Friday, March 20, 2009

How I read a Udall file

For my final Udall blog post, I’d like to discuss the application from the point of view of the reader – what I look for, how I read, and what matters most to me. (I should also emphasize that not all readers approach the application in exactly the same way.) You might want to have a copy of the Udall application and Udall rating form as you read this, since I refer to both throughout this post.

I’ll note at the outset that these comments are specific to the environmental candidates; I have never read the tribal health care and public policy applications, and am not sure how my advice would differ for those files.

Also, all candidates and facreps should thoroughly read and use all of the resources on the Foundation’s website, which has several documents and pages which will be very helpful as you prepare your applications.

When I first open a file, I immediately try to note the basic information about the candidate, including name, gender, age, institution, GPA, class year, and major. I find this helps me get a snapshot of the student in my head right away, which helps me to frame the rest of the application.

I then turn to B1 and B2, which ask the candidate to first define their goal (B1) and then their path to that goal (B2). I’m always surprised by how some candidates tend to misunderstand the difference between these two questions, and how they conflate them. In B1 I like to see broad yet realistic goals that let me know how this candidate will define success in their career, which also lets me know the general direction their life will take. B2 then gives me a roadmap towards that goal – it lets me know what they are doing now that will help them get there, it gives me their graduate school plans, and what jobs they might have which would help them fulfill these plans. Personally, I like Truman-esque levels of specificity, including naming graduate schools and specific potential future employers, since it lets me know that the student has really thought about his or her future. However, when I see an answer that has obviously been lifted directly from a Truman application, it usually doesn’t work for me (I’ve literally seen answers written in this style: “In my career, I plan to….therefore, I will go to this graduate school…after graduate school, I will….then, five to seven years later, I will….”).

B1 and B2 are crucial to the success of the application, both in terms of letting the reader know what the student’s plans for the future are, and for setting up the student’s trajectory. This idea of trajectory is really important – readers are looking to understand the candidate and their story. The story needs to make sense – past, present, and future. To take one frequent example, I read a lot of files from candidates who proclaimed a desire to be an environmental lawyer. That frames how I read the rest of the application. So if I see no legal internships, no legal experience, no pre-law classes, and nothing that tangibly demonstrates an interest in the law –I wonder how much thought they’ve really given to their career goals. The candidate gets to pick what path they want to go down, and I as a reader will follow them down that path – but the future path they pick should make sense, based on their past and present.

This is also a point at which a candidate can start to stand out in the reader’s mind. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that 85%+ of the applications I read were from students who wanted to be professors, policymakers, lawyers, or engineers. Many Udall Scholars go on to do amazing things in these fields, but I start to sit up and notice when a student wants to do something outside of those four. For one thing, it tells me that the candidate has really thought about what issues he or she wants to address, and the best way to go about it. It can also literally earn candidates bonus points – readers can give up to three discretionary points, and I would usually give applicants one extra point if they were outside of one of those four fields and were specific about their plans.

So now, at this point, I have the basics of the student in mind, and I know where they want to end up. Now I need to begin to fill in the rest in C1-C3, and D1 & D2, or what I refer to as the “list sections.”

I glance at C1 to see if there is anything particularly interesting there (study abroad, a gap year, etc.), but there usually isn’t anything too exceptional, so I don’t spend much time on it. In C2 I tend to look for some of the things that will help me fill out the “academic accomplishments’ section of the rating form, including whether or not the candidate has taken challenging coursework, if their courses are appropriate for their future path, and what their grades have been, especially in their major. C3 helps me check the “honors and awards” box – and candidates can help readers here by explaining what the awards are for, since most of the honors they have received are campus awards that don’t make sense to outsiders. If a candidate has won the “John Doe Book Award,” let me know what that is, and (honestly) how big of a deal it is. What is it given for? Is it merit-based or need-based? Who selected it? If it was a scholarship, how much and was it recurring? Something simple like “merit-based, four-year renewable $10,000 scholarship” helps me tremendously as a reader. I would rather know the details on two or three awards than see a longer list of awards that I don’t understand.

D1 and D2 are also crucial. D1 is a list of the student’s primary activities and D2 usually tells me how they spent their summers, and what jobs/internships/research positions they’ve had. Remember how I said a big part of my job as reader is to get to know the candidate’s trajectory? This fills in a huge amount of what their background is. How do they spend their time? What are their priorities? What leadership positions have they held? If you look at D1 and D2 in conjunction with the rating sheet, you’ll see that there are a lot of questions that these sections help to answer – activities related to environmental interests? Internships/jobs/research in this area? Community service? Above and beyond? Leadership? Well-rounded? I spend a lot of time looking at D1 and D2.

The other thing the list sections do is set-up expectations for the rest of the application. If there is a big leadership activity named in D1, I expect to read about it in detail in D4. If there is a research experience named in D2, I want to hear what its impact was in D3. Help the reader anticipate what the rest of the application will be like, and don’t drop morsels here that are never followed-up on. I always wonder about those candidates who list something like leading a campus environmental group as their first entry in the prioritized list in D1, but never mention it again.

Which brings me to The Big Lesson I learned the first time I read for the Udall in 2007: pay attention to the list sections of the application, not just the short essays. The short-answer essays are easy to see how a candidate has to craft and write them, and I often times just worked with candidates to slap together the lists before handing in the application. But by the time I have finished D2, the only short answer essay I have read, really, is B2. But I probably have used up half of the time I will spend on an application by the time I am done with D2, and feel like I know a lot about the candidate already. At this point I should know the basics of the candidate, the outline of their future path, and then have had the details of their past filled in. All that is really left is for the candidate to highlight sections of that past for me.

D3 – research experience – is really most important for science candidates. If the candidate’s career goal is to be a scientist, they should have a home-run answer here. For everyone else, it’s a spot where they can gain points, but probably won’t lose any. We see a lot of answers squeezed in here that don’t really fit, and that’s ok, but doesn’t matter much one way or another.

D4 is absolutely the most important short-answer question, hands-down. Nobody is going to win the Udall unless they have an outstanding leadership experience, and it needs to be described really well in this essay. I pay a lot of attention to D4. My favorite answers tend to follow the Truman model of writing about leadership – describe the problem, describe what you did to solve the problem, and then tell me what the tangible, change-oriented outcome was as a result of your efforts. The biggest problems I saw with D4 were 1) students not explaining what their specific role was, but rather saying what “we” did, and 2) describing organizing a conference or meeting or bringing a speaker to campus that “raised consciousness” about an issue, or “made people engage with an issue.” At the end of reading the essay, I should not be thinking “So what happened? What did the student actually do?” I should know what changed because of the student’s leadership. Numbers help a lot with this – they can help define change.

D5 is rarely done well – and that’s because it is a really, really hard question to answer. A good answer is one of those classic personal statement “I know it when I see it” situations, but there are a couple of pitfalls candidates can avoid: 1) do not describe climbing a mountain at sunrise (usually cheesy and overdone), and 2) do not describe an experience within the last year, unless the student can explain how and why the experience was “clarifying.” The best answers are unique, honest, and personal. Like D3, this is a part of the application where students don’t usually lose points, but they can gain points for a really good answer.

D6 is important. This is one of the last chances the candidate has to make an impression on the reader, either by being well-rounded, going above and beyond, demonstrating their commitment to the environment, being a leader, or showing their compassion through public service. Again, students usually take liberty with the definition of “public service or community activities” here, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as they can justify it. This answer – along with D5 – is also where the reader usually starts to get the best sense of the applicant’s personality.

D7 is a freebie, and like D3 and D5 can really help a candidate if it is done well. (Sometimes students leave it blank! Don’t do that) This is where advisors can really help students – use the rating sheet to figure out where their weakness are, then address them in this section. Tell another leadership story. Demonstrate well-roundedness. Here’s the best thing D7 can do: when the reader is done with it, they think, “hey, that’s interesting! I’d like to hear more about this student.”

Next, the reader turns to the transcript. Personally, I don’t spend a huge amount of time on the transcript. They are formatted so differently from one another, and so hard to read, that I would rather rely on the student’s answer in C2 and the letters of recommendation.

Then come the letters of recommendation. I’m mostly looking for the letters of recommendation to confirm the impression I have already built about the student, but they can also push me in one direction or another. As a reader, there are times when I have a candidate who seems great, but has tepid letters – or a student who seems merely ok, but the letters grab me by the shoulders, shake me, and say “Look at this kid!” One tepid letter or shoulder-shaking letter isn’t enough to change my mind – but if all three point in one direction or the other, they can make a difference. I also really like letters that are not just academic in nature, since the Udall is much more than an academic award. If just one letter is purely academic and says marvelous things about a student, fine. But I would rather see two or three letters that are partially (even mostly) academic but also address the student’s accomplishments outside of the classroom.

Then, the Mo essay. Please take a moment to look at the rating sheet to see what we are told to look for in the essay: Does the student critically analyze something of Mo’s? Does the student integrate their career path (trajectory!) into their analysis? Does the student understand Mo’s legacy, and how this particular speech or piece of legislation fits into that legacy over time (is it placed in context)? Does the student demonstrate a broader knowledge of environmental issues and how Mo fits in? Is it well-written, unique, or come from a fresh perspective?

Essays are judged on a four-point scale. I would estimate that I scored 90% of the essays I read as a 2 or a 3. Here are the most common problems I saw:

1) Describing, not analyzing.
2) Thesis statement = “Mo’s words still ring true today.” I would easily say that at least 60% of the essays I read had some version of this thesis statement.
3) Giving the impression that the student read one speech of Mo’s and made no attempt to contextualize it or understand its greater import.
4) Opening with a quote from Mo, using the next three paragraphs to talk about their own work and interests, and then closing with another quote from Mo and saying something along the lines of “So me and Mo – we’re just the same. I’m really inspired by him.”

The best essays were smart, well-written, unique, incorporated several Mo sources, and gave the sense that the student had a) really tried to understand Mo, and b) reflected on how Mo’s life intersected with their own interests.

Lastly, readers can give up to three discretionary points for candidates who diversify the pool (not just racial/ethnic diversity, but candidates who come from really different angles or backgrounds or interests), who are working 20+ hours/week, who are first-generation students, or who have overcome significant hardships. I occasionally give a point here when it is justified, have given a handful of two points, and gave my first three-point bonus this year to a really, really extraordinary candidate who diversified the pool in about four different ways AND had overcome significant hardships.

In general, then, it is an 18-point scale with the possibility of a score up to 21 if we include discretionary points. We grade pretty tough – a 16 is an extraordinary score, and I think I only gave one of those this year. 13-15 gets an applicant in the running for an honor, and 11-12 will at least get the applicant some consideration. I don’t think Sue and I named anyone as an honorable mention or scholar who we initially scored as a 10 or under.

Each file takes about 15 minutes to read and score on average, though readers spend longer on the application that are clearly more-qualified, since we are trying to get to know them better for the discussion at the end of the region.

Lastly, I'll add a reminder that the application is read holistically, not piecemeal as I've described it here. We're trying to learn about the candidate in their entirety, and sometimes human stories don't fit neatly into the prescribed boxes, descriptors, or yes/no choices on the rating form.

In the end, I try to get to know a candidate through their application, understand their trajectory and story, and then weigh their qualifications as I understand them against the stated criteria of the Udall foundation, and then also compare those qualifications to the other candidates in the pool. It's hard and subjective work, but having the opportunity to get to know all of these candidates - and reward many of them - is absolutely worth it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Congratulations to the 2009 Udall Scholars and Honorable Mentions! All of the files in this box will be getting good news from the Foundation in the next couple of weeks. (It's taken from the back of the box, so don't try to enlarge it to read names off of the files...)

We met one last time this morning for about an hour to debrief the reading process. Sitting in a circle, we talked about what went well, what we would like to be done differently, suggestions we have for the future, etc. Overall, there was a feeling that while there were more files that were not truly competitive this year, there were also more files that were quite outstanding. Regions also seemed to be either quite strong, or not as strong (as you may have gleaned from my posts over the last few days) -- there seem to be fewer applications or regions that were kind of middling.

There was also some frustration with how mediocre most of the essays we read were -- how little true analysis seems to go into them. As I wrote earlier, a large % of the essays had a thesis along the lines of "Mo's words ring true today..." which just gets repetitive after awhile.

We also talked about the difference between questions B1 and B2, whether the research question should continue to be asked, the primacy of the leadership essay in our decision-making process, whether or not the Udall website should have sample answers like the Truman does, the proper role of the facrep (and what to do about campuses that do not have an active facrep, and how to level the playing field for those candidates), and then the annual conversation about what to do about the 18 applicants who won the Udall as a sophomore and are reapplying as Juniors (do you hold them to a higher standard? Should we spread the wealth and not allow them to reapply? What is the impact both on those who win twice and those who don't get selected the second time?). Jane and Mia took notes on our conversation, and will consider our feedback in the coming weeks and months, I am sure.

A few people peeled off during the discussion to go get on shuttles to the airport. We hugged one another, thanked the foundation, and we're off.

Reading is a really interesting and fun experience. It's tiring, and a bit overwhelming, but also inspiring to see all of these future leaders. I'm a big fan of the Udall Scholarship, and thank the foundation staff both for this opportunity to read and blog, and for the hard work they do to make a difference in the lives of these students.

I'm still planning one more long post to explain how I read files and the crucial parts of each question, so stay tuned for that. But in the meantime, I have a spring training ticket to the Dbacks and Cubbies this afternoon.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


That's it -- we're done. The 80 scholars and 50 honorable mentions for the Udall class of 2009 have been chosen.

Sue and I were the last to finish, thanks to being given two second read piles. We got half of our final pile done before the traditional end-of-reading Celebratory Mexican Dinner (where Ann Brown may or may not have consumed a margarita bigger than her evidence to come later....), and then everyone else taunted us as we headed back to the Canyon Room to finish reading and make decisions.

Phew. I'm beat. 94 files is a lot. Of those 94, 78 were on first read -- of those 78, 13 ended up as Scholars and 9 are honorable mentions. 4 of the 16 second reads are scholars, and the other 12 are honorable mentions -- so we had a hand in choosing 17 Udall Scholars and 21 honorable mentions. Or, to put it differently, we helped give away $92,350 in scholarship money. Not bad for four days' work.

This won't be the last blog post. Look out in the coming days for a celebratory final post from Tucson, and I have promised Jane & Mia a long post about how I read files and think about each question on the application, which may end up being the most helpful post to facreps.

But for now? G'night.

Second reads

We're into the second reads -- files that were flagged in their first read, by region, as being at least an honorable mention, and perhaps a scholar. We were given a group of eight and told to choose two. It's not an easy task -- there are no files that are clearly unqualified, and all of them have something to recommend them. You have to be a more critical reader with this group, and I find myself going a lot more slowly.

The upside is that you're never turning any of these down -- just awarding them the $350 honorable mention prize instead of the $5,000 scholarship.

Jane and Mia have a very challenging logistical task in assigning second read piles to reading teams -- not only do they have to make sure that there are no conflicts of interest (from either reader's home institution or from their home state) but it also has to be states we haven't read before so that it is a true second read. There are lots of spreadsheets being created.

Because of those conflicts, Sue and I were just given a second second-read pile to decide on. Eight more files and we're done! I'm not sure we'll finish tonight -- we may be back at it early in the morning to make final decisions. That'll be 90+ files we'll have read. Jane says we win the prize.

Being here

Sue and I are awaiting our first at-large pile to read, so I thought I would add a few comments on the experience of being here when my own candidates' files are read.

Grinnell nominated four candidates in the Udall competition this year. First, I have to say that the foundation is absolutely scrupulous in keeping advisors away from their candidate's files. Obviously, we don't read or score our own files. But more than that, they don't even tell us much about what teams are reading which regions, and the boxes of files that contain scholarship winners are sitting on the table in front of me, but are turned away so I can't see any of them. I honestly have no idea how any of the four are fairing, and won't find out any earlier than the rest of you.

Despite these efforts, though, it's in the air. Yesterday I was walking back to my table when my eye caught the familiar Grinnell College letterhead and laurel leaf on the top of a letter of recommendation that another team was reading. Gulp. I don't know which file, or which region, or what the decision was, but it was a little distracting. That team over there is making a decision about one of my candidates right now. In some ways, it's easier when we just seal up that FedEx envelope, sprinkle the magic good luck powder on it, and send it on its way -- then hear weeks later what the outcome is. We know, logically, that the decision is made at some specific, defined moment between those two points in time, but we don't know exactly when, or where, or by whom. Except in this case.

Done with our assigned regions

Sue and I finished our last assigned region right before lunch, and it was an interesting one -- not very strong, actually. 14 applicants -- we could award 2 scholarships, name one for a second read, and give one an honorable mention.

There were six files that we both agreed were clearly not close to being in the conversation (six! that's a lot), four that were ok, but not really worth talking about, and then a Final Four (gratuitous basketball reference!) to consider more closely.

One of the scholars in the region was clear (the Truman finalist from the same region as one of my students) -- we both really liked that file a lot. That leaves three.

Two were very good, but not at the level of Udall Scholars. We chose one of the two as the honorable mention -- the file (not advised by a NAFAn, I will add) could have benefitted from some good advising. It seemed like this kid had a lot of good experiences, but the experiences were poorly described. We couldn't quite figure out what the applicant's role had been in their leadership experiences, or what the outcomes were -- but it seemed like good work. The letters of rec didn't help much, as they were entirely focused on academics.

We added a note to the one we named for a second read saying that we thought it should remain as an honorable mention. Really good stuff; not great. Not a scholar.

And that left one more file. Oh, but did we have to talk about that one. I loved this file. Loved, loved, loved it. There were flaws to it -- the career goals were horribly vague, and the leadership could be better -- but there was so much about this kid that just jumped off the page at me. It had the best Mo essay I've read all weekend. Most of all, the writing throughout was just thoughtful. After reading a lot of essays that tend to seem the same (note on the essay: the thesis statement "Mo's words ring true today" is not original...), you come to appreciate and look for good, creative, dedicated, and intelligent writing. And the letters of rec for this kid? Wooo. Off the charts.

Sue wasn't feeling it. We were about 8 points off in our ratings when we started the discussion. I made the case. Sue still didn't buy it. In the end, I may have put my foot down too hard, but this was truly one of my favorite files of the week, and I just wanted this applicant to win. Sue was gracious enough to go along with it, and I can't wait to see the impact this student has at orientation in August.

It's a strange thing, reading these files and thinking about these students. As readers, we're invited to the orientation weekend in August, but have to pay our own way -- given the economy and the cost of attending the Seattle conference in July, I really doubt I will get to attend. So I'm not going to meet this student, and won't get to explain why I thought so highly of their application. My argument on the file was that this is less of a reward for what the student has already done, and more an investment in this student's potential. I think scholar's orientation will change this student's life. So, for all you about-to-be-named Udall Scholars -- honor the investment we're making in you. We have high expectations, and even higher hopes.

Interview with Jane Curlin, Udall Foundation

I wrote these questions for Jane last night, and she answered them as the rest of us read files this morning.

Q: What do you look for in Udall readers?

We like to have a mix of fellowships advisors, faculty representatives, environmental studies or science professors, Udall Scholar alumni, and Native American educators, health care professionals, and policy experts. As we put together our 6 or 7 reading teams each fall, we consider what part of the country they're from, whether they work at a public university or a liberal arts college, if they work for a non-profit organization or government, and what particular area of the environment, tribal policy or Native health care they have expertise in.

We also like to keep it fresh, so we rotate readers off the selection committee fairly frequently. At least half of our readers have read at least once, but we bring in new readers each year.

Beyond that, readers should leave their agendas at home, and bring a sense of humor with them. We take the selection process extremely seriously, but we also like to have fun.

Q: What happens between when you receive the files and when the reading teams get them?

When the Fed-X and the UPS truck pull up outside our door the first week of March, it's like Christmas at the Foundation. We love opening the packets and seeing all those applications from so many wonderful students who are doing amazing things. Removing countless staples and paper clips does get a bit tedious (note to faculty representatives: You can open the transcripts and letters, and we love you if you remove staples for us!).

We have 8 days from the deadline to the selection committee meeting to process 500+ applications. We check each application to ensure that a) the nominee is eligible and b) the application is complete. A surprising number of applications are missing transcripts, letters, and even the essay. Quite a few nominees take liberties with the fillable Word application, either inadvertently or deliberately, and we've given them the chance to redo their application and resubmit it. We generally work through the weekend in order to make sure everything is ready for the selection committee. Even so, we occasionally miss something (we're only human!). If the faculty representative puts the wrong letter in a nominee's file, we hope we'll catch it, but we're working fast, and if the letter is actually for another student, well, we may spot that or we may not.

Then there's the data entry. Then we check the data entry. It's surprising to us how many facreps and students disagree on the student's state of legal residence. Once we've completed the data entry, we can organize the applications into regions, by state of legal residence, determine how many scholarships, at-larges, and honorable mentions can be awarded in each region (it's based on the number of applicants), and assign the regions to the readers (always keeping in mind potential conflicts of interest).

Q: What happens after the reading of the files are complete?

First, we take a couple of days off. While the selection process is rewarding, even exhilarating, it's also exhausting!

Our next step is to notify the faculty representatives of the 80 scholars. So many facreps get to know their students well during the advising process, and they enjoy being the one to tell their student the good news.

Everyone--scholars, honorable mentions, and non-winners--is notified by mail. Letters go out the last week of March.

Incidentally, planning the Udall Scholar Orientation begins in December, so we're already in full planning mode.

Q: What do you like best about the selection process? What do you wish readers would do differently?

What we like best, in no particular order:

1) Seeing old friends (returning readers) and making new ones

2) Waiting for the files to be returned to us and finding out who our new scholars will be

3) Looking over the applications and picking our favorites. We have more favorites than we have scholarships to give!

There is nothing I wish readers would do differently. Our readers take this process very seriously, and every year we meet 80 amazing new scholars at the Orientation.

Q: What changes, if any, do you see in the next few years in the Udall application process? Will we see an e-app anytime soon?

We hope that an online application could be available in a couple of years. We want to design it ourselves, and build in tools to make the process easier and more beneficial both for nominees and faculty representatives. We know that many facreps conduct a campus nomination process, and we've discussed how we could design an online application system that could help to facilitate that.

Showing up in a joyful small world

Sue and I are making our way through our final region -- 14 applications -- and we're ahead of the curve in terms of time (it's not even 10am here yet), so I am going to take a moment to record a couple of quick thoughts:

1) I'm afraid I have not adequately expressed what a joy it is to read these files. Knowing that there are 500+ students out there who are really dedicated to the environment and tribal health care / public policy, and finding 80 of them who are exceptional future leaders in this crucial field is a real confidence-booster. We're going to be ok, and these students will lead us there.

2) The scholarship world is a small one. I picked up the files and glanced over them to make sure I didn't know any of them -- and one name really stuck out to me. A quick search of my mental rolodex reminded me that the candidate was a Truman finalist in the same region as one of my finalists this year, and that my guy had told me about her a bit.

3) What's that Mark Twain quote about 90% of life is just showing up? There are a small number of schools -- mostly with NAFAns at the helm of the scholarship advising team -- that keep showing up in different regions. Simple persistence pays off sometimes. Keep nominating!

A great region, and some thoughts on change

We started with a boom. Wow. What a region.

8 candidates, split into 3 clearly non-qualified and 5 stellar, make-you-cheer candidates. How good were they? Someone who won the Udall last year was 5th best in the region. We only had one scholarship to award, and one to name for a second read.

Of the remaining four, there was one candidate that we both just loved as a person, but wasn't quite at the level as the other three. That candidate is also a sophomore, so we enthusiastically checked the "should reapply next year" box and left lots of comments.

Two of the three who were left were from the same university, and one had a letter of rec from the facrep that clearly said "this one is the best we have this year." We followed that facrep's advice, and named that candidate as our scholar. The discussion of the remaining two was relatively quick -- they were close, but one had just accomplished more, while the other had done a lot of things like serve on committees and planned meetings that didn't have clear, change-oriented outcomes. I love change-oriented outcomes.

The good news, though, is that when we took the folders in to Mia and Jane, we told them what a stellar pool it is -- and two of the other committees had not used an honorable mention spot and an at-large spot, from weaker regions! So there is a chance that our top four may all get at least honorable mentions, which makes us very happy -- they are richly deserving.

This still leaves the issue of last year's Udaller who is getting shut out this year. Make no mistake about it -- this is an excellent candidate. But in the context of this year's region, the file doesn't stand up to the others. This will be, I imagine, painful to the candidate when the news comes through -- "why did I get it last year, but not this year? Doesn't the Udall family like me anymore?" My first Udaller had exactly this same experience, and it's a hard one -- moving backwards in the Udall ranking while moving forwards in time and experiences.

So, since I haven't given any "loving criticism" (Mo's words!) to the foundation yet, I think this is one area where we need to see change made. I think I would recommend (and will recommend at tomorrow's debrief) that the Udall should be a one-and-done scholarship. That will 1) keep situations like this from happening, and 2) spread the wealth and honors to more of the richly deserving students we are reading about this week.

(Kudos to Jane and Mia for not asking me to edit this last part out. Not everyone would be so committed to transparency and open dialogue that they would allow constructive commentary of the foundation on a Udall-approved blog.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tribal Policy/Native Health Care Follow-Up

Guest post from Mia Ibarra, Udall Foundation

Earlier today our tribal public policy and Native health care readers wrote a post about their experience with and expectations for those categories. They noted that those applicants make up less than seven percent of our 2009 nominee pool, and it follows that they will make up a small percentage of our scholar class. However, Mo’s commitment to Indian Country played no small role in shaping his legacy, as demonstrated by the Indian Child Welfare Act and other key pieces of legislation.

The Udall Foundation is dedicated to continuing this legacy through our scholarship and internship programs, and increasing the strength and size of the applicant pool in the tribal public policy and Native health care categories is a high priority. The more applications we receive from Native Americans and Alaska Natives, the more scholarships we can award in these categories.

Suggestions to faculty representatives:
  • Encourage students to think broadly about tribal public policy. Tribal governance, tribal law, Native American education, Native American justice, reservation infrastructure, natural resource protection, cultural preservation and revitalization, Native American economic development, and many other career paths can impact tribal public policy, at the federal, state, and tribal level. The Native health care category should also be considered in broad terms: we've had health care scholars who wanted to be social workers, physical therapists, doctors, psychologists, dentists . . . The most important thing is that, whatever their field of study, the student is committed to using their knowledge and skills to benefit their tribal community or Indian Country as a whole.
  • Seek assistance from departments and offices at your institutions that have ties to Native American and Alaska Native students to identify potential nominees who have shown initiative in serving Native communities and a commitment to a career path in tribal public policy or Native health care.
  • Advise your nominees on how best to present themselves, and their ties to their Native community, as they put together their applications. Many applicants in these categories are reluctant to put themselves forward, and take their community involvement for granted. Many are putting themselves through school and have extensive family obligations, and a rigorous application process can act as a deterrent. The benefits for seeing it through, however, make it well worthwhile.


This may be the last post of the day -- at least until tonight (Pacific time) -- since we are about to take our Big Break. We're stopping reading for the afternoon to all go to the Sonora Desert Museum, one of the perks of reading for the Udall. After reading close to 60 files in a day and a half, we're ready for a break and to be inspired by the natural beauty of the region.

Staying positive

We made it through that region -- 25 files down (that's 56 total), from which we chose 3 scholars, 2 for a second read, and 1 honorable mention. The files did get much better, though there were not any stellar ones. We found three we were really happy with as scholars, but there was not a single file that made me stand up and cheer. We had to talk about the files for awhile, but it was not as close as, say, a 6-OT thriller.

I mentioned in an earlier post that there's always an element of subjectivity each reader brings to the table. I'm forcibly reminded of that now. The Watson Fellowships were announced today, and if you read that list carefully you'll notice the lack of fellows whose institution is listed as "Grinnell." For the first time since 1997, I think. My current mood is not the best, and I keep reminding myself to read supportively.

Positive! Be supportive! I'm trying.

The disappointment of the Watson, though, is helped by being in the middle of this task. Seeing how competitive the pool is and facing the subjectivity of the decision-making process head-on reminds me that we all have great candidates. While I always like my own candidates best, there are many, many deserving students, and the case could be made for many of them to be scholars.

A few more thoughts:

I think 80% of the enviro applicants went to the Powershift conference. That's an exaggeration, but not by much. The students who listed attending Powershift as their leadership essay are not faring well, because there were a lot of applicants who went to Powershift AND do many other more impressive things.

If the earlier region we read was all engineers, this one was all urban agriculture or agriculture policy people. I don't remember ANY urban ag people two years ago -- clearly, that's an important development in the environmental field. And they all love Barbara Kingsolver.

One of the really fun parts of reading these enviro files is to get ideas that I can take back to my own campus to share with our enviro leaders. One file I read talked about an idea that would work terrifically well with a new housing option on our campus, and I took notes about it. This is, of course, part of the goal of the scholars' orientation in August -- to get all of these remarkable scholars together in the same place to share ideas and initiatives.

Guest post on Native American applicants

Post by Bryan Mercier and Jerilyn Church

Another interesting aspect of the MKU Scholars program is the Native American applicants. Nearly 7% of the applicant pool is Tribal public policy and/or Native health care students. As reviewers of the Native American applicant pool, we approach the review in a slightly different way.

First and foremost, we identify applicants with strong ties to Native communities. Many volunteer in the summer with their Tribe, or work part-time for Native organizations. Whatever the connection, a professional dedication to Native communities is critical to support Mo’s vision of an empowered Indian people.

Secondly, we identify a student’s strong trajectory toward a clearly defined career goal. This is often accomplished through extracurricular activities in their field of study. Students who have the foresight to identify their future careers, tend demonstrate leadership and academic excellence.

Finally, we identify students with a compelling personal story. The “Mo factor” is a common expression around these parts. The stories of personal hardship are numerous in Native communities. A commitment to their careers in tribal public policy or health care despite these hardships is often a defining characteristic of Native Udall Scholars.

We’ve been impressed by the applicant pool this year. We expect to hear more from these names in the future.

Day 2 begins

We're back -- hard to believe we've only been reading for 24 hours. It seems like a lot more than that -- it's already getting a little tiring.

Sue and I are trying to finish this big region -- 24 applicants -- before our Udall-sponsored break to go to the Sonora Desert Museum this afternoon. I'm about a 1/3 of the way through, and it is a disappointment so far -- none are scholarship-worthy, yet, and I've marked two as "noncompetitive." That's a designation for applications that you get partway through and know that the candidate is far, far below what is considered scholarship-worthy, and you don't have to finish reading the essay. So I've got 16 to go, and we can mark 8 of them for honorable mentions or awards -- I hope it picks up a lot.

It's also Watson announcement day, which has me on pins and needles. I think I'm starting to bug everyone else by running to my laptop after reading each file.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Exciting action shots of people reading

This is what 514 applications look like. Go ahead -- count 'em.

The room where all the magic happens. It's called the Canyon Room, and those doors at the back open onto a lovely porch.

The view from the porch. Isn't that a lovely, inspiring view for chosing future environmental and tribal leaders?

NAFAn Jeanne Ware (New College of FL) and Matt McMahon ('03 & '03 Scholar, now a grad student at Princeton) make final decisions about their region, just outside of the Canyon Room

Sue Kissinger (Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and my reading partner) and Bryan Mercier ('03 Intern, recently with the Treasury dept.) take advantage of the porch to read files.

Renae Steichen ('04 and '05 Scholar, now at the DOJ) and Joe Bowersox (Willamette, as his tshirt points out) delve into their files.

Closing down for the night

Sue won. Ok, I let her. She felt more strongly about it than I did. For those of you out there thinking, "Did my nominee just not get the Udall because Doug didn't stand up to Sue?" please rest assured -- both candidates are from the same institution.

A few thoughts before we end for the night:

Another "Senator" Udall! And from an otherwise well-qualified candidate. Probably wouldn't have won even without that mistake, but that error definitely put it in my "no" pile.

FacReps -- when you input the student data into the Udall website, be sure you get it right. Jane and Mia try to double-check all of your facts, but occasionally some of us get some of the details wrong, and it gets missed when they are trying to make sure that 514 files are complete on a short timeline. State of residence is a biggie -- some people need to learn their state abbreviations better. This is particularly problematic because files are read by geographic regions. I'm not going into details, but this caused a kerfuffle today and perhaps led to some regions being less competitive and others being more competitive, which means that perhaps the outcomes would have been different if the facreps got their state abbreviations right. Especially when it is your home state.

Last -- a little feedback, please? No comments on the blog yet, and one email today. Is this helpful? Anyone reading? Any questions? What else do you need? More Ann Brown stories?

I'm about ready to shut it down. I've read 37 files today -- 3 regions, and started a fourth -- in about 10 hours of reading. That's a little less than 20 minutes/file, including deliberation time and blogging hours. Pretty good rate. I left my camera cord in my room, so I'll post some photos later. Exciting action shots of people reading.

Decision time

Sue and I are about done with our third region of the day. I have to say that our scoring is going pretty nicely in tandem. 10 applicants in this region; we have one scholarship to award, and one 2nd read to name. Here's how we scored them (mine are on the left, Sue's on the right).

10, 11
9, 9
8, 12.5 (our biggest gap, but we both agreed that this one was not scholarship-worthy)
14, 14.5 (considering for scholarship)
11, 14 (considering for scholarship)
13, 12.5
12, 12
15, 14.5
13, 14
13, 14.5 (2nd read)

That's a REALLY strong region -- 7 are in the "could be considered" range.

The one we named as a second read was a really fascinating file. We both really liked it a lot, but had hesitancies about naming it as a scholar. So we put it in the 2nd read pile, knowing that it will at least be a honorable mention.

And now we're deciding about the two named above. It's a good example of the subjectivity that goes into reading, and how the reader's background influences their views. I like the liberal-arts candidate who is less directed but has a lot of leadership activities; Sue likes the more directed scientist who is lighter on out-of-class leadership but is clearly going to make contributions to their chosen field. We're deliberating. Which is a kind way of saying we're both trying to be generous towards the other, but each have the one we want -- and it's made tougher knowing that the one that doesn't get the scholarship won't get anything, and won't even know how close they were to winning.

Update after the second region of the day

Another region down. The discussion on this one was relatively easy. Of the 15 applications, about 1/2 were worth considering for scholarships or honorable mention -- which is really saying something, when you think about it. Half of the candidates are worthy of consideration. "Very strong" is relatively average in this pool.

But we found our two scholars out of this region right away -- we agreed instantly who the top two were. Deciding on our 2nd read file and the honorable mention took another 5-10 minutes, but was pretty amiable. We're seeing different things, and value different things, in each file. There were two files in particular that split us -- one that I scored as a 7, and Sue had as a 14. We had to chat about that one for awhile (we agreed in the end that it was a good candidate, but not worthy of an honor -- a compromise between our two beginning stances).

For those of you scoring at home, we're stingy with our points. Of the 21 possible points on the Udall scoring sheet, I would say that a 16 is really outstanding. A 13-14 will probably get you an honorable mention. We're tough, but we have to be, since there are so many worthy candidates.

I'm taking a lot of notes and will post something longer tonight, but Mia is waving the next region at me. 10 candidates, and 8 of them have NAFA advisors (four from the same school). We get to name one scholar and one 2nd read.

One piece of advice before I go: there is no quicker way to shoot your application in the foot than to refer to him as "Senator" Udall. I actually cursed earlier today when I read that on one of the application (it's been on 3 of the 24 we've read so far) -- when the next table started giggling, I said, "I liked this one so much, but now I don't think I can award it."

On engineers and professors

Lunch break. Sue and I are about 1/3 of the way through our next region -- 15 apps, from which we'll choose 2 scholars, 1 for a second read, and one honorable mention. There are several NAFAns who have candidates in this pile, so I have a few of you on the brain.

This is a MUCH stronger region -- the first two files I read were stronger than anything I read in the first region. We are seeing a surplus of engineers and professors, though, which just gets, well, a little repetitive after a while. Remember my discussion of diversity in the pool yesterday? Not a whole lot of that so far. Yes, these future engineers and profs will do good things, and some of them are great students -- but to stand out as a candidate in one of these fields, you really have to be over the top in the classroom, AND have a lot of other activities, too.

Which brings me back to the student we selected out of the first region. What really set that student apart was how we had a sense that this student really would make a difference -- how the student had a vision for impacting a community. At the risk of offending the engineers and profs who are reading this, the students who are proposing to be engineers and profs often times are not articulating how they will make a difference in the world. Yes, they may be an electrical engineer, or a marine biologist -- but how will their research change the world? I really like seeing students who have a vision of how their future work and goals will impact people and the environment.

First scholar named

Sue and I just finished our discussion, and named our first Udall Scholar. It's one we feel good about -- not as many qualifications as some others we might see, but an outstanding person who meets the criteria, and who we think will make the most of the opportunity.

The region we read was pretty weak, overall, and we actually thought about not naming a scholar from this region, but Sue framed the argument in such a way that we both ended up convinced that this person really does have the Udall qualities we're looking for. We were more likely to have named this student as an honorable mention, but we didn't have any to give for this region -- and we hated to see this student not get anything.

Sue has brought her A game. She's a great person to work with -- smart, and a great memory for each file, and she reads fast but thoroughly. And she's already on to the next batch of files, so I better go join her.

Diving in

At precisely 8:05am, Mia Ibarra handed Sue and me our first region to read -- 9 files, choose one as a scholar and one for a second read (that student will either be named as a scholar or receive an honorable mention). Sue finally made it in last night, by the way, getting here around 1am -- and she's up and at the files already. We're an eager bunch -- reading and making these decisions is a real honor, and I think everyone is excited both to take on the challenge and to live up to the expectations. We all want to do right by the applicants.

As I write this, Sue is finishing the last file in the region, and then we'll make our decisions. An early recommendation for NAFAns: focus on B1 and B2. Most of them that I have read have been overly vague and non-directed. We all know the value of the process, and it can be more valuable in B1 and B2 than perhaps anywhere else in the application. Make your applicants be specific -- what do they want to do? How? Where will they go to grad school? Why there? Not only does it improve their application, but it will make the process much more worthwhile for them to know all of this about themselves.

We also need to find a way to get campus enviro groups to share acronyms. I've seen some really creative ones already that could work on a number of campuses.

Getting started in Tucson

(Written on Wednesday, posted Thursday)

Greetings from Tucson, where I assure you that it is lovely, lovely, lovely. I'm reminded how lovely it is, in fact, by the sad fact that my reading partner was unable to escape Wisconsin due to high winds, and won't be joining us until late on Wednesday night.Today was Welcome and Orientation Day, and most people came in this morning as we didn't kick off until 3:00 this afternoon. I won't bore you with the details of how Anne and I spent our morning, but it prominently involved beautiful hiking and a big breakfast.

Jane Curlin and Mia Ibarra welcomed us all at 3:00 with a statement of their gratitude for how we will "dedicate yourself body and soul to the Morris K. Udall Foundation for the next four days." What followed over the next two hours was a relatively free-flowing yet directed conversation about who Udall Scholars are, the reading process, how we evaluate files, and the details of selecting scholars. It included an excellent powerpoint that walked us through these four areas -- much of the NAFA-oriented details are already up on the Udall website, but I will highlight some of them here.

First, though, the Udall 2009 reading process by the numbers: 514 applications, split into 36 geographically-based regions. Regions range from 6 to 28 applicants in each (the number of scholars chosen from each region will depend on the size of the region). Of those 513 applications, 70 will be awarded a scholarship on their first reading; 20 will be awarded honorable mention status on their first read; and 40 will be given a second read -- of those 40, 10 more will become scholars (80 total), and the other 30 will be honorable mentions (50 total). So that's almost exactly 25% of applicants who will be a scholar or honorable mention.

Jane and Mia's presentation started with an overview of who wins the Udall that I thought had an excellent, compact summary -- we are looking for commitment, trajectory, and character (sometimes referred to as "The Mo Factor"). This idea of trajectory is one that I've been realizing more and more recently as being absolutely crucial to both the Udall and Truman (and perhaps others, if I think about it some more) -- the idea of using scholarship applications as a way to figure out and tell the applicant's story. What's their path? What has their story been? What will it be? What have they done, and why? What will they do, why, how will they get there, and does the past lead them into the future? That's why the Udall application opens with questions B1 and B2, even before we learn the applicant's major and GPA. Knowing where they are going and getting it in your head as a reader, sets up the entire rest of the application. Does what this student has already done make sense in the context of what they want to do? If not, their path to the scholarship gets a lot harder from the first page.

The foundation has also instructed us to read "supportively, contextually, and for diversity." I especially like the "supportively" part of this -- that we go into each file rooting for the student to win the scholarship, and that we look for their strengths, not their weaknesses. It makes the process one of deciding who is the best candidate in the pool, not trying to find the flaws that separate them. The diversity piece is also particularly important to Udall -- and it is not just racial, ethnic, or gender diversity. Diversity here also refers to socioeconomic diversity (we give a discrentionary point for students who work 20+ hours/week), geographic diversity, and diversity of interests -- if a student is a dentistry student, say, and wants to green the dental profession, that's diversifying the pool of students who win the Udall.

Other highlights of the training included discussions over the primacy of the numerical rating system (it is a guide, not a decision-maker); the role of GPA in deciding scholars (see "read contextually"); how to read supportively for those poor students whose advisors don't belong to NAFA and who are clearly at a disadvantage; dynamics between readers on a team; and how to score files when a student's letters of recommendation are not done well or are written poorly (or don't exist, per the NAFA listserv discussion this week).We closed with a reminder that this is both a reward for work done, as well as an investment in future environmental and tribal leaders, and then adjourned for dinner.

I have to add that the hotel we're in is inspiring and a perfect spot to select future Udall Scholars. As we talked this afternoon, the doors were open, the breeze blew, and birds twittered outside. A glance out the window and you see both saguaro cacti and encroaching development.

Speaking of twittering....I'm Twittering along with the birds. You can find me at dougcutchins if you want the 140-character instant updates.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Preparing to read

As I pack up and prepare to depart the chilly, rainy pre-spring weather of Iowa for the warmth of Arizona (we were warned by Jane Curlin that the conference room we meet in may be "chilly." I will take my chances after making it through another lousy Iowa winter), I thought I would let you know the pre-meeting part of being a reader.

It started last fall, when Peggy Mullaney dropped that beautiful email into my in-box, asking if I would like to go to Arizona in March (answer: heck yes!). Travel arrangements were made over the next few months, and then about three or four weeks ago a FedEx package showed up with a thick blue folder in it. The folder contained all of the information about the hotel where we are staying (note: it looks swank, but lest ye fear that your hard-earned tax dollars are going to waste, they have an excellent government rate), the schedule for the reading period, the names of all the readers, and (crucially) the reading team assignments.

Just to get this out of the way now, since I should tell you at some point, here are the readers for this year's Udall competition:

  • Terry Bensel, Allegheny College

  • Paul Blowers, Univ. of Arizona

  • Joe Bowersox, Willamette Univ.

  • Ann Brown, Ohio Univ. (about whom I once wrote "Most any event can be improved with Ann Brown in the room." To say that I am tickled that Ann will be there is a vast understatement; anyone who has attended events with Ann present knows that hilarity shall ensue, not all of it blog-appropriate. It is a very, very good thing that we are not reading partners.)

  • Jerilyn Church, American Indian Health and Family Service of SE Michigan, '04 Udall Scholar

  • Sue Kissinger, Univ. of Wisconsin - Stevens Point

  • Matt McMahon, Princeton, '02 & '03 Udall Scholar

  • Bryan Mercier, Dept. of the Treasury, '03 Udall Intern

  • Brian Pasko, Sierra Club Oregon, '98 Udall Scholar

  • Katie Purvis-Roberts, Claremont McKenna College

  • Renae Steichen, Dept. of Justice, '04 & '05 Udall Scholar

  • Karna Walter, University of Arizona

  • Jeanne Ware, New College of Florida
My reading partner for this week will be Sue Kissinger, and we have already traded a few emails to say hello to one another and exclaim our excitement over this reading adventure. Though I am looking forward to reading with Sue, I did warn her that she has big shoes to fill -- Katie Purvis-Roberts was my co-reader two years ago, and was just outstanding to work with. She had insightful comments, was good-natured, has a great sense of humor (defined as "was willing to pretend to find my lame jokes were funny"), and we were able to really engage in give-and-take to come to a consensus over the files we were reading. Udall has a rule that two readers can only work together once (usually returning readers are paired with new readers), so Katie and I will just have to chat during breaks this year.

The big blue folder also contained several pages of instructions on how we will read files, copies of all of Mo's most important speeches -- Planet Earth, Enviro vs. Economy, Man: Endangered Species, etc. etc. -- for us to read in advance, and, perhaps most importantly, the sample cases.

The sample cases are copies of four actual files from past years, with the names redacted from them (they do identify university, major, have letters of rec and transcripts, etc.). They also have blank rating forms attached, and our job is to read and score each of the four files in advance of going to Tucson. You also have to pick one of the four as a scholar and one as an honorable mention -- and then fax all four rating sheets to Peggy. When we meet on Wednesday afternoon for readers' orientation, we will talk about all four cases, look at how we each graded each sample case, and make sure that we all understand what the Udall is looking for and how we read files. There is of course no way to remove the subjectivity from reading and scoring files -- these are humans making judgment calls -- but the foundation does a good job of trying to at least get us all in a tight cluster of opinions.

The sample cases also have, at the back, the rating forms that were completed by the readers when these were real, "live" applications. After you've read and scored the application, it's helpful to compare your comments and thoughts on a file with those who have read it before.

Going through the sample cases was a really good exercise for me, especially since when I read them I was in the final throes of helping my own four Udall candidates finalize their applications. If you haven't done so already, I would strongly encourage you to download and utilize the blank rating form on the Udall website -- it is a great tool to help pinpoint where your candidates are strong and where they need help. It lets you get in the mindset of a reader and utilize the same tools that we will have when we read the file to score it.

In addition to the four sample cases, all of which are environmental applicants, the blue folder also had two sample cases from tribal health care & policy applicants, just to make sure we all understand the diversity of the applicant pool (tribal health care and policy applicants are read by a separate team, so I won't see any of them this week).

Since I can't get from Iowa to Tucson on Wednesday in time for the 3pm meeting, I will be departing on Tuesday afternoon, arriving that evening. I should mention here that my wife, Anne, will be travelling with me (thank you grandparents for proving child care!) and will be romping around Tucson while I am holed up and reading files all week. In case there are random references to Anne getting tan, Anne getting a massage, or Anne having close encounters with saguaro cacti (and my jealous comments about these activities), at least now you know to whom I am referring.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Introducing the Udall 2009 blog

Welcome to the 2009 Udall committee blog. Tara Yglesias at the Truman Foundation has blazed a trail using Twitter to update all of us during the Truman process, which inspired me to try blogging the Udall Scholarship committee reading process this year.

The blog will begin in earnest on Wednesday, March 11, when the Udall committee members meet in Tucson for orientation and a dinner. I hope to post frequently – perhaps several times a day – between then and when we finish the reading and selection process on Sunday morning, March 15.

My goal with this blog is twofold: 1) to “lift the curtain” on the reading process that goes into a national scholarship committee, letting everyone see what it looks like when committees meet, what our procedures are, and what the general process is to narrow down 500+ applications into the 80 scholars and 50 honorable mentions, and 2) to share what I learn about the Udall Scholarship from the perspective of a scholarship advisor that will help me advise my own candidates in the future.

What I won’t be doing, obviously, is discussing specific candidates or even say which committee members are reading which regions. I’ll stick to generalities about how the process is going and what I am learning in the big picture.

I’d like to thank Jane Curlin and Mia Ibarra at the Udall Foundation for their cooperation in letting me do this – not everyone would be willing to have a committee member blog the process and lift the curtain. I will say that I did offer, and Jane and Mia have accepted the offer, for one or both of them to read and approve each post before it goes up (including this one). I don’t want to accidentally share confidential information, or post something that the Udall Foundation wouldn’t want known publicly.

A little about me, just so you know who you are reading – I’ve been the director of service and social commitment at Grinnell College in Iowa for about 10 years, and as such serve as the college’s scholarship/fellowship advisor. I also run the community service center, advise students on post-graduation service opportunities, and administer our own post-grad service program, the Grinnell Corps. I’m a NAFA board member, blogged the NAFA UK trip in 2006, and have served as a national panel member in the past for the Madison Fellowship, Dell Scholarship, and once before for the Udall. I am also very excited about getting out of the end of Iowa’s winter for a few days in Tucson!

I hope you’ll check back frequently next week and through the following weekend as the blog gets going in earnest. You should also feel free to email me questions at, and you can share this URL with your Udall applicants as well. They’re not going to learn the outcome of the committee’s decision any earlier, but they might get an interesting look into how the decision-making process goes.