Attracting High Achievers and Big Thinkers With Merit Scholarships
By Joy Hart
Photographs By Hillsman S. Jackson
To attract the best students to SMU, admission officers cite a campus experience that is challenging in and out of the classroom, the opportunity to interact closely with distinguished professors and other bright students, and the benefits of living and learning on a park-like campus in a vibrant city. They get all this – and the incentive of merit scholarships.
As SMU competes nationally for the best students, merit scholarships "help attract young scholars who will benefit from and enrich the SMU experience. They stimulate an environment of academic excellence," says Ron Moss, dean of undergraduate admission and executive director of enrollment services. And as SMU strives to grow in academic stature, seeking resources for additional merit scholarships is a high priority, championed by SMU’s Board of Trustees and other University leaders.
Two top scholarship packages supported by donors are the President’s Scholars Program, now 25, and the Hunt Leadership Scholars Program, which turns 15 next year. And a new endowment has just been announced for B.B.A. scholars in the Cox School of Business.
Students who win the highly competitive scholarships say it is more than money that seals the deal – it is the total SMU experience and a package of benefits that often includes study abroad, meeting world leaders on campus, close mentoring by faculty, research opportunities and the possibility of pursuing double or triple majors. The students bring the right combination of attributes, too – brains, broad interests, leadership, civic awareness and other talents. They stand out, yet fit in. The following profiles of seven merit scholar recipients make the point.
Balancing Engineering And Athletics – Swimmingly
Brett Denham was a fraction away from making the Olympic trials in 2008.
At the U.S. National Swimming Championships in July, he completed the 100-yard butterfly in 55.9 seconds – only 3/10th of a second over the qualifying time.
"I have mixed feelings," Denham says. "My time last year was 56.5 seconds. It was a good drop for me, but it’s a little tough to be so close."
Denham, now ranked 54th in the country in the 100-yard butterfly, will try again next year to make the Olympic trials.
"Brett is a great swimmer," says Andy Kershaw, the SMU swim team’s assistant coach. "He has talent, but he also works hard and he’s disciplined." He’s disciplined enough to compete athletically while pursuing the academically demanding major of mechanical engineering. Denham, a senior, swims five hours a day. During the school year, he trains two hours in the morning before classes and three hours in the afternoon. During the summer, he continued the same rigorous schedule, fitting in an internship at Stanley Tool Company between practices.
"Swimming alone is a tough thing to do," Kershaw says. "Swimming and engineering are about as tough as it can get. Brett does both with a smile on his face."
With a 3.6 G.P.A., Denham is one of the reasons why the SMU swim team has earned the NCAA Academic All-American team award for the past three years. Last season, the Mustang swimming team posted a 3.3 overall team G.P.A., ranking it sixth in the nation.
Even though his parents, older brother and numerous cousins attended Texas A&M, SMU is the right place for him, says Denham, who received an Embrey Engineering Scholarship and is an SMU Scholar, both awarded for academic excellence.
"I visited other schools, but I didn’t receive nearly as warm a welcome as I did when I came here on a swimming recruiting trip," he says. "SMU has a good swimming program and a solid engineering school. And the scholarships have helped me tremendously."
Finding The Right Stage For His Talents
When Travis Ballenger was in the second grade, he played the role of a Native American chief in his school’s Thanksgiving play. It was the start of his passion for theatre. During his last two years of high school, he attended the prestigious South Carolina Governor’s School of the Arts and Humanities.
But as a sophomore theatre major at SMU, he discovered that his true calling was working behind the scenes – as a director.
"From the moment of my first rehearsal as a director, it felt right to me," he says. "I felt tense in a good way. There is a spark or fire that directing lights in me."
Ballenger directed seven theatre productions during his first three years at SMU, an impressive number for any student, and in November directed the Meadows School of the Arts production of Lanford Wilson’s "Balm in Gilead."
The first in his family to attend college, Ballenger chose SMU over other universities that offered him scholarships because he wanted to study with Cecil O’Neal, professor and chair of SMU’s Division of Theatre. O’Neal met Ballenger when he visited his high school to provide monologue coaching and encouraged him to compete in SMU’s national auditions in Chicago. Based on Ballenger’s talent and potential, SMU offered him a Meadows Foundation Scholarship.
"SMU has been a terrific place for me," Ballenger says. "The professors really care about the students. You can tell that, for them, this is much more than a job."
To earn extra money and gain even more experience, Ballenger also has worked in the Theatre Division assisting the faculty member who serves as stage manager.
"Basically, I live in the theatre department," Ballenger says.
Last summer Ballenger received a full scholarship to attend a three-week playwriting course taught by playwright Mac Wellman at SMU-in-Taos. He also spent part of the summer teaching acting at his old high school.
"Travis has done everything in his power to take advantage of all the opportunities available to him at SMU," O’Neal says.
Ballenger, who calls himself "extremely ambitious," says his goal is "to have my own company. We would write, direct, act and produce our own work." Based on his studies and experience on and off the stage, Ballenger could probably play any or all of those roles.
As a student at a private high school in Salt Lake City, Jessica North entered the public arena to encourage fairness in the treatment of women. She joined a group of students who successfully lobbied Utah legislators to support a bill on pay equity. The bill required the state to conduct employment surveys to verify 2000 census information showing that women in Utah made 67 cents to every dollar made by men, making it the second worst state in the country for pay equity. "It was a first step in correcting the problem," she says. "I learned that you can talk to your legislators."
At SMU North is among those making policy on campus issues. Last year she represented the Cox School of Business on the SMU Student Senate and served on the SMU Honor Council, helping to decide cases involving students accused of cheating or other violations of the University’s Honor Code. She also served as vice president of finance for Delta Sigma Pi, the business honorary fraternity; as an officer in her sorority, Tri Delta; and as a Week of Welcome leader to incoming first-year students.
Although North applied to colleges all over the country, from Santa Clara in California to Duke in North Carolina, she chose SMU for several reasons. The friendly campus was an attraction, she says, as well as the highly rated Cox School of Business.
The clincher, however, was scholarships. North, a double major in finance and political science, received merit awards as an SMU Scholar and a Cox B.B.A. Scholar, which recognize outstanding academic achievement and strong leadership skills. "When I was weighing the pros and cons, the scholarships had a big impact on my decision," she says.
For North, it has been a wise decision. Last spring she learned the value of networking when she was one of 20 students invited to a dinner with the SMU Board of Trustees. She sat next to Trustee and alumnus John Tolleson (’68), who heads Tolleson Wealth Management.
"I hadn’t heard of the company but, after talking to Mr. Tolleson, I thought that it would be a great place to work."
When summer internship opportunities were posted several days later, North found a listing for Tolleson Wealth Management – and applied. She spent her summer at the company helping clients research investment opportunities and file tax returns. She also spent two weeks with the CFO and controller observing their roles in the company. At the end of summer she helped develop a training session that the company now uses to train new hires. "It was a great internship because I was able to put into practice a lot of the things I was learning in classes and see how it actually operates in the real world."
Although she had planned to go to law school after graduation next spring, North has decided to continue her career with Tolleson Wealth Management as an analyst, starting in June. "I want to see where finance will take me first," she says. "Later, I would like to enroll in a J.D./M.B.A. program," combining her interest in lawmaking with her talent for business.
Educating The Youngest Victims Of Civil War
Junior Pragya Lohani returned to her native Nepal last summer to visit her family in the country’s capital, Kathmandu. From there, she traveled even farther in miles and time to the remote village of Rukum, where Nepal’s violent civil war began more than a decade ago.
"We had to fly, and then we had to walk two hours to get to the village," Lohani says. "There are no roads, no electricity, no telephone connections."
With a $10,000 grant from the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Fund, Lohani and a former high school classmate went as "peace ambassadors" to Rukum, where they helped restore a school and selected 20 children for scholarships to attend the school.
"Many of the children in Rukum drop out of school," Lohani says. "Some of the children are so hungry they eat soil. Many of their parents have been killed."
One student, Bimala Pun, described to Lohani how Maoists pulled her father out of their home, kicked him for three hours, dragged him away and shot him. "Bimala was calm because shis used to the war, but I felt very anxious," Lohani recalls. "As soon as I got back to the airport in Nepal’s capital, I started crying so hard."
Lohani says she made "a connection" with the children in Rukum and now has a mission. After she earns degrees in operations research and economics from SMU and then completes graduate school, she hopes to work for the International Monetary Fund. Eventually, she wants to create a nonprofit nongovernmental organization (NGO) to help the children in Nepal.
To help further her goals, Lohani is spending this year at the London School of Economics studying international trade and developmental economics and modernity in Asia, which covers the history of China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea. Study abroad was made possible because at the end of her sophomore year, SMU awarded Lohani an upper-class President’s Scholarship, the highest academic merit award providing full tuition and fees, study abroad and other benefits.
"I love SMU," Lohani says. "I don’t think I could find a better university and education."
A Scholarship Called Serendipity
Rafael Anchia with his wife, Marissa, and their daughters, Sophia and Maia.
Rafael Anchía (’90) calls it serendipity that his father accompanied him to a college fair at the Miami Expo Center in 1985. Dad struck up a conversation with an SMU recruiter who spoke his first language, Spanish, and informed his son, "This is an excellent university."
And when SMU called their home in Florida several months later to offer Anchía a scholarship, Dad accepted for the son, putting him on a path to graduating cum laude from the Hilltop in 1990 with majors in anthropology, Ibero-American studies and Spanish.
Although all four schools Anchía applied to accepted him, SMU offered the most generous scholarship. "This was a big, big deal," he recalls. "I didn’t have my sights set on anything more than going to our state university. I thought that was pretty terrific."
But there would be even more good news for Anchía, who went on to earn a law degree from Tulane University.
Now a Dallas lawyer and state representative, he was named one of the 10 best legislators for 2007 by Texas Monthly magazine. "If the Legislature were a stock market, Anchía would be Google," Texas Monthly concluded.
Anchía represents the future as the son of immigrants who became a lawyer with a blue chip firm, the magazine stated, also noting that he emerged last spring as a top floor debater against a bill that would have required voters to present a government-sponsored form of identification at the polls. Anchía argued that the bill was directed at a voter impersonation problem that does not exist and would have resulted in disenfranchising minority and low-income voters. The bill died after passage in the House but lack of support in the Senate.
At SMU, Anchía remembers putting a lot of pressure on himself. "On many different levels, I wanted to show that a public school kid from a new immigrant community (in Miami) could not only compete but excel," he says. While an undergraduate he joined Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and says he continues to enjoy an extensive social and business network in Dallas because of that experience.
"I would rank my academic preparation at SMU with any education I could have received anywhere else," he says. He has strong memories of the classes he took under linguistics and bilingual education expert William Pulte, associate professor of anthropology, and clearly relishes the opportunity to work as a legislator on community projects with Pulte.
Anchía continues the relationship with his beloved alma mater in numerous ways. He returns often to campus to speak to student groups and says he is pleased to see the increased diversity of the University. He serves on the advisory panel of SMU’s Clements Center for Southwest Studies in the Clements Department of History, the President’s 21st Century Advisory Board and the Executive Board of Dedman College. Anchía and his wife, Marissa (’07), who earned her Master of Liberal Studies degree from SMU in May, still worship at the 9 a.m. Catholic mass at Perkins Chapel, and they baptized both their daughters at SMU.
"So we feel quite invested in the University," he says.
Passport To Cultural Understanding
For John Hunninghake (’07), the path to medical school has included stops in Latin America, Australia and Asia.
"In the United States today, there is a huge melting pot of cultures with different values and ideas about health care," he says. "Being open to appreciating those cultures and understanding the different ideas of people will help me as a doctor to communicate with them."
Hunninghake earned a B.A. by pursuing individualized study in the liberal arts with a specialty in medical anthropology and a minor in Spanish. After graduation, he joined another Hunt Scholar, senior Stephen Alexander, to travel to Costa Rica and Ecuador under a Richter International Fellowship. SMU is one of only 12 schools offering the highly competitive Richter Fellowship to conduct independent research, usually outside the United States. Their research evaluated volunteer organizations that are helping citizens in those countries develop ecotourism activities so they will not have to depend on jobs that deplete their environment.
"Volunteers travel to different countries with organizations to help small villages with tourist projects that utilize the beauty of the surrounding environment, instead of destroy-ing it, while improving the sustainability of the village through gardening and maintenance," Hunninghake says.
The two plan to publish a report and a magazine article on what they learned about specific organizations to increase awareness about the meaningful work of volunteers. They also want to make suggestions that challenge organizations to improve themselves.
His studies at SMU prepared him for his work in Latin America, Hunninghake says. "Anthropology is the study of how cultures relate to each other and how they can interact together; by working together they can improve each other."
Hunninghake got a firsthand look at other cultures during his junior year, when he studied for a semester in Spain and a semester in Australia. Through additional travel he has explored Europe and Southeast Asia, where he joined a study tour through Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand. His study abroad was part of his Hunt Leadership Scholarship, created to recruit and foster students who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership, academic achievement and a strong sense of civic responsibility. The scholarships cover tuition less the amount of resident tuition of the leading public university in the student’s home state, plus costs associated with education abroad.
"Being a Hunt Scholar opened up many opportunities for me. The financial support the program provides for studying abroad was one of the reasons I decided to come to SMU."
After gaining work experience in the medical field, Hunninghake plans to begin medical school in 2009; but before reaching that destination, he has more travel on his itinerary.
Finding Her Future By Exploring The Past
Karen Gutierrez spent part of last summer in Portugal carefully extracting pieces of fossilized dinosaur eggs from a big block of dirt. Gutierrez, a senior studying geological sciences, removed the egg fragments from the dirt with an air scribe pen.
"When the pen pulsates, it breaks up the dirt and exposes the layers that contain fossils," she says. "But, if you touch the pieces of egg with the pen, you can cause damage to the surfaces. I was really nervous at first because I never had done anything like that before."
After studying in Madrid with SMU-in-Spain last spring semester, Gutierrez went to Lourinhã, Portugal, about an hour north of Lisbon, to explore a dig site with Octávio Mateus, who is working on a project in Angola with SMU paleontologist Louis Jacobs, president of SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man and professor of geological sciences. It was Gutierrez’s second trip to Portugal. During spring break in 2006, she worked as a research assistant with graduate student Scott Myers while studying with Jacobs.
"I am really happy with the opportunities that SMU has offered me," says Gutierrez, a President’s Scholar. "Not many undergraduates get to work in the field."
Gutierrez already has gained an international perspective through working on rock cores from the Congo and dinosaur eggs in Portugal as part of an American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund grant. "Karen is a personable, adept and quick student, and a poised ambassador for SMU, geology and paleontology," Jacobs says. "Her work – a mixture of fossils, rock and chemistry – is on the cutting edge of understanding ancient climates. She is destined to be an innovative leader in her field."
Gutierrez says she has wanted to be a paleontologist since watching the movie "Jurassic Park" at age 7. She went to high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and chose SMU because of its strong Geological Sciences Department. But a deciding factor, she says, was a four-year President’s Scholarship that pays full tuition and fees, supports a semester of study abroad and provides a retreat at SMU-in-Taos.
After she graduates from SMU with a triple major in geology, math and Spanish, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in paleontology, to work at a museum or teach and conduct research at a university.
"I have always liked solving mysteries," Gutierrez says, "and there is so much that we don’t know about the dinosaurs that lived millions of years ago."
Speaking The Many Languages Of Learning
Senior English major Esmeralda Duran met an Arab family this past summer while studying in SMU’s South of France program. She noticed the family speaking Arabic and French and introduced herself. "One of the languages I want to learn next is Arabic," says Duran, who is fluent in French and Spanish.
"The family invited me to their house for dinner, and we watched an Arabic TV station and went to an Arabic market. Seeing France through their eyes was one of the most interesting experiences I had last summer."
As the daughter of immigrants from Mexico who is a first-generation college student, Duran well understands the value of learning from other cultures. She understood only Spanish when she started kindergarten in Fort Worth. "I was only 5, but I still remember my hunger to learn English," Duran says. "It is a hunger for knowledge that I feel at the beginning of every semester."
She quickly became fluent in English and advanced in school, while helping take care of her younger brothers when her mother worked cleaning houses. In high school, a teacher encouraged Duran to apply for a scholarship to study in France through Fort Worth Sister Cities International. Duran, who completed all the applications herself, lived as an exchange student with a Franco-Portuguese host family in Nancy, in northeastern France.
After high school, she studied through the honors program at Tarrant County College. "I decided to make really good grades so that I would be offered a scholarship to a four-year college," she says. Now part of SMU’s Honors Program, she receives support from an SMU scholarship for community college transfer students who have maintained a minimum 3.7 G.P.A., in addition to a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship, awarded to only 50 transfer students each year.
After SMU Duran plans to attend law school specializing in immigration law. "While I was growing up, I saw things and heard my parents talk about the injustices done to them," she says. "I want to change the world."