"I cannot express how special this fellowship made me feel," writes Nina Berry, one of several Penn State graduate fellows profiled in the story that begins on page 18. "Nor can I express the determination that this fellowship gives me to excel in my academic and personal life."
Berry, recipient of both a University Graduate Fellowship and an Academic Computing Fellowship during her years at Penn State, completed a Ph.D. in industrial engineering with a specialty in artificial intelligence in 1997. She is currently using her expertise in machine learning to help redesign the computer systems at Sandia National Laboratories.
For Joe Gaugler, another featured student, the promise of a University Graduate Fellowship was a major reason for coming to Penn State in 1995. A year later, Gaugler, now a doctoral candidate in gerontology, won a National Science Foundation fellowship to continue his analysis of the costs and benefits —; physical, emotional, and economic—of state-sponsored adult daycare. The Penn State fellowship, he says, played a significant part in this success. "It allowed me to focus my ideas early on, and I'm sure that came through in the NSF proposal."
Winning a fellowship can make a huge difference in a graduate career. Freed from the constraints of a teaching or research assistantship, these top students can afford to explore topics and interests that others can only wonder about. "A fellowship supplies a safety net," says Lynne Goodstein, associate dean of the Graduate School. "The student can push, can work at the edges where most knowledge is produced, and still know he or she will have time to complete the degree."
At the same time, the presence on campus of these young stars—the world's future leaders in academia, government business, and industry—enriches the University in many ways. It shouldn't be surprising that competition for the very best graduate students, while not as widely followed as the angling for blue-chip athletes, is fierce.
Penn State currently has a $12 million endowment for graduate fellowships, enough to support about 36 fellows annually. Another 58 scholars, chosen from the best applicants put forward by each department, were supported last year with funds allotted from the University's central operating budget. Compared to figures from other large public universities, these numbers are quite low. According to 1996-97 data, in fact, Penn State's total of 58 University-funded fellowships ranks last among Big Ten graduate schools. Those next in line, Purdue, Minnesota, and Indiana, each offered 151. Northwestern, at the top, offered 400.
The recent Task Force on Graduate Education named increased financial support the number-one issue in improving graduate education at Penn State. Two recent gifts to the University, a million-dollar pledge from the Alumni Association and $250,000 from former president Joab Thomas and his wife Marly, specifically recognize the need in this area. Last year, alumni William L. and Josephine Berry Weiss committed $4 million, a substantial portion of which will be used to fund a graduate fellowship program in the Colleges of Engineering and Liberal Arts.
Attracting "the highest possible quality of graduate students to Penn State" is vitally important "not only to the quality of our graduate programs, but indeed to the entire University," says Rodney Erickson, vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School. "It's one of those areas that fuels the entire system," echoes grants coordinator Jeff Ritchey, of Erickson's staff. "Excellent grad students attract excellent faculty, and vice versa. And both of them have a positive impact on undergraduate education. But neither will be attracted without resources."