Thursday, March 12, 2009

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.

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