview situations. We have all told our students various things that they should not do. One cannot, however, think about not doing something without first thinking about doing it. This makes it hard to avoid doing the very thing that you have been told not to do, since it is what you are thinking about.
Instead, if we tell our students only what they should do, we avoid this problem. We need to give our students positive rather than negative advice. This takes some thinking. Suppose I do not want my student to come across as insincere or self-aggrandizing at the Rhodes reception (many students who interview for the Rhodes report that all the other interviewees were like this). Telling her that may well make her self-conscious and unsure what to do. If, however, I give her something positive on which to focus, rather than telling her how not to act, she has more chance to succeed. While I do not have many students who are in danger of being insincere or self-aggrandizing, I do work with students who are likely to be on the quiet side in such situations. How do I encourage these students to show their best sides and yet not fall into the look-at-me trap? This year I have decided to tell those students invited to the Rhodes reception to identify the quietest person present and help that person to be more comfortable and to shine. This will allow the students to demonstrate the qualities that the Rhodes committee is looking for while not focusing on themselves. It’s also a quality that’s good for anyone to have, regardless of whether they become Rhodes Scholars. Making other people comfortable in an uncomfortable situation will be a skill that will serve them well in many aspects of life. Giving students a positive focus in this challenging situation will also help them to be more comfortable themselves.
Probably the best piece of interviewing advice I received when I went on the academic job market was that I should try to make the interviewers comfortable (after all, I was told, they are philosophers and thus probably not at ease in social situations). I do not know to what extent it was really true that the various interviewers I encountered needed to be made comfortable, but the perspective I had been given made me more comfortable. It also made me appreciate the importance of making other people comfortable in situations where the others are supposed to be (or are perceived by me to be) in more powerful or prestigious positions. In cases like this, reframing encourages positive behavior; it doesn’t really matter whether others really are ill at ease. Behaviors that make others feel comfortable are generally good social skills to exercise in any case. They seem to come naturally to some people, in others they need to be encouraged.
So what is positive reframing? It is what I did at the beginning of this article. Rather than seeing the comments about me from so long ago as negative, I see them as pointing to a positive. I have no way of knowing—and it doesn’t matter—whether the speaker intended them that way. Being able to see them as part of a lifetime of positive reframing allows me to see them as part of a true and coherent description of myself (though not, of course, the only true description). Until three years ago, I had never even heard of the concept of positive reframing. Now that it frames what I do, I am able to do more of it and think about it explicitly as a strategy both for scholarship advising and for better living in general.
Norah Martin, University of Portland
Besides locking oneself in the office for two weeks straight—not a realistic option when students are seeking advice on final revisions to personal essays—how do advisors handle the endorsement letter crunch?
This question arose during an “Art of Advising” session at the Tulsa
conference. So, here are some strategies that we have employed to
help us write the best letters that we can.
Contributed by Paula Warrick, American University; Judy Bainbridge, Furman University; Paula Goldsmid, Pomona College; Norah Martin, University of Portland; Beth Fiori, Cornell University; Susan Krauss Whitbourne, University of Massachusetts-Amherst; and Jane Curlin, Willamette University.