Q&A with Fellowships & Prizes Advisor Melissa Mandos
Today marks the beginning of the first Fellowships & Prizes Week at Swarthmore, a series of informational sessions [pdf] at which current students and alumni who have received various awards will share their experiences and advice with the College community. The series begins with Fulbright grantee Randall Burson ’15 and will also showcase Truman Scholars, Watson Fellows, a Marshall Scholar, and the College’s most recent Rhodes Scholar, Mark Dlugash ’08.
This program is the idea of Fellowships & Prizes Advisor Melissa Mandos, who sought to consolidate the typical smattering of information sessions into one special week. Before the events kicked off, Mandos discussed the highlights and challenges of her year-round efforts to help Swarthmore students have their academic and community service efforts rewarded.
What is your role as prizes and fellowships advisor?
I coordinate the application process for about a dozen or so nationally competitive grants and do outreach to make students aware of these special opportunities. These are grants, like the Fulbright, Watson, Rhodes, Truman, and Goldwater, that require the College to formally endorse or nominate individuals in order for them to compete against other candidates from all over the country. I work with the Fellowships and Prizes Committee, a faculty committee, to interview candidates and select nominees. The committee’s goal is to have everyone get something out of the process, whether or not they go on to win the grant. These grant applications force you to really reflect on your values, aspirations, and goals, and how to concretely attain them. We hope students will walk away from the process with a better sense of themselves and their desired place in the world.
What's a typical day for you?
During the height of fellowships and prizes season, which is the fall semester, any given day is a combination of meetings with students and alums, reading essays and giving feedback, being in touch with faculty about letters of recommendation and committee meetings, and interviewing candidates.
What’s your favorite aspect of the job?
Meeting and talking with students and alums about their aspirations. Hearing their really creative and inspiring ideas for research projects. And vicariously traveling all over the world through their proposals, especially for the Fulbright, Luce, and Watson!
What's your greatest challenge?
Writing letters of nomination. Almost all of these grants require a letter of nomination or endorsement that I compose on behalf of the Fellowships & Prizes Committee and the College. I always want them be perfect, and sometimes I have to force myself to stop tweaking them and let them go.
Why is it important to feature award winners for Fellowships & Prizes Week?
I cannot stress enough how invaluable their experience and insights are to people who are thinking about applying. I have to give a shout out to Joel Mittleman ’09, Nell Bang-Jensen ’11, Javier Perez ’13, Mark Dlugash ’08, Mara Revkin ‘10, Yongjun Heo ’09, Sam Sussman ’13, Dan Hammer ’07, and many, many others too numerous to mention here, for always giving so freely of their time and advice. Swat alums really know how to pay it forward. I hope all interested students will turn out to hear from their peers and Swat alums. They have lived through these competitions and have special insight. And they are just interesting people to talk to and get to know.
Do any memories of informing a student about an award stand out to you?
When Wren Elhai ’08 won the Watson, I called to congratulate him. Back then, the Watson Foundation posted their scholars online, and that's how you knew whether or not you won. You either saw your name online or you didn't. But the Watson always makes its announcements on March 15, which fell on Spring Break. When I called Wren, he was really surprised and said, “Oh, I didn't know. I'm riding in a van from Florida back to Swarthmore with Sixteen Feet.” It was fun breaking the news to him. Most scholarships notify their grantees directly, and I won't know who won until a student or alum tells me the news!
What’s something about you that may surprise your colleagues and the students you work closely with?
In addition to two dogs and a goldfish, my family and I have a seven-year-old, three-foot-long ball python named Sam. He could live as long as 30 years and grow to be over five-feet long, so it’s quite possible he will both outlive and outgrow me.