When it comes to prestigious scholarships, assistant professors Tara and Kelly Welch are....
By Todd Cohen
It was something they never planned to seek. Or even dreamed of ever actually winning.
That's how most Rhodes Scholar candidates feel during the annual competition for the prestigious scholarships to study at England's Oxford University.
"Everyone who enters thinks `What am I doing here?'" Tara Welch said, exchanging a knowing look with her husband, Kelly. "It's a very long shot."
But the Welches had what it takes. Kelly Welch, then an agricultural economics student at Kansas State University, was elected a Rhodes Scholar in 1986. Tara Welch, a Latin and Greek major at the University of Southern California, won her Rhodes Scholarship in 1990.
Today, they are both assistant professors at KU: he joined the faculty in 1997 and teaches corporate finance in the School of Business; she joined the KU classics department last fall and teaches Latin. Not bad for a Kansas farm boy and a girl from Las Vegas.
They both promote the Rhodes Scholarship as an incredible international academic experience, one that some students may too quickly bypass as seemingly out of reach.
"I had no idea what the Rhodes was until I was a sophomore in college," said Kelly, a Moran native.
His wife added, "I hadn't thought of applying until one of my mentors encouraged me."
That push, from a faculty member, teacher or mentor, is often what is takes for students to take the plunge.
"Encouragement from an adviser often makes the difference in whether or not a strong student will apply," said Barbara Schowen, the director of the University Honors Program. Schowen is now actively seeking Rhodes Scholar applicants here at KU. The deadline is April 5.
It was just such an effort - a 1996 meeting at USC of Rhodes Scholars and teachers to identify and encourage students to apply - that brought the Welches together. They met at the meeting and married one year later.
Now this couple with the golden resumes are involved in actually selecting Rhodes Scholars. Tara Welch has served four years on the California state selection committee and this past year as director of the Kansas committee. Kelly Welch served on the selection committee for a Texas district.
The U.S. sends 32 Rhodes Scholars to Oxford every year, where they join students from Australia, Bangladesh, Bermuda, Canada, Commonwealth Caribbean, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In a typical term, about 230 Rhodes Scholars are in residence at Oxford.
The Rhodes Scholarships were founded in 1904 by British statesman Cecil J. Rhodes, who dreamed that bringing top students from throughout the English-speaking world to study at his alma mater would promote international understanding and peace. Rhodes believed a key facet of his plan was exposing these future leaders to cultures different from their own.
The criteria for selecting the scholars, set forth in Rhodes' will, contains four standards: "literary and scholastic attainments; fondness for and success in sports; truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship; and moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one's fellow beings."
"We look for people who have a craving for a very intense academic experience at Oxford," Tara Welch said. "But that's not sufficient."
Equally important is an extensive record of extra-curricular activities and leadership, Kelly Welch said.
Besides a short 30- to 40-minute interview, a statement of purpose and other sundry items, a key ingredient of any successful application is references from faculty, the Welches said. The strongest letters of recommendation are those with "detailed anecdotes," Kelly Welch said.
"That's the hardest thing for applicants," Tara Welch added. "You need to start those relationships with faculty years before you apply.
"That's why faculty, when they see freshmen who are bright and wonderful, should encourage the students to develop a relationship now," she said. "Students who have developed good relationships will succeed." And extroverts don't necessarily have an edge.
"Sometimes it is a very shy person who's very interesting who wins the scholarship. Sometimes it's someone very gregarious, she said.
Time to apply
The deadline for the KU part of the Rhodes Scholarship application process is April 5. Application materials may be picked up at Nunemaker Center or printed from the Honors Program Web site at www.ukans.edu/~honors/rhodinfo.html KU has had 23 Rhodes Scholarship winners.