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No Small Plans

The students who come to see Earl Thompson have big plans. They want to go to Paris and spend a year studying French. They want to join a research team in a biology lab at one of Germany’s top universities. They want to teach English as a Second Language in Ecuador.

So they talk to Thompson, Elmhurst’s major scholarships coordinator. He makes it his mission to help them win one of the big-money, high-prestige scholarships—maybe a Fulbright, maybe a Gilman—that can make their plans a reality.

“So many of the students that come to me are so impressive. They have that special spark,” Thompson said in a meeting room at the Center for Professional Excellence where he often meets with students. This is where he makes his pitch for them to apply for one of the twenty or so scholarships that are considered higher education’s biggest prizes. “I tell them, ‘There’s a time to be humble, and this ain’t it.’”

Elmhurst students are winning those big awards more frequently than ever. Thompson said Elmhurst students won as many Fulbright Scholarships, the highly prized awards that fund overseas study, in the last five years as they had in the previous 30. Last year, Libby Glass, a 2010 graduate, won a Fulbright Teaching Assistant award, to teach and study at a university in Panama.

“We’re trying to change the culture here, so that students feel they can compete,” Thompson said. “Our students are better than they think they are.”

Thompson has been at Elmhurst long enough to see the culture changing before his eyes. He taught Spanish at the College for thirty years, the last seven as chair of what was then the foreign language department. (It’s now called World Languages, Literatures and Cultures.) After Thompson retired five years ago, Larry Carroll, the director of the Center for Professional Excellence, asked him to help some of Elmhurst’s brightest students navigate the scholarship application process. His help was needed. The College was enrolling some of the most academically gifted classes in its history, which meant that there were more qualified candidates than ever for the biggest national scholarships. Part of Thompson’s job is to make sure those talented students get the recognition they deserve. He works with Mary Kay Mulvaney, director of the College’s Honors Program, and Wally Lagerwey, director of International Education, to steer students toward the most promising scholarships.

“As the quality of students has improved here, we have seen that our best can compete with the best anywhere,” Thompson said. “We encourage them to think about applying for these scholarships.”

One of the first things Thompson hands students is a menu of some of the most highly prized national scholarships, with all the relevant requirements and deadlines. Interested in a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, for graduate study at England’s second-oldest university? Or a Goldwater, for students in math, science or engineering? Or a William E. Simon Fellowship, for graduating seniors with plans to “strengthen civil society?” If so, see Thompson as soon as possible. He said he likes to start working with students when they are sophomores, so they have time to build the body of work and experiences–research, community service, international study—that will improve their chances of earning a scholarship.

A compelling personal story, and the willingness to tell it, helps, too. Thompson said his students produce draft after draft of their personal statements for applications. “Oh, the drafts they do,” he laughed, leaning back in his chair. Sometimes the challenge is getting students to talk about themselves and their lives in a way that will distinguish them from their competitors. Thompson is proud of success stories like Ashley Mothershead, a recently graduated student who grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana and hoped to study French overseas. When Thompson read the initial draft of her application essay for a Gilman Scholarship, he was surprised to find no mention of her unique upbringing or the transition she’d made from rural Montana to suburban Chicago.

“I told her, ‘You’re pretty interesting, why don’t you tell them about it?’” Thompson said. “If you don’t make yourself special to the reader, you’re going to end up in a pile with a hundred others.”

Mothershead took Thompson’s advice, was awarded a Gilman and ended up spending nine months studying in France.

Thompson has big plans of his own. An Elmhurst student has never won a Truman Scholarship, for students interested in government or public service, or a Mitchell Scholarship, which funds study in Ireland. Thompson would like to see his students change that. Do they have what it takes?

“Why not?” he asked. “You’re not going to win unless you apply.”

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