A&S Nationally Competitive Award winners reflect on experiences

Students point to support from UC as instrumental in their success

By Michelle Flanagan

Academic awards such as Fulbright, Goldwater and National Science Foundation fellowships offer students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to extend their studies, advance their academic goals, and experience the world in an all-new way.

Receiving a Nationally Competitive Award is an honor for students, and grants them a stronger ability to chase their dreams. And in hindsight, most say that while the process of applying for the awards is time-consuming, it’s well worth it.

UC’s College of Arts and Sciences has had no shortage of such award winners in the last several years. UC’s Office of Nationally Competitive Awards supports students interested in applying for these external fellowships, and works to support them as early as possible in their college careers.

In order to help students develop into strong candidates,  the office provides comprehensive advising and support for a set of core awards that require UC endorsement, as well as assistance for some priority awards that don’t require UC endorsement.

Professors also provide critical support for students, and can point them toward the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards when they recognize that potential.

When applying, students must have a detailed plan of what they will do if they win, and a great deal of research goes into the application process.

A plan is one thing, but what was the experience of these students actually like? Here Madelyn Leembruggen, a double-major in astrophysics and mathematics as an undergraduate in A&S, reflects on her experience of being pushed to "be bold and aim high."

Goldwater Recipient

WISE Physics student Madelyn Leembruggen working with her group led by mentor Rohana Wijewardhana.

A&S student Madelyn Leembruggen, recipient of multiple Nationally Competitive Awards

Madelyn Leembruggen, a double major in astrophysics and mathematics, received three separate awards between 2016 and 2018 during her undergraduate career in A&S. As the winner of three awards, and an applicant for others, she knows what it takes to put yourself through the process.

“The first nationally competitive award I won was the Goldwater scholarship. I was encouraged to apply for this award by faculty in my department who understood the weight of the award. They knew it would make me more competitive for graduate schools and graduate fellowships, and I trusted their advice,” Leembruggen said.

“Winning the Goldwater felt like permission to dream big and pursue science as my primary career. I had shied away from graduate school and being a full-time scientist, but the external validation of winning this award, and the self-reflection required to write the application, pushed me to be bold and aim high.”

That first award may have been the catalyst for the following two, but Leembruggen knows she didn’t get there alone. “The UC Office of Nationally Competitive Awards helped me prepare my applications from even my freshman year. I was fortunate that an observant professor sent me to meet with an NCA representative the first semester of my freshman year; because he was paying attention to his students, he immediately identified me as a future strong candidate for nationally competitive awards.”

Throughout the process, Leembruggen worked with an NCA representative on essay drafts – she went through seven drafts of each essay and short answer questions – and interview preparation to get her ready for the four rounds of interviews and one-on-one meetings with UC’s Goldwater committee. Her meetings with the NCA representative are also how Leembruggen discovered the Ford Foundation Fellowships.

“I had to think deeply about my research, but also about my goals and how I saw myself fitting into academia. Even if I hadn’t won the Goldwater, I would have learned a tremendous amount about my science and who I wanted to be as a scientist.”

Leembruggen points out the obvious highs of winning these awards, such as recognition for years of hard work, invitations to join selective professional societies, connections with other excellent scholars, and the funds themselves, among others, there were also more intangible benefits.

“I can say with certainty that the process of applying for an award forced me to think very carefully about my research, write confidently about my accomplishments, and boldly establish my goals and ambitions,” she said. “Whether I won or not, I gained essential professional skills which made me a more focused scientist, stronger writer, and more outspoken advocate.”

Now, Leembruggen is a graduate student at Harvard and is still making waves. “Thanks to my graduate fellowship funding I have time to lead the Harvard Women in Physics organization and other efforts to increase the recruitment and retention of historically underrepresented minorities in Harvard physics graduate programs. While working toward my PhD, I am also creating tangible social change at my university. These fellowships grant me the freedom to pursue both science and advocacy in meaningful ways.”

“Applying for nationally competitive awards were some of my best experiences in undergrad,” said Leembruggen. “By stepping out of my comfort zone and asserting ‘I deserve this award because…’ I learned countless lessons, and even won a few awards. It is an experience I recommend to everyone!”

This story is one of a series exploring the stories of students in the College of Arts and Sciences who worked hard, dreamed big, and won life-changing experience for their efforts.

Learn more about the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards

Featured image at top: Mick and Mack, the iconic mascots for UC's College of Arts and Sciences. Photo/Anne Bowling

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