In the Competition for Fellowships, He Serves as Head Coach
Art Casciato tells students: "you have to be yourself"
What does it take to win a prestigious national fellowship? At Rutgers, there is no greater authority on the subject than Arthur D. Casciato, the director of the Office of Distinguished Fellowships. Since his arrival in 2007, he has presided over a sharp increase in distinguished awards – including 25 Fulbright recipients in the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) this year alone. Meanwhile, an SAS physics student was recently awarded the prestigious Churchill Scholarship and an SAS graduate won a coveted Mitchell Scholarship. In the interview below, Casciato elaborates on his successful strategy, including what he sees as the elements of a successful fellowship application.
Q: What’s your approach to the job?
A:The emphasis is on participation. I want to see more students involved and trying. We let the judgments in terms of who wins stay in the hands of the people who actually make those decisions.
My job is largely encouragement, and it’s clear that it’s working. It’s not simply that we’ve won a lot more awards. It’s also that many more students have participated. And I’m proud of that. We have a rallying cry here: 'You can’t win if you don’t try, and if you do try, you might just win.'
Q: Are Rutgers students generally aware of fellowship opportunities?
A: The more we win, the more the word gets out. But by no means would you say everyone knows my office exists. I still hear it all the time: “I wish I knew about this.” The average Rutgers student may not understand what’s meant by fellowships. But once they hear about it, they trust you, and they’re willing to give it a shot.
Q: What should they know about fellowships?
A: Fellowships can help fund graduate studies, independent research, and provide teaching opportunities. Then there is the whole credential aspect of it. But for me, fellowships have to be understood as experiential.
Q:What do you mean by “experiential”?
A: Fellowships are about slowing down, instead of speeding up. It’s a bridge year to the future. If you study for a year in the U.K., or teach English for a year in Malaysia, the experience – intellectually, socially, and culturally – is going to make you a richer person, a more appealing person, no matter what your goals are. Most of these awards can be fine-tuned so they can bring something professional into the mix. But I try to get students off the idea that this is another credential for their CV. That is the wrong way to go about it.
Q: Your win record is impressive. What is your strategy to putting together a successful application?
A: Students often ask me, “Who do I have to be to win?” And I tell them: “You have to be yourself.” The fact is that many different kinds of people win these awards. I like to think of it as a kind of capstone experience. We slow down and actually take stock of who we are, what we care about, and what we want to do with our lives. Then we see if there’s a fit between those people, their goals, and particular awards. Winning fellowships is about nothing more than fit. You do have to be academically accomplished. But it’s not about having a perfect 4.0 GPA. It’s more holistic. It’s about the whole person.
Q: What’s your role after the students get interested?
A: A lot of it is hands-on in terms of the writing. The main thing in any fellowship application is the personal statement. And the best personal statements are those in which the people reading them feel the student is well-met. These are busy readers who are trying to get a quick take on who you are, what you want to do with your life, and why a particular experience that their award will fund, will fit with all of that.
Again, it’s all about fit.
For more information, check the website for the Office of Distinguished Fellowships or call the office at 732-932-723.