Two Fordham alumni joined a group of student scholars on March 23 to discuss the realities of applying for post-graduate fellowships and scholarships.

Winston Churchill, FCRH ’62, a member of the Fordham Board of Trustees, and John Kirby, Jr., FCRH ’61, a Fordham Trustee Fellow, met with eight students participating in the Rose Hill cohort of the Matteo Ricci Seminar.

As former Rhodes scholars who later served on the Rhodes interviewing committee, Churchill and Kirby shared their insight into the application process by simulating an “Oxford-style seminar,” which is similar to the Rhodes interview.

“The interview experience has historically been one of the most challenging experiences of the scholarship process,” Kirby said. “If you’re invited for an interview, they’ve read your essay, seven to ten letters of recommendation, your university’s recommendation, and they’ve been researching you—as well as all the people you’re competing against—the best and brightest from their schools.”

To prepare for the seminar, the students wrote essays about Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Cox and Murray, 2012). Then, as a group, they discussed the book and its impacts for them as top-tier students in a leading university—a social class that played a significant role in Murray’s book.

The discussion allowed students to reflect not only on the interview process for prestigious fellowships, but also on their purpose for seeking post-graduate opportunities.

“[During] one of the first days of our seminar, we were told that we were chosen because we stand out, and that we will have an effect on the future,” said junior AnnaMaria Shaker, a Middle East Studies major. “If we’re going to have an effect on the future, then we’re going to have an effect on all these systems that most of us find inherently wrong and unjust.”

AnnaMaria Shaker, a junior Middle East Studies major, weighs in on Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

During the two-hour seminar, students spoke with the alumni about the questionable values of the racial and cultural undertones that shape American meritocracy—a kind of dialogue that, the men said, is similar to the interview process for prestigious fellowships.

“The idea [behind the interview]is to be very personal to elicit someone’s true nature,” Churchill said. “They’re not looking [just]for smart cookies—all the cookies are qualified. They’re looking for the extraordinary cookie… So my advice is to be yourself. Don’t hang back.”

As participants of the Matteo Ricci Seminar, the students, who ranged from sophomores to seniors, will likely apply for similar opportunities, and possibly the Rhodes scholarship itself.

Launched in the 2010, the seminar is a rigorous two-year tutorial that prepares high-achieving students to compete for prestigious fellowships and scholarships. Selected students participate in bi-weekly debates and discussions during the first semester of the seminar. During the second semester, students then work with a mentor to develop a research project. These projects are used the following year as part of fellowship applications.

“Fordham, as I remember it, has always encouraged the top students to broaden their minds and ready themselves to go forward into the world, including applying for post-graduate fellowships,” Kirby said. “Fordham was very important in helping me to obtain a very good post-graduate education. I want to help these current students do the same.”