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January 25, 2007

Making Pitt Work: Amy Eckhardt

The University’s list of students who have garnered major awards continues to grow. Daniel Armanios won a Rhodes Scholarship and Anna Quider was awarded a Marshall.

An increase in student quality certainly contributes to the lengthening list: Pitt’s incoming freshman classes are showing higher average SAT scores and higher percentages who rank in the top 10 and 20 percent of their high school graduating class. But help also comes from behind the scenes.

Amy Eckhardt, the Honors College’s director of national scholarships and international programming, is among the key Pitt staff who help scholarship hopefuls polish their applications so they shine — with glowing results.

To date, Pitt students have won one Churchill, four Udalls, five Rhodes, nine Marshalls, 10 Trumans and 34 Goldwater scholarships, the majority of them since the 1986 inception of the University Honors College. And, since 2004, Pitt has had four students win Fulbright full research fellowships and two receive Fulbright English teaching assistantships.

“The students’ quality is directly related to our ability to attract students,” Eckhardt said. “It’s very organic.”

Looking ahead, Eckhardt said she believes the University has the potential to expand even further its numbers of national and international scholarship winners. The area with the greatest potential, she said, is the Fulbright competition. “We are capable of having 20 good applicants per year,” she said.

Pitt’s strengths in research and international studies creates the unique recipe for the types of students doing the kinds of work that would make them competitive Fulbright candidates, she said.

Eckhardt’s job is not to help scholarship candidates add to their resumes. The students’ work must stand on its own — there’s no time to add much to the resume once the process has begun. “I say to students that by the time they come to me about scholarships, it’s too late to do things for the scholarship,” Eckhardt said.

She said that although the students are motivated, applying for these national and international scholarships is a long, arduous process.

The most difficult is the federal Truman scholarship, which Eckhardt said requires the highest level of coordination between faculty recommendation letters and the student’s required one-page policy statement submission.

The Truman is targeted to students who seek careers in public service and who want to become agents of change. As part of the application, the student must identify a problem or social need he or she would like to address when entering public service. Then, in a 500-word policy proposal, the applicant must describe the problem, propose a solution and outline potential implementation obstacles.

Students say the process is the equivalent of taking a 3-credit class, with the paper taking months to research and write. “It’s an incredible amount of research for the length of the application,” Eckhardt said.

None of the applications are easy, with all requiring an essay or statement of some sort. For all scholarship candidates, “Intrinsic motivation is necessary,” she said. “But, they definitely need an external force that pushes and prods.” Over the course of perhaps two months while submissions are being prepared, she meets with each candidate every week.

Eckhardt’s part is to ask the applicants the tough questions, then send them home to write and write some more. And the first three months of the academic year are particularly busy. For the international scholarships, she likes students to have a rough draft prepared before the fall term begins and to continue to fine-tune each draft until the October deadlines arrive. It might take 10 to 20 drafts before the material is condensed and polished to its final form, she said.

“You want to be able to visualize very concretely what you’re going to be doing for the next five years,” she said. “It’s almost like working a presidential campaign: Here’s your platform, here’s your message.”

Good candidates, in addition to having outstanding academic credentials, must have the ability to speak off the cuff, to think on their feet and to write well. “The essay ultimately gets the student an interview,” said Honors College Dean Alec Stewart.

Eckhardt added, “It’s not that you just be very, very good. If you’re unable to communicate or transmit what you’re doing, you might get into a good PhD program but you’re not going to get a Rhodes or Marshall.”

She said strong candidates also have a sense of altruism and are able to translate personal interests and passions into something meaningful for the University or community or to further research at large. Her advice: “Find things you like; do them really, really well; make sure you are getting a broad education and at the same time develop specialization in a core subject or research or something that sets you apart from other people,” she said. “The recipe is simple, but not all of us can do it.”

This year, Eckhardt helped with eight Rhodes, eight Marshall, 11 Fulbright and three Gates scholarship applications. She and her colleagues seem to have developed a good sense in preparing and matching students with scholarship competitions in which they are likely to have success.

“In terms of the number of applications compared with the number of winners, our rate was about 2:1 for the Fulbrights and we got four interviews out of eight applications for the Rhodes,” she said, adding that last year Pitt had five Rhodes interviewees and one winner, Justin Chalker.

The number of scholarship committee interviews Pitt students receive is a good measure of quality, Eckhardt said.

“You can’t win a Rhodes every year since there are only two given per region, but if every year you’re in the hunt …,” she said. “And we’re definitely in the hunt.”

Stewart said, “When students of this University go out and compete against the best America produces, it’s evidence of educational credibility.”

Students need to be nudged both toward relative attainment and absolute attainment, he said. Not only should students be encouraged to be the best they can be; the University also should encourage them to aim to be at the top of all the rest.

“If you believe quality is measured by human achievement, then an indication of human achievement is an indication that an institution is doing what it ought to be doing,” he said, emphasizing that the University’s ultimate product is the student.

“Faculty attainment is a measure of professional quality; student attainment is a measure of educational quality,” Stewart said. “When good things happen to good students, someone’s paying attention to student attainment.”

Stewart compares the work that he, Eckhardt and their colleagues do in the Honors College with an athletic coach’s duties. “They are different arenas, but similar ideas,” he said, adding that it’s important for students with talent to have the support of people who can help motivate them and mold that talent into achievement. “The role of academic coaches is played by faculty mentors and supportive staff,” he said. The Honors College works together to coach national scholarship candidates with Stewart taking the lead for Goldwater Scholarship candidates, Ed McCord leading for the Udalls and Eckhardt for the Truman applicants.

“The way we do this at the Honors College works,” Eckhardt said. “Scholarships are centralized here. If student applies to one and others are relevant, they can apply there as well.”

As long as students are competitive, there’s no limit to how many scholarships they can apply for, Eckhardt said. On the other hand, experience has given her a sense of what various scholarship committees want and she won’t sugarcoat the truth if a student’s credentials might not be a good fit for a certain scholarship.

“It’s not fair to a student not to be honest with them. It’s not that they’re not good, but they might not be competitive for a particular scholarship,” she said.

For instance, while a minimum 3.7 grade point average is required for Marshall candidates, in reality, if a student has less than a 3.9, he or she isn’t likely to be competitive, Eckhardt explained.

Often applicants for the Rhodes also apply for the Marshall, or Marshall hopefuls also may try for a Gates award, she said.

“Our thought is that students should apply for as many as are appropriate,” she said, noting that the goal isn’t simply about winning a competition. “It’s about the opportunity to go and do something they want to do. The institution they choose is very important,” Eckhardt said.

For instance, students who do not wish to study at Oxford may pass up the Oxford-specific Rhodes competition in favor of the Marshall, which allows winners to study anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Stewart and Eckhardt stress that the benefit to candidates is not simply winning the scholarship, but also the process they go through: writing the essays and seriously pondering who they are and what they want to do in life. Those who don’t win, Eckhardt said, still gain the benefit of having a solid package of application materials ready to submit to graduate schools.

Not all of Eckhardt’s work is with students. Faculty recommendations are important as well, and generic letters won’t do, Eckhardt said, noting that faculty often take hours to craft the recommendation letters that accompany a student’s application.

“Obviously, faculty involvement is very important,” she said, adding that she feels fortunate to have very good faculty cooperation, not only in preparing strong letters of recommendation, but also in stepping up on short notice to participate in mock interviews to help prepare students who have made the first cut.

Finalists get perhaps only a week or two’s notice before they must meet with the scholarship committee. When word is received, Eckhardt springs into action, giving candidates a reading list, putting them in contact with former candidates who already have been through the process and putting together mock interview committees to help students practice what they want to say and how they want to say it.

“It’s a fine line between over-preparing them and making them feel comfortable,” she said. “We don’t want to psych them out. We want to help them polish up.”

Eckhardt, who has worked at Pitt since 1997, came to the Honors College in 2001 to fill the newly created position at Stewart’s behest. “It was an interesting position because it’s not directly related to what I had done, but very similar in terms of the kinds of work,” said Eckhardt, who had been advising and doing program development in Pitt’s West European studies program. She made the leap, she said, because “it sounded like a pretty fun job.”

The European contacts she had established are invaluable in the Honors College job, she said. Because the Marshall, Rhodes and Gates scholarships involve study in the United Kingdom and the Fulbrights offer international study, “the international dimension has been a pretty good fit with this work.”

Eckhardt said she’s found her own eclectic background helpful in working with students with such a broad range of passions and interests. “For one, it’s the challenge of understanding what all of these students are doing. It’s incredibly appealing to me,” she said.

“The students are writing for an audience of educated people. I don’t need to be a specialist. If I can’t understand what they’re writing it’s not going to work for the committees.”

Eckhardt said she studied international relations, political science and economics as an undergraduate, spent time in the Peace Corps, then came to Pitt to do graduate work and teach linguistics before moving on to the West European studies program.

Along the way, she also earned a master’s degree in law at Pitt, which she said is very helpful in dealing with students on policy work.

“I like working with really interesting kids who are driven and passionate about what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s very exciting to be with people who love what they’re doing.”

— Kimberly K. Barlow

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