Nathan Gamarra–Tips from an NSF Winner

Nathan Gamarra

Nathan Gamarra graduated from UCI magna cum laude in 2013 with a B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.  At UCI he worked in the training lab of Dr. Luis Mota-Bravo identifying patterns of antibiotic resistance in bacteria isolated from local oceans and worked towards developing new assays to rapidly detect antibiotics in environmental samples.  In the summer of 2011, Nathan did research at Stanford University as part of the Amgen Scholars program.  There he studied the biochemical mechanisms of RNA enzymes in the Herschlag lab.  After returning to UCI, he joined Dr. Sheryl Tsai’s lab where he studied the molecular mechanisms of fungal enzymes that synthesize important antibiotics and toxins.  Nathan is continuing his interest in enzyme mechanism in graduate school, where he is studying the mechanics of ATP-dependent chromatin remodeling enzymes at UC San Francisco.  As an undergraduate, Nathan presented posters at several research conferences winning awards at the AAAS conference in 2011 and 2012.  In addition to an NSF graduate research fellowship, he was also the recipient of the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research and the Laurence Mehlman Memorial Scholarship.

Below, we caught up with Nathan to learn about his studies after UCI. He shared invaluable tips on good choices he made early on that helped him become a very competitive candidate for the NSF.

How did you learn about the NSF?

Two ways:  I went to an SOP information session on different scholarships.

I was also involved in a Minority Science Program (MSP) through the School of Biological Sciences at UCI. They are fantastic. This program supports students doing undergraduate research, and through them, I learned more about the NSF.

MSP Program at UCI

What role did the Minority Science Program play in applying to the NSF?

Dr. Marlene de la Cruz is the Associate Director, and Dr. Luis Mota-Bravo, is the Director of Outreach. They are the two people who run the program there, and they are funded by the National Institute of Health.

MSP Students-UCI

Their job is to get people from underrepresented backgrounds into Ph.D programs. So, the program is really geared towards getting people to that goal, and I credit them for all they’ve done to get me there.

When did you first hear about them?

They had sent me an email in my freshman year telling me that I should look into the MSP. I knew UCI was a research-focused university, so I was interested in finding out more and I went to one of their meetings. They told us about research and all the different possibilities that we could pursue. At the time, I was really interested in doing research as an undergraduate, so they set me up with a training lab, and that’s where I learned basic techniques, protocols and things like that.

From there, I worked in other research labs and expanded my experiences. Later, I applied for graduate school.

How many of your peers ended up taking advantage of the NSF or applying for it?

Very few, unfortunately. Many people are intimidated about applying to the NSF in their senior year. The problem is that the application is due at the end of October, right before graduate school applications are due in December. It is also a very competitive fellowship.

Lots of people who would have been very qualified for the NSF, did not apply because they were focused on classes and bunch of other things, but  I felt like the application was very similar to a graduate school application, and I  knew that I would be applying to graduate school so I essentially decided I was going to do it and it turned out that it worked, and it helped a lot in terms of getting to the schools that I got into.

When you started at UCI did you know that this is what you wanted to do?

No. I knew coming into UCI that I wanted to do something science-related, and I liked biology and chemistry as well. I was deciding between doing something medically-related and something more research-based.

I really liked the courses I was taking and I was interested in the academic aspect of things. Starting with the MSP research program led me down a path that ultimately worked out really well for me.

What are the steps involved in applying for the NSF?

You have your basic application, which includes, letters of rec, transcripts and you also have to write 2 statements. One is a personal one, and the other is a research proposal. The personal statement should address your background, how you got interested in doing science and research, and ultimately, it should touch on your career aspirations and what you’ve done to get there.

The other component is the research proposal. When you are applying as an undergraduate, it can be an intimidating process, but one that is worth it. You have to come up with a project proposal, explain how you would do it, address the results you expect to get, and if you don’t get what you expect, explain what you would do then. This second part is important to address.

It’s important to do as best as you can, but the people who are reviewing your research proposal, they understand that undergraduates don’t have that much experience. They are looking to see if you are actually thinking about what you are doing. The most important thing about your research at this point is that you can communicate what you intend to do. Looking back over it now, my research proposal is definitely not the ideal proposal.

Better to Apply to the NSF as an Undergraduate than as a Graduate Student

I think it is very important to apply as an undergraduate for the NSF fellowship if you are serious about going to graduate school.  Having funding early makes your life significantly easier in graduate school since you don’t have to worry about applying for fellowships when you start your program.  Applying early also helps your chances as many people don’t apply as an undergraduate.  Even if you don’t get the fellowship, it is good practice for applying for the fellowship in graduate school and, since the NSF application is very similar to the graduate school application, it will make that application process a lot easier. Also if you don’t get the fellowship, there is a good chance of getting an honorable mention which will significantly improve your chances of getting the fellowship when you apply as a graduate student.  This is really important since you have a limited amount of times you can apply as a grad student.

What graduate program did you decide on?

I am a Ph.D. student at UC San Francisco.  Here, the first thing you do as a graduate student is apply for the NSF fellowship.  This can be a very stressful process while you are taking classes and working in the lab.  For me, having the funding made my transition to graduate school much easier.

If you have any interest in applying for graduate school, you should apply right away. Also, there is a limited number of times you can apply. I think if you apply during your undergraduate program, then you get a second opportunity once you get into a graduate program. All around, I think it’s a really good move for any student going into graduate school in the sciences to apply for the NSF.

Did you look for a mentor or coach to guide the research aspect of your proposal?

Yes, the 2 people in the minority science program coached me. I was working in an undergraduate research lab, (by the way, anyone applying should have worked in, at least, one research lab), and the professor I worked under there, she helped me formulate the research, which was based on my undergraduate project.

What advice would you give a freshman contemplating the sciences and wanting to become a competitive NSF candidate? What do you wish you had known when you first started at UCI and what advice do you have to offer?

Do research early and often and through as many opportunities as you can.

The number one thing that got me the fellowship and got me into graduate school was research experience. That’s one of the great things about UCI, is that it is so welcoming to students who want to do undergraduate research.

I think the biggest barrier as a freshman is intimidation, not knowing things, worrying about not fitting into a lab culture, but you find as soon as you start doing it, that people know and understand where you are. Most people, considering how diverse UCI is, have probably been in your shoes, and so they know that you will find a good lab and good mentors by just seeking them out; there are so many opportunities at UCI, that’s the best thing.

The specific research area does not matter that much. The most important thing is experiencing the lab culture and developing your network of people and research. Through that, you can start finding out if science is what you want to do.

How did you get involved with your first research project? Where did you look for opportunities?

I was super lucky. The MSP was really helpful in terms of helping me through that first barrier, which is getting a lab. The way that they do it is that they have their own training lab where they teach you to do very basic things and get you comfortable, and then after that, you can ask the professor to work in their lab and that’s what I ended up doing.

In addition to the MSP is there another program on campus that can help students prepare for research?

In addition to MSP, there is also, Camp at UCI, which is the California Alliance for Minority Participation. The three-week CAMP Summer Science Academy (CSSA) is a residential program that prepares incoming freshmen for the transition from high school to UCI. To learn more about this program click here.


CAMP-California Alliance for Minority Participation

CAMP is based out of engineering school and they support students across science disciplines. They also help you find people who can help you get into a research lab.

Advice to Freshmen going into the Sciences

I would suggest for the first quarter focus on your classes and on doing well.

The first quarter is a hard transition,  but after a quarter or two, once you are comfortable with the academics, just find whatever way you can to get involved with research.

Go to these programs, which were, for me, super helpful. Work with the SOP program. Even if you don’t participate in MSP or CAMP, when you take classes that interest you, talk to professors and ask them if you can work with them. Most professors will be more than happy to help and have you in their lab. Or if they can’t,  they may know of other labs that can hook you up with.

Other students found research tips by going online and googling a particular professor.

I didn’t participate in UROP, but lots of my friends did, and it is another great resource.

The Number One thing is Research-Use the Summers to Get Involved

Another thing I credit with my success is my summer research project in the biological sciences. Pretty much every university has an undergraduate research program that you can apply to, and they will pay for you to come out and do research in their lab for the summer.

It’s a really great experience to do research that is normally outside of what you do and most importantly, it is a great opportunity to get a letter of recommendation from someone outside of your university, which I think was a huge deal for me.

I did my undergraduate research program at Stanford for a summer.

It was a great experience. But, like the stress associated with applying to the NSF, some people stress out about applying to summer research programs, but if you get a chance to participate, you will learn invaluable training and you will build a network.

In my case, my Stanford experience got me a letter of recommendation from a professor at Stanford.

Prospective graduate programs definitely noticed. Whenever I interviewed for a graduate school, they asked about my time at Stanford and there were several people knew the professor and commented on the letter he wrote for me. The told me, good job! So it’s a huge plus to do that as well.

How competitive are summer research opportunities?

They can be competitive, but most summer research programs are really interested in supporting people who may not come from perfect backgrounds. They are really committed to increasing diversity and bringing underrepresented students into research and graduate programs.

I encourage everyone to apply.

The other great thing is that those summer research applications are really simple, one or two letters of recommendation and a short personal statement.

Do you pay out of pocket to fly?

The program I applied to paid for everything. The vast majority of programs do. If you apply to the bigger schools most will cover that. In short, this is a huge plus to your CV and applications.

What would you say to a student worried about maintaining a good GPA, and juggling lab, and research work? How to do all the extras and stay a strong student?

I mean, it’s super tough. It won’t be easy the first year.

As far as prioritizing, grades should come first.

I think you want to get things done in research but if you don’t have the grades, research will not matter. It is important, but you need the best grades you can get to get access to good things. Good grades will open more opportunities than maybe extra hours doing a small amount of research.

I would say grades first, but research is also very important.

During the quarters when I took really tough classes, I would come in at least 3 hours less per week because I knew I needed to work on my assignments. Most mentors will understand that your number one priority is classes at that point.

If you can get a project done and publish that would be amazing.

I didn’t do that but I know several people did and that counted for so much for them. However, if your priority is to get into graduate school and fellowships, having the best grades possible is the most important first step.

How did you decide on San Francisco?

It was a tough choice. I applied to many different schools and got into all of them.  All the places that I applied to were equally strong in my research field, which made it very difficult to decide. I’d say a very big part in my decision was the location. San Francisco is a cool place to live. I think a big part of your decision should include considering where you see yourself enjoying your life. Having a place that you enjoy living is irreplaceable. It’s the whole experience.  Equally important is the atmosphere of the graduate program and how well they support their students.  UCSF is an incredibly collaborative and supportive place to work.  You get a good feel for this when you interview at different Schools. Graduate school takes a long time to complete, so if you are going to spend 5 years living somewhere, it might as well be a place that you like.

If you would like to contact Nathan for any information on his experiences, please email him at:


John Naviaux-Fulbright Scholar in Norway and NSF Research Fellow

Myself suited up in a drysuit before taking the boat out to collect glacial runoff samples (again near Ny-Ålesund, Norway) in summer

Myself suited up in a drysuit before taking the boat out to collect glacial runoff samples (near Ny-Ålesund, Norway) in summer

John Naviaux graduated with the Chancellor’s Award of Distinction from UC Irvine in 2012 after receiving a B.S in Environmental Science and a B.A in Business Economics. He worked on a variety of projects while at Irvine that included the economics of urban bus pollution, the study of graviton decay at the Large Hadron Collider, and the optimization of electrode design in microbial fuel cells. After graduating, John spent a year abroad in Norway as a Fulbright Scholar studying mercury pollution in the Arctic. He received a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship upon returning and is currently in Caltech’s environmental engineering PhD program working on the chemistry of storing CO2 in the ocean as a means to combat climate change. In the future, John hopes to continue his research and work in environmental policy.

Recently, we caught up with John Naviaux to ask him about his experiences after winning both the Fulbright in Norway, and the NSF. Below, are his thoughts, experiences and tips on how to apply and how to enjoy these unique experiences. He hopes that those contemplating either a Fulbright in research or the NSF will find his story helpful. He is also available to answer questions regarding his experiences. Please see below.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your experiences with SOP.

Of course. Anything for UCI and the SOP office.

 What Scholarships Did you Win? How did you Learn About Them?

 Fulbright and NSF. Both, with the help of the SOP office. I learned about them because the scholarship office was sending out targeted emails. I was also part of the UCI CHP Honors Program, and they were also sending out emails telling us we should apply for these scholarships, and reminding us that we had a valuable resource in SOP.

How did you Work Together with SOP to figure Out Which Fellowships you Should Pursue?   

I was contacted by someone in SOP who told  me, “with your GPA and your honors background, you should apply to these opportunities.” I went in, and talked to them and they said they had a number of scholarships. We went over a few. The Rhodes scholarship, for example; I didn’t apply to that one. Rhodes requires 6-8 letters of recommendation, and I only really had personal relationships with 3-4 professors who would be able to write strong letters.

Then, there was the Fulbright and the NSF. Talking with SOP, we discussed what I had the best shot of winning. We went over my goals, and how my resume backed those up.

After going back and forth, SOP recommended the Fulbright and the NSF. Along the way, I figured out that a lot of the scholarships have similar requirements. So, while I was initially interested in the Fulbright, I realized that I could write about my research experience and propose projects and future goals that would work well if I decided to apply for the NSF.

So I decided to pursue both. I went to the SOP office and we started working on my personal statement. I ended writing almost the same personal statement for the NSF. With SOP’s suggestions and the work I had invested in the Fulbright application, I was able to adjust my applications, and incorporate tips that would be better for each.

So, Did you Apply at the Same Time?

I applied to both during the same year. That was part of the pitch that the scholarship office had: that all these things require similar applications, but not exactly the same, so I ended up working with one of my professors to have a different proposed project for the NSF than the one for the Fulbright, but the statement of purpose was very similar, with a similar research background and so I was able to change small things to apply for both.

Were you a Junior or a Senior at the Time of Application?

I was a senior when I applied. Part of the reason I applied then was that I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do after graduating. I thought grad school was a possibility, and this is what I’m doing now, but I wasn’t sure at the time and I wanted to apply to a lot of different opportunities and see what would work out. The SOP office pointed out that I could use my application to apply for graduate school, which was great, too.

SOP’s advice was invaluable in telling me, this works for this, this doesn’t for this one, and reiterating by going back and forth what would make for the strongest application and how. They suggested to me, change this, change that. It was worth it. I was able to adjust my statements to write winning applications.

How Did you Juggle the Fulbright and the NSF? Was there a Conflict of Timing? 

Yes, but it ended up not being a problem. I found out about Fulbright, NSF and grad school all within a week of each other. They all want you to commit, so I talked with the different schools and the NSF director at each school along with the acceptance committee at each school and told them:

Look, I have all these things. I really want to do the Fulbright abroad in Norway. What can I do about this?

None of these schools had a problem at all. They said, not a problem we will just defer your admittance until you get back. The NSF is a 5-year scholarship, but only 3 of the years are paid and 2 of the years are for deferring, so it worked out because I was able to defer for the first year because of the Fulbright. I also accepted the NSF, and accepted Caltech as my graduate school of choice. They fund you the first year there so I was able to defer again and once the school funding ran out, I was able to start the NSF funding.

I was surprised by how easy the transitions were, and it really was because all these different academic communities are very supportive of these scholarships, and they want the students to have these things, so they were willing to work with me a lot in order for me to participate in all these different opportunities that did conflict in time, but worked out in the end.

Every school told me, yes, please go on your Fulbright. Come back. We will have a spot waiting for you. There was really no issue at all, especially for graduate school. They value their students having these experiences.

So, What did you do for your Fulbright? Where did you go? What was your experience like, and for how long? 

My Fulbright was 10 months long, and I went to Norway. I stayed in the middle section of Norway working with a professor who was studying the presence of mercury in the environment, which worked well because I was interested in the Arctic environment. One of the things that was intimidating to me was that you are supposed to come up with a research project. Other Fulbrighters that I knew did have specific research projects. But for me, I was an economics undergrad who later added an earth science focus, so I knew I wanted to do earth science-related things. To get started, I looked at countries that I was interested in, and one of them was Norway. I looked at what the faculty were doing there, and found this professor and started thinking of a project that would be suitable to my interests.  I learned he was researching mercury pollution in the environment. I thought, this is perfect. I thought of Norway, specifically, because it is in the Arctic. I would have easy access to the Arctic and that was what I was interested in. I was able to work with this professor and come up with an idea as opposed to coming in with a project that I wanted to do from the very beginning.

Trondheim church (called Nidarosdomen) in winter

Where Did you Stay? Did you have any Language Barriers?

This question relates to why I decided on Norway. When it comes to the Fulbright, there are tons of countries you can apply to that  have language requirements and others don’t. For me, I only speak English so that really cut out a bunch of countries. Like Germany and France, where you have to be fluent in those languages. Of English-speaking countries or with no language requirements there were: the UK, Australia, New Zealand and some Scandinavian countries. Editor’s Note: SOP maintains a list of countries with no language requirements that include other geographical regions.

When it came to choosing, I was systematic about the countries that I applied to. In terms of the UK, I looked at the number of applicants that applied vs the number of spots available, and for the UK there is something like 10 spots for 300 plus applicants. I also wasn’t interested in Australia or New Zealand. I looked at Scandinavian countries and they had a much smaller applicant pool per number of spots.  The idea of going there, and the best odds for actually getting the scholarship influenced my decision.

I went back to Ny-Ålesund later in the year and this time needed to cross-country ski around to collect water samples. The scenery was gorgeous!

They didn’t have a language requirement and as it turns out, once I knew that I had the Fulbright, I contacted the university and they were able to get me international student housing.

Did you have enough money from the award to pay for everything that you needed?

I did. It varies based on the country so my stipend was probably not as generous in terms of cost of living that perhaps helps students in South American countries, but I did not have a problem and neither did the other Fulbrighters in the area. We had food and housing and transportation was all paid for, and the only times I spent any of my own money was doing extra trips. Even then, it was easy to budget without spending my own money.

 Some of my research in Norway was conducted in the research town of Ny-Ålesund on the island of Svalbard. They had polar bear warning signs posted around the town.

How long did it take you to adjust to Norway? Did you make friends right away? What was it like to adapt to a new society?

It was not difficult for me to adapt, partly because the Fulbright office is big on connecting you with other Fulbrighters, so the student body, and the location are two things to consider when applying and choosing a Fulbright location. I was in one of the universities where there were plenty of people who were my age and shared similar interests. And I was connected to the Fulbright organization and I learned there were 2 other Fulbrighters in my city. I got there and had an automatic network of Fulbrighters, and we did Fulbright events there. I’m still really good friends with them. I went to one of their weddings recently.

Meeting local students was also easy because I was in a university area. A contrasting story to mine: there was an English-teaching Fulbrighter who stayed in a really small town of like 200 people and it was harder to acclimate and get around. Someone’s experience will definitely be based on where they are in a certain country. When people ask me, what I should consider? I tell them:

You should consider what you want to do research-wise, but you should also consider the experience of the area that you are going to be in.

What was expected of you in terms of hours of work, and research projects, were you supposed to come up with something material by the time you concluded? Was a final presentation expected?

The Fulbright is very much a cultural exchange (in addition to the English-teaching or research exchange), so I am not sure how it is for other countries, but for the Norwegian experience, we had to write a mid-term report after 5 months. This was a 1-page statement saying, this is what we’ve done, and this is how we are adjusting. They had no pressure on having any set work done, or any kind of deliverable. With that said, conferences were encouraged and some were exclusive to Fulbright students. At the end of the year, all Fulbrighters get together and get to present on what they‘ve been up to. These presentations could be travel, cultural, or research-based. So it was not stressful to get these extras done.


Now for my PhD, here I am presenting for a field course at Caltech on glacial moraines at Convict Lake

Do you feel that you became a better researcher or gained more depth with your topic? Were you taught well by your mentors there?

Yes, I would say it was an incredibly valuable experience. I learned a lot about the specific topic of mercury in the Arctic. I also found it valuable to conduct research outside of the U.S. It was interesting to learn how different cultures deal with research and how they present in different research styles. It was also valuable trying to translate myself into another language because as a primary English speaker I had not done that before.


Myself overlooking norway Trollstigen road

What did you notice as the biggest difference between research in Norway and research in the US?

To be honest the biggest difference was work/life balance. It’s kind of common in the US to have a 60 plus hour week. The stipend for similar work in Norway is not $30,000.

In Norway a graduate student is treated as a regular full-time researcher holding a 9-5 type job and the stipend is around $80,000. There are costs of living adjustments but research is treated as a full-time job and they are paid much more. I did not make that salary when I was in Norway. I got the US stipend.

It was interesting to see that the quality of research is very high, outputting a lot, while working significantly less. They really value productivity while you are at work, and once you are not, you no longer need to be at work.

Norway, City of Trondheim

I was also exposed to different styles of presenting. In the US when you present your research it is very much a pitch: this is why your findings are great and amazing. In Norway the style is more, here are the facts. How effective you think my facts are is up to the audience. Just being exposed to all of this was very interesting.

When you wrapped up the Fulbright you moved into the NSF opportunity. How did the transition take place?

I accepted the NSF at the same time I accepted the Fulbright. I was able to postpone it until grad school. It was really easy. Every year, they send you a message: please update your NSF status, so when I started grad school at Caltech I filled out the update and pressed the button to activate my status. And that was it.

Rainbow over Norwegian area of Valldal

So once the NSF gives you the funding for graduate school, are there specific research expectations due to them?

No. It is pretty much a blank check. When completing their application, you have to come up with a research project and plan. It does not have to be related at all with what you will end up doing. When I applied to the NSF, I was working in a microbial cell lab at UCI.

So my project/pitch was based on doing more research in this area. What I’m doing is important. What I plan to do in the future is this. But, once I got to Caltech I decided, okay, I’m not planning on that anymore but NSF does not care about that. Once you have proven that you are capable of thinking of a strong research idea and writing out a plan for it, once you get the award, they trust you will continue coming up with new research ideas that are not necessarily the same as the one you originally proposed.

Each year I write a quick paragraph or so updating the NSF on what I’ve done in the previous year. For my first year in Caltech, I wasn’t doing much research so for my update I told them I’ve been taking classes and started new projects. So now that I’m doing more research my updates are more research related. I’m working on ocean chemistry now. I’m still getting paid by the NSF, but it’s not related to my application at all. There is no expectation that it has to be.

What do you want to do with your degree?

For graduate school, I chose the California Institute of Technology. I’m getting my Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Engineering. I had several ideas that potentially interest me. Part of my research is doing ocean chemistry for CO2 capture. The idea is coming up with a way to take out CO2 out of the environment to combat global warming.

We are trying to start up a company based on the work we‘ve done to capture CO2 and put it into the ocean and store it there without changing the ocean chemistry. We are setting this up. We are exploring the possibility of a start-up company that works on this topic, which is a popular thing to do. There is also another possibility of working for government research labs or major companies. My approach so far is to see what opportunities come up.

How influential would you say that the Fulbright and the NSF have been to your development?  

The NSF is invaluable. If you are a student and you have an NSF you can work pretty much at any university. Any university would want you as a student and any professor will work with you because you are free. As soon as you say that you have an NSF in your application all doors are open to you and you can do whatever you want with whoever you want. There are different professors who might turn away a student because the reality of funding in the academic world. “I’d like to work with you but, I can’t pay you.” But with the NSF you are paid for 3 years, so if you have your own research ideas a professor would support you because you are free or you’ll hop onto their project and they’ll love that because you are free. So, the NSF allowed me to switch between professors without any problems at all.

The Fulbright was also valuable in making your application stand out more. I would consider the Fulbright as an invaluable life experience. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That was one of the best 10 months of my life. It was probably not a huge research contributor because I’m doing different research. But, it reinforced the idea that this was the field of study that I was interested in. I was developing my interests in environmental health safety kind of research.

What Tips would you share with a Student Contemplating the Fulbright or the NSF?

Go for it. It may be intimidating to apply to multiple scholarships, but with a small amount of extra work I was able to apply to multiple opportunities. You don’t have anything to lose by applying. The worst thing that can happen is that you write your strongest application yet. You can always use it to apply for other opportunities, including graduate school. If you get it, then you’ll have an amazing experience living and studying in another country. Also, with the NSF you can do whatever you want, research-wise. Some Fulbrighters don’t go to graduate school, so it is not a requirement. Still, being paid to live and work in another country can be an incredible experience.

What Tips can you Offer for the Application Process?

Regarding the personal statement, I would listen to you guys in the scholarship office. I struggle a lot with personal statements. I had to rewrite mine like 10 times. Writing personal statements is a different experience for me. It is not how I write.

The other parts of the process depend on the student. I was pragmatic about the whole thing. For example, I can only speak English; I want to research in environmental science; I want the best options to get in.  I looked at acceptance ratios and studied my chances to get in. I struggled between Norway and Sweden because both had interesting environmental programs, but I went with Norway because my chances to gain acceptance were higher. I knew that if I applied to Sweden and I didn’t get it, I would have kicked myself for missing a study abroad opportunity. If I didn’t go with the option that gave me the best chance, I would be very sad. Not everyone wants to be that pragmatic, though.  Some people have a dream: I want to go to place x, and this is why. To them I would say, go for your dream. My goal was to study abroad in an environmental field. I looked at Norway’s universities and the faculty there and looked for what was most interesting to me.

What about Professor’s Letters?

Plan ahead! Once I knew I wanted to pursue this, I started cultivating relations with professors more intentionally. Since I was working with professors doing research already, that was one letter. A summer before I had worked with another so that was another letter. For my third, I started going to my organic chemistry professor’s office hours. Talking to her more about what I wanted to do and explaining my back story. I told  her, I’m interested in doing this would you be willing to write a letter if we get to know each other and she agreed.

Thanks, SOP!

SOP’s help worked very nicely for me and my application process. Once I knew I wanted to apply it got easier. But it was intimidating to think about starting some of these applications because you always think you are not the best and you probably won’t get it so, why bother. I’m not sure how you overcome that hurdle. But I’m glad I did.


An exact copy of the rover currently on Mars is housed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL, associated with Caltech). We got a tour of the facilities and saw the rover as part of our program at Caltech.

If you would like to contact John for advice on completing a Fulbright in Norway or the NSF process, he can be reached by email:

Sara Arellano: Fulbright Winner, Blog Post #1: A Historic Day for Colombia

Editor’s Note: Sara G. Arellano is a recent graduate, past participant in the UCDC and Summer Undergraduate Research programs, and winner of the Fulbright Study/Research grant to Colombia. She was a transfer student and has lobbied state representatives as a Legislative Intern for ASUCI. She plans to conduct research on victims of domestic violence in Medellín. After Fulbright, she plans to earn a Master’s in Public Policy or Juris Doctorate and enter a government career.


Wednesday, August 30, 2016, a historic day for Colombia. After experiencing over 50 years of an internal armed conflict between the Colombian Government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia–Ejército del Pueblo (FARC–EP) the two sides successfully negotiated an agreement for peace. President Juan Manuel Santos approved Decree Number 1390, which provides for the plebescito to be placed before the citizens of Colombia. The plebescito will have one question, “¿Apoya el acuerdo final para terminación del conflicto y construcción de una paz estable y duradera?” which translates to, “Do you support the agreement to terminate the conflict, and the construction to establish a stable and lasting peace?” (El Tiempo). The available options are “Sí” or “No” for the citizens to approve or reject the peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC-EP. The plebiscito, which is similar to a bill/referendum, will be voted on the 2nd of October 2016. The actual agreement was finalized in La Habana, Cuba, and contains 297 pages—the product of four years of negotiations between the Colombian Government and the FARC–EP. The document mandates a bilateral ceasefire, addresses land reparations for those forcibly displaced, settlement of contested land titles, economic development, as well as numerous complicated and highly sensitive issues (

SA - Blog Photo 3 - Ruta Tejendo

Coincidentally, Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres, the organization that is collaborating with me on my research, held their monthly “plantón” on that same day, August 30th at Parque Berrio plaza in Medellín, Colombia. The “plantón” is a gathering of women who demonstrate for an end to violence against women and advocate for a peaceful resolution to the armed conflict. As I witnessed the demonstration, one woman sat silently “tejendo” (crocheting) as approximately seventy women, and several children and men formed a protective circle around her. At her side was a silhouette of a woman, and on the ground next to her was a large round sign made of raw corn kernels and beans that prominently displayed the word “SI” (Yes, for the plebscito). The woman “tejendo” symbolized the weaving of life, as well as the weaving of Perdón, Resistencia, Memoria, Verdad, Esperanza, Justicia, Reparación, NO Repetición, and Vida (translated as Forgive, Resistance, Memory, Truth, Hope, Justice, Repair, NO Repetition, and Life) which were the additional signs that were displayed one by one by different women, and subsequently attached to the “SI” sign. The demonstrators chanted slogans, and sang songs for a “SI” vote. After approximately one hour the demonstration ended peacefully.

Several Colombian citizens I have spoken with have questioned as to how the FARC–EP will be integrated into civil society, as well as concerns regarding the remaining armed paramilitary and organized criminal groups such as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, Ejército de Liberación Nacional, and the bandas criminales, also referred to as BACRIM. However, several women whom I have spoken with advocate for a “Sí” vote, as they believe it is the best alternative. In the next several weeks leading up to the plebscito, there will be numerous peaceful demonstrations strategically conducted throughout the city by the network of women organizations based here in Medellín, as they advocate for a “Sí” vote. They strongly believe a “yes” vote will end the over fifty-year armed conflict in Colombia, which will allow the beautiful people of Colombia to begin a new phase, as they strive for a path for peace.

Sara Arellano - Blog Photo 1 - Ruta

Sara G. Arellano
Fulbright U.S. Student in Medellín, Colombia, 2016-2017
B.A. Political Science, University of California, Irvine

El August 30, 2016. Política. Proceso de Paz. “Oficial: esta es la pregunta para el plebiscito por la paz”. September 1, 2016. Recomendado del Editor. “El Acuerdo Para Terminar La Guerra”.



Felipe Hernandez, Marshall Scholarship Winner: Blog #4, The Courage to Dream

FH at 10 Downing St

Felipe Hernandez at 10 Downing Street

“I grew up in the ‘belly of the beast’ in that old apartment complex right across the street. I was not the best student; I frankly didn’t care, but what I did have was music, and it changed my life. While the sound of gun shots and the smell of drugs pierced our one-bedroom apartment window, the guitar gave me a new window to the world; one where I could dream.”

This past week, I returned to Zamboni Middle School in Paramount, my alma mater, to speak to a class of sixth graders about where I had come from and, most importantly, where I had been since I left. While statistically I was set up to be another young man of color who would end up either trapped in poverty, in prison, or dead, I, along with others who attended Zamboni, upset the setup. Among many of our saving graces were our teachers and school administrators who cared deeply and gifted us with unconditional encouragement to dream big.

My journey since growing up in Paramount has been rooted in that quintessential activity: dreaming. While it may be obvious to some, for those born into poverty or a world that barricades opportunity, all we often have is the ability to dream of what may lay beyond. In middle school, it was simple: get a job and provide for my family. In high school it was attend a community college while pursuing a career as a musician. Later, a UCI Educational Opportunity Program representative, who would later become a mentor, Rudy Santacruz, dared us to boldly dream of attending a university like UC Irvine. While at UCI, the barricades were knocked down and I embarked on journeys that I never would’ve imagined possible: leading student organizations, managing community initiatives, studying abroad, working summers in Washington, D.C., teaching English in Colombia on a Fulbright scholarship, policymaking in Sacramento as a California Senate Fellow, and, most recently, pursuing graduate school in the United Kingdom as a Marshall Scholar.

FH in Scotland

Felipe Hernandez in Edinburgh, Scotland

Over the past year, my journey in Bristol has refueled my courage to dream. Every morning as I walk up the steep hills to reach Wills Memorial Hall to spend an entire day writing and reading, the hallmark British cold breeze that hits my face and the Bristolian seagull screams above are a reminder that this is not a dream; it’s my reality. The in-depth conversations with professors, fellow Marshall Scholars, and classmates have enriched my world vision and my role in it.

While in Bristol, I have worked tirelessly to research education policy and practices globally that uplift children from poverty and give them an opportunity to boldly go where their dreams go. At the same time, I worked on the core team to reelect Bristol’s first elected Mayor, George Ferguson. Through these experiences I have dissected local governance, politics, and city structures to understand how to help those most in need. Working in the Mayoral election gave me insight into the quirky, intellectually-stimulating, and passionate bubble that is local British politics (Editor’s Note: Ferguson was ultimately not reelected). This experience unearthed another passion of mine, listening to and collecting inspiring stories of people who go from struggle to triumph. What resonated most with me were the stories of recently arrived Somali families striving to gain a foothold in a new, fast-paced British city in the midst of increasing Islamaphobia and social inequalities. The resilience, creativity, and ambition of Bristol’s immigrant community reminded me of families in my childhood apartment complex in Paramount. When I spoke to the children, they reminded me of myself as a kid; struggling to grasp the ever-changing surroundings yet remaining excited, curious and hopeful.

FH with George Ferguson fmr Mayor of Bristol edit

Felipe Hernandez with former Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson

These experiences have inspired my master’s dissertation. In partnership with Improve Your Tomorrow (IYT) and Valley High School in Elk Grove, California, my graduate work has centered around developing a ten-week summer program called I am Me: Strong, Capable, & Peaceful that seeks to break poverty’s psychological trap and reduce the impact of trauma induced by structural violence on a child’s sense of identity and self-efficacy.

As a kid, the chronic stress I underwent as a result of violence continually eroded my courage to dream, but music provided me with the will to fight back.  Similarly, the IYT program has noted that some young men of color who undergo chronic stress and trauma as a result of violence exhibit PTSD symptoms which wear away their self-efficacy to achieve their academic and life aspirations. In essence, these violent experiences construct psychological and physical barricades that appear insurmountable.

The ultimate aim of the intervention is to restore humanity and critical consciousness to the learning process while equipping the young men with mindfulness and coping strategies. The hypothesis is that, via a culturally-tailored curriculum, students may strengthen ethnic and social self-esteem and self-efficacy to help buffer against the effects of traumatic experiences brought on by violence. As historically-marginalized communities continue to experience segregation by income and ethnicity, political marginalization, and increasing violence, I am Me seeks to empower youths to resist and eventually reform these sources of violence and marginalization. To deconstruct or abolish the oppressive institutions and process that continue to marginalize so many, we must heal from within: decolonize the mind and the soul of a child to empower them to recognize and pave their paths towards freedom.

FH with IYT

Felipe Hernandez with Improve Your Tomorrow (IYT)

As I drive through the community where I came from, I realize that my graduate work is also a return. My first year as a Marshall scholar has been a personal journey to deconstruct my past and use it to develop ways to support children to have the courage to dream. As I look back at our family’s one-bedroom apartment, I say to the kid who spent hours with an old busted guitar in hand; keep dreaming and playing, your stage awaits.

Daniela Estrada, Truman Scholarship Winner: Application and Interview Process

Applying for the Truman has been an amazing experience. Prior to receiving notice that I was a Truman Scholar, I was already beyond grateful for all that I had learned throughout the process, which helped me grow significantly. This scholarship made me address very specific questions about my future in public service and ultimately made me more dedicated towards being a public servant and more confident in my ability to achieve my academic and career goals. Having gone through this process, I feel a lot more certain about what I want to do in the future and more importantly why I want to do it.

 The Truman Scholarship Application

After my professor told me about my nomination for the Truman Scholarship, I remember looking over the application and thinking twice over whether I was going to apply or not. The application is daunting at first. There are a lot questions and to make matters worse, they are really specific. The application requires you to sit and think critically about your goals, interests, and passions. The recognition and rewards of this scholarship are so high, I knew I had to apply.

You are required to start the application process months before it is due. The long process gave me ample opportunity to revise my application. I have never revised any of my writing this much before! The SOP office was extremely helpful at guiding me through the application by giving me suggestions as to how I could make my application stronger. All the time and editing paid off because I became a finalist.

Becoming a Truman Finalist

A couple weeks after turning in my final application, I was notified via email that I became a finalist. I was extremely excited and because the finalist interviews were a couple weeks away, the SOP office arranged mock interviews right away to help me prepare. I had two mock interviews.

I have to admit that my mock interviews were a lot tougher than the real one, mainly because the mock panel asked me questions regarding a variety of issues that did not necessarily pertain to issues I addressed in my application, while the Truman panel focused on issues only addressed in my application. I know that other Truman finalists were not as lucky. Many got questions regarding issues that they were unfamiliar with and that their application never addressed. The mock interview was especially helpful in preparing me to answer questions regarding how I would fund and enforce my policy proposal. The Truman panel grilled me on both of these questions and I was glad I was prepared with an answer.

Overall, I think after dedicating so many hours to preparing for the interview, the best advice I can give to others is to be confident and to know that the Truman panel does not expect you to be an expert. I definitely over studied, believing that I had to know everything there was to know about my policy proposal. Obviously it is essential to do your research, but it is also important to know they do not expect you to be an expert.

Truman Scholarship Dinner:

The night before the interview, I attended a dinner organized by past Truman Scholars for Truman Finalists. Both Truman Finalist and past Truman Scholarship winners attended the dinner. I was so glad I decided to attend; it was a great way to relax before the interview and to get advice from past winners. The dinner was optional, but highly encouraged.  There was about eight Truman Scholars that attended and almost all of the Truman finalists attended. It was a really casual setting and really fun.

I took this opportunity to socialize with Truman finalists. Everyone was a lot more at ease than the day of the interview, so we were able to chat more freely. The day of the interview, I did notice that those who attended the dinner seemed a lot less nervous than those who didn’t.

At the dinner, I also got great advice from past winners. Most of the Scholars were from 2006, but they still vividly remembered their interviews. They gave really sound advice that made me feel a lot less intimidated and more relaxed about the interview the next day. Many of them expressed how they did not have a perfect interview. One Scholar even recalled not being able to answer the first question asked and simply answering “I don’t know.” But they all stressed being confident and genuine. They spoke about the judges playing devil’s advocate and advised that you must defend your proposal with conviction.

Truman Interview:

The interview took place at the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco. When I arrived, I met up with the other finalists, we were given a nametag, and we were escorted to the room where we would spend the next eight hours or so. They placed us in a medium sized conference room and they provided snacks and beverages. Shortly after we were escorted to the conference room, the judges came in and introduced themselves. The interviews started immediately after. The order of the interviews was already predetermined. The judges gave us our interview times right after they introduced themselves. The judges themselves strongly recommended everyone to enjoy the process and get to know each other. For those eight hours I got to chat with the other finalists, which was extremely enjoyable. Most of us looked over our notes before our interview, but for the most part we were all chatting the entire time.

Editor’s Note: Daniela has graciously provided more details about the interview to SOP staff. UCI undergraduates who are interested in applying for the Truman Scholarship may contact the Scholarship Opportunities Program at to register their interest and learn more about our past winner and finalist experiences.”

Becoming a Truman Scholar:

Becoming a Truman Scholar was so unbelievable. I am overjoyed with excitement over what the future holds because I know that I can gain so much knowledge and opportunities from this scholarship. As of now, I look forward to the Truman Scholar Leadership Week held in Missouri which I will attend in May.

Truman finalist photo for blog

The 13 California Finalists. Photo was taken after the interviews at the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco.


Felipe Hernandez: Marshall Scholarship Winner, Blog #3

A World-Wide Community

I never thought I would be here today. As the first to attend college in my family, the hurdles seemed endless. After graduating from UCI, the road was full of endless possibilities but also uncertainties.

During the Marshall Scholarship orientation process, I kept my experiences at UCI close to heart. I remembered how nervous I was when I first arrived to UCI but also how amazing it felt when I graduated. I knew that these next two years would be similar. In two years, I would become the first person in my family, including extended family, to obtain a master’s degree.

I’ll be honest, I was seriously considering deferring or forgoing the Marshall. I had just finished my year as a Senate Fellow in California and I was not too sure about how I would do in the UK. I did not think I would be able to do well. Honestly, I felt like I would not belong. These were some of the same feelings I felt when I first came to UCI. Over the years, I’ve learned that the reasons for these feelings and thoughts are complex but common among first-generation students like myself. However, I kept on looking for excuses to not accept the Marshall. I would be thousands of miles away from my family once again and they relied on me for help. While they still struggled with accessing basic services and navigating the US as immigrants, I would be away traveling and attending school. I couldn’t help but feel guilty.

I even contacted the Marshall Scholarship Commission and asked them about deferment possibilities. I reached out to everyone I knew but no one affirmed my self-doubt. Instead, my friends and mentors all endorsed the decision to accept the Marshall. They all reinforced the idea that these next two years would be an incredibly rare opportunity to learn, travel, and grow. It is because of this community of mentors, friends, and family that I decided to stay with the Marshall. Like at UCI, a community of support is what would help me get through these next two years.

At orientation, I was nervous. It did not take long for the conversations to quickly become academic with a slight tinge of competitiveness. Immediately, I felt like I did not know nearly as much as the other scholars and the feelings of insecurity crept in. However, I soon found out that the other Marshalls were just as nervous as I was but everyone coped with their nerves in a different way. I was silent; others talked endlessly. After we all realized that everyone was just as nervous and excited, everyone let their guard down and started talking like old friends. Though our narratives were different, we all had a similar vision: to take these next two years to figure out how to make a positive impact in the world within our respective fields. At the end of the orientation process our community spirit blossomed and we were in this together.

When we arrived in London to complete our orientation the feeling was surreal. It then finally hit me that I would be in the UK for next two years of my life. Aside from leaving sunny California for the cold and gloomy UK weather, I constantly kept asking myself if I had made the right decision. I was preoccupied with thoughts of my family. Again, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I had this incredible opportunity while they were still struggling to deal with various problems most immigrant families face. They were the reason why I went to UCI, to help them deal with these problems. My family was also a part of this Marshall journey and would also be making an emotional sacrifice. Though they did not understand the significance of the scholarship, they did understand that these next two years would be difficult for all of us. These are feelings that I am still dealing with today even as I write this blog.

When I arrived to Bristol the energy of the city was amazing. We were welcomed with great esteem and community. Once I started my course, life started coming together. My classmates were from all over the world, had inspiring stories to tell, and were incredibly thankful for being here. I was too. They were also nervous being away from home (some for the first time in their lives). Another community was formed. The best part of experience has been befriending these folks and learning from their experiences.

At the same time, the program is amazing! I am deeply engaging with issues of social justice, empowerment, and activism in education for students from marginalized backgrounds within the context of my previous work in Irvine, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Colombia. The opportunity to focus entirely on something that you love is rare and well worth the sacrifices. As I reached out to the Bristol student community, I came across amazing people. I’ve joined various societies including the expedition society which ventures out for weekend trips around the UK national parks. Being outdoors free from daily distractions and tasked with climbing/hiking mountains brings people together. We all share our stories as we hike and form a community of outdoor explorers who climb regardless of the rain and freezing cold weather (especially for a Californian).

I also happened to come into Bristol as the Mayoral elections for the city ramped up. I immediately reached out and I am now working on the Mayor’s reelection campaign. This has given me a unique perspective into the politics and government of the UK and Bristol. This is a great opportunity to make a meaningful impact, especially since the campaign team is only made up of four people (tiny in comparison to the US). I have also met incredible people in the community and I am learning a lot about the lives of Bristolians. I have drawn many parallels to my family’s and community’s experience in Los Angeles. As I’ve learned before from traveling, human beings are the same in the sense that one of their main priorities is providing the best for their families, themselves, and their community. Bristol’s diverse community has reinforced this. My conversations with Bristolians from wealthier areas to low-income neighborhoods have reaffirmed this perspective. For me, getting involved in politics in Bristol has been an unexpectedly life-changing experience.

Another exceptional and amazing opportunity has been traveling around (pretty cheaply) and meeting people from different regions of the world. As one travels, the world becomes your community and those in it become like family. Soon one cares for those communities as one’s own and for those in it as if they were family.

Community is what keeps me going. From my time in Colombia as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to working in Sacramento as a CA Senate Fellow to pursing two master’s degrees in the UK, none of this would have been possible without a strong and diverse community supporting in Los Angeles, UC Irvine, and around the world. Though I greatly miss my family, tacos in LA, and the beautiful sunny weather, I constantly count my blessings to be here.

My message to my fellow anteaters, particularly if you’re a first-generation student, is: accomplishing your goals will be difficult emotionally and physically, sometimes seemingly impossible, but always keep at heart your community for that will be your driving force. Also, whether you think you have your life figured out or have no clue what comes next, embrace every possible experience that comes your way in a positive light.


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Marshall Scholars Family Thanksgiving dinner.

Blog Photo 1 Felipe

Felipe’s adventure in Morocco.




Christopher Galeano: Capital Fellows Program Winner, Blog #1: Motivations and Expectations

My motivations and application process

At the root of my motivation to apply for the Capital Fellows Program as a Senate Fellow was my research and community organizing experiences while at UCI. As I came to see it, researchers made policy recommendations for lawmakers and community organizers pushed policymakers to pass legislation. It was clear that an in-depth understanding of policy was pertinent to further advocate for policies that helped communities I had worked with throughout these experiences – including low income, migrant and working class people.

What further enticed me to apply was that the California State Legislature is one of the most progressive legislative bodies in the U.S. In many ways it is the most responsive to its communities’ needs in comparison to other state legislatures.

Upon deciding to apply for the Capital Fellows Program I knew that I could not do it alone. I reached out to prior and current program participants to ask them about their experiences and advice. I spoke with Senate Fellows who were alumni from UCI, Assembly Fellows whom I met in other fellowship programs, and even “cold” emailed Judicial Fellows who participated in the program more than five years ago.

In addition to asking prior and current fellows for feedback on my application, I asked the UCI Scholarship Opportunities Program (SOP), professors, mentors and peers to review my essays before submitting my application. When I found out I had made it past the second round of selection, I asked SOP and others if they would conduct mock interviews for me to help me prepare and give critical feedback for the real in-person interviews. As a result of this preparation, I was offered a spot as a 2015-2016 Senate Fellow – I was elated.

In this position I would either work as a Legislative Aide in a State Senator’s office or as a Consultant in a Senate Committee for the 2016 legislative session. After much consideration I accepted the offer. In terms of impact and reach, I saw that each Senator represents the most people per district compared to other state legislatures and can establish more meaningful connections with communities given their four-year terms. Accepting this position would also give me privilege to practical and institutional knowledge of how and why policy goes from just an idea to an actual law.

Reflecting on the first months, my privilege and community

A year passed since my initial application submission. Now, and after the intense, six-week long orientation, I find myself placed in a State Senator’s office as a Legislative Aide. While I am relatively new to the Capitol, I have thought much on my experience so far as a Senate Fellow. I have struggled and reflected on my community, the privilege of this experience, and the next nine months here in the Capitol.

 The first couple of months in Sacramento were challenging for me as someone from a low income, working class family. Indeed, it was financially challenging getting money together for a deposit, rent and food in order to move up here – thankfully with the support of my family I made it happen.

Furthermore, I carry with me, wherever I go and in whatever I do, my family and community experiences. Arriving as a Latino used to seeing people of color around them, I was not sure what to expect working in the Capitol – would there be people who looked like my community in around and the building? Fortunately, just as Sacramento has a reputation for racial/ethnic diversity, there too is visible diversity in the Capitol building.

Fortunately, through the program’s racial/ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, I have met people from all over California. Since the start of the program I have met people of color within the program, Capitol staffers, and state legislators. In many instances these individuals, especially the Capitol staffers, have been willing to share their experiences with me and offer mentorship. Surprisingly, I do not feel alone like I thought I was at the beginning of the program.

Outlook in the Capitol

I am cognizant of the privilege that comes with participating in the program as a Senate Fellow. More specifically, the program is consistently voted a top ten internship program in the nation, with almost 500 applicants and only 18 winners each year. Furthermore, I am one of only two Senate Fellows selected from Southern California this year. Since the start of the program I consistently reflect on this. I constantly think back to those in my community who are not afforded access to these kinds of programs because of numerous social, economic and educational barriers – and it humbles and keeps me grounded as I walk and work in the Capitol halls.

This month the state legislature will begin the second session of the 2015-2016 legislative year. Despite only being the beginning for me as a Senate Fellow/staffer in Sacramento, I feel I have grown from this experience. I have developed an appreciation for critical issues to California, such as health, criminal justice, and agriculture; learned about the political and legislative process with some practical experience already under my belt; and am placed with a highly respected legislator and staff. Reflecting on this experience so far, I am confident that I made the right choice in applying to and accepting this position as a Senate Fellow. I know that at the end of this experience I will not only have developed professionally, but will have personally grown tremendously.

Quick words of advice to potential applicants: Apply to all four fellowships within the program – logically, you increase your chances of getting into the program. Stay in CONSTANT contact with the individuals you ask to write your letters of recommendation – ask them two months prior to the deadline if they can write the letter, check in again one month prior to the deadline, and again two weeks before the deadline. Make it easier for them to write your letters by emailing them your (1) personal statement (as best a draft you can get to them and email them any updated version in a timely manner); (2) resume; (3) transcript; and (4) setting up a meeting/call to discuss qualifications/why you want to apply to the program. Remind them that they will need to write different letters of recommendation for each fellowship. Lastly, if you are accepted into the program, SAVE money ahead of time for the first three months of the program; they will be financially challenging, especially if you are considered a low-income student.


Felipe Hernandez: Marshall Scholarship Winner, Blog #2

Editor’s Note: After winning the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Colombia, Felipe returned to the US, filming a documentary with Road Trip Nation over the summer and then became a California Senate Fellow in Sacramento. In fall 2015, he traveled to the United Kingdom to begin graduate school as a Marshall Scholar.

The California Capital Fellows Experience

I am a Senate Fellow for Senator Richard Pan who represents the greater Sacramento area. I staff Dr. Pan on the Senate Education Committee because he is a voting member of the committee. I also staff issues in Banking & Financial Institutions and Transportation & Housing. In addition, I manage six bills for Senator Pan. This means that I am responsible for ensuring that these six bills successfully make it through the legislative process. I am responsible for helping craft the language in the bill, engaging stakeholders throughout the process, managing all support and opposition on the bill, and working to gather support from other legislators on the bill. This is a unique experience because we, Fellows, are in the belly of the beast in Sacramento. This has been formative for my career in public service and has also clarified my perspective on how government can facilitate or stagnate progress for Californians. At the same time, it has demonstrated the value in engaging a broad network of stakeholders for the sake of ensuring a comprehensive policy solution to a complex social problem. I have also learned what leadership can look like in the face of adversity and strong opposition. This experience has also reinforced my passion for public service and broadened my understanding of how all sectors of our society can work in concert to solve various policy challenges. As a fellow, I am able to observe and be a part of the unique public policy process in California under the mentorship of senior staffers who step out of their way to help you. The mentorship is the most enriching aspects of the fellowship because the culture in “the building” is to help fellows grow, learn from their mistakes, and help propel us to be effective public servants in government or in our communities.

This knowledge and experience will play a vital role in my studies at the University of Bristol and Oxford because I will contribute a unique understanding of California public policy to the classroom. California is the 7th largest economy in the world and home to more people than some countries. My understanding of social policy at this macro-level will compliment my learning of social policy in the international context.

While in Sacramento, I also serve on the Student Development Council for United Latinos, which focuses on increasing opportunities in key areas such as STEM, policy, business, education, and health for K-16 students from underrepresented regions in Sacramento. I also teach, and helped develop, the “Know Your History Institute”, a history course on the plight of African and Latino people in America, for Improve Your Tomorrow, a Sacramento based non-profit that provides mentorship, tutoring, and support for high school boys of color who are at risk of dropping out. I also serve as the Internship Coordinator for the Improve Your Tomorrow Capitol Internship Program which places ten junior and senior boys of color in legislative offices to serve as interns and provides the interns with educational seminars, brown bags, and career exploration trips meant to develop foundational communication, analytical, and professional skills. Finally, I am also founder and Vice President of the California Renters Caucus with the California Young Democrats, an organization that focuses on increasing the availability of median and affordable housing through policy and community initiatives.

Filming Road Trip Nation: First Generation

During the first couple months of my Fulbright, I started to plan for the upcoming year because I knew that the year in Colombia would go by very fast. So I started to research opportunities in California and opportunities abroad. I ended up finding two great opportunities that I knew I wanted to participate in. One of these opportunities was with Road Trip Nation, a California-based production company that provides the opportunity for young people to travel across the US in an RV interviewing leaders under a common theme. In particular the “First-Generation Road Trip” caught my attention because it reflected who I was, a first-generation college graduate out in the real world trying to figure it out. I and three other first generation students from other states were selected to travel across the USA to film a documentary of interviews with inspirational first-generation American leaders, like US Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz, and singer-songwriter and actor John Legend. In total we drove a total of 3,851 miles from Los Angeles to New York City and interviewed a total of 19 leaders. This was an amazing opportunity to ask leaders, who were also the first in their families to attend college, questions that we always wanted to ask. We also had to drive a 35 foot RV from Los Angeles to New York with only a day of training, and we had to live in the RV for five weeks with five other people (including the director and videographer). This was one of the most challenging things I ever had to do because I had to live with five other people in a cramped RV but also because the trip required a lot of soul searching and required us to ask a lot of difficult questions of ourselves. Throughout the road trip, I grew close to the other road trippers, and we became like family. Also we received important and powerful advice from other leaders across the country like Alejandra Ceja, the Executive Director of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Alejandra said that we must “Dare to dream,” that we must dare to be bold to pursue our true passions and live in service of others. Throughout the trip we received valuable mentorship that helped clarify our vision and provided us with the motivation to take the next step in our lives, which for me was pursuing the Marshall Scholarship.

The special aired on PBS in spring 2015 and can be viewed for free here:

Felipe photo

Felipe Hernandez answers student questions at the screening of the Road Trip Nation documentary Why Not Us? on April 14, 2015

Anna Tran: Strauss Scholarship Winner, Blog Post #1

According to the 2011 U.S. Census Bureau, over 40 million baby boomers reached the age of 65 in 2010. Within Orange County, approximately 360,000 individuals were 65 years or older in 2010, and it is predicted that Orange County’s senior population will increase by 94% by 2030. Seniors tend to have less control over their lives due to physical and mental degeneration such as impaired vision, hearing loss, and reduced judgment, which can result in negative emotions such as anxiety, lowered self-esteem, sadness, and loneliness. Chronic depression is a recurring and persistent illness that disproportionately targets seniors, especially seniors not living with family members.

In my experience with senior patients at Joshua Medical Group, a medical clinic located in Buena Park and Cerritos, I am constantly faced with seniors who suffer from many chronic diseases. However, a discomfort acknowledged on a daily basis by the senior patients is their mental and social health. In a research study in 2009, psychologists observed a significant relationship between depression and sociability. “Sociability plays an important role in protecting people from the experience of psychological distress and in enhancing well-being. Social isolation is a major risk factor for functional difficulties in older persons. Loss of important relationships can lead to feelings of emptiness and depression.”5 From my interactions with my senior patients and the research I have conducted, my solution to this growing epidemic is The Pay It Forward Program.

The Pay It Forward Program aims to enhance the lives of the elderly and bring generations together through three major goals:

  1. Companionship: A schedule of activities will allow seniors to interact and connect with the younger generation (reduce feelings of despondence and lowered self-esteem).
  2. Preventative Health: Health talks by trained medical professionals will provide seniors with a clear understanding of their health and actions that they can actively partake in, which will allow them to comprehend their medical conditions (reduce anxiety and misunderstanding).
  3. Active Learning: We will introduce seniors to activities that will improve their health, such as participating in non-strenuous exercises and learning how to browse the world wide web to keep in contact with family members and student participants (improve mental health and sustainability).

Thus far, I have appointed coordinators for the three senior homes that will partake in the project sponsored by the Donald A. Strauss Foundation Public Service Scholarship. I have been able to set senior activities with each senior home for the next three months. Over the summer, I was able to schedule health talks at each senior home with providers at Joshua Medical Group to meet the seniors and educate them on various topics such as depression, diabetes, antioxidants, etc. The senior facilities are requesting more health talks than I initially planned to provide to them. However, I have been very fortunate to have the support of Joshua Medical, a family practice located in Buena Park and Cerritos. My interns have all been very accommodating and enthusiastic about this project. The physicians at this clinic have also volunteered a lot of their time to shape and allow the intentions of this program to be met.

During the health talks, the seniors are a very inquisitive bunch, which makes the whole educational purpose even more worthwhile for my interns, physicians, and myself. The last 15 minutes of each health talk seminar is left to answer all the questions the seniors have relating to the topic (e.g. Stroke Prevention, Diabetes, etc.) or simply questions relevant to the senior’s personal health.

All of the activities have been very enjoyable for the seniors since it is the holiday season with many festive arts and crafts to do. It has been a delightful journey for my interns and myself to get to know all of these seniors during the past three months. We were recently able to purchase the laptops and computers to begin the technological aspect of this program. Last Friday was my first test run at one of the senior homes. I must admit I was a bit too ambitious with the agenda I had planned for my first computer’s activity. I did not know that my “first computer class” with the seniors literally meant FIRST computer class for the seniors.

After surveying the seniors to briefly understand their computer knowledge of laptops and Internet, I realize my agenda for that class should have been an introduction lecture. Usually, my events with the seniors last about an hour to 90 minutes, but for this computer activity, I ended up staying with the seniors for almost four hours. It was quite the challenge guiding each senior to use the mouse to navigate on the computer screen and answering all the curious questions that seniors had. Nonetheless, this was easily the favorite activity with the seniors. Their curiosity and lack of knowledge of how to use computers and its purposes further emphasize the need for this program.

During the last 30 minutes of this computer class, I introduced the seniors to Spotify, an online music application that is filled with all the songs that you can imagine. Each of the seniors took turns to call out an artist or song for me to look for them. This was the first time my interns and I have ever heard of musicians such as Chuck Berry or Bobby Day. Once the song went on, there were always one or two people shouting out, “I know this song!” or “Oh, I haven’t heard this song in ages!” Some would close their eyes, smile, and hum to the tune. It was such a precious moment for everyone. I look forward to making more memories like these with the seniors at these homes and growing this program to its highest potential.

Felipe Hernandez: Marshall Scholarship Winner, Blog #1

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Felipe Hernandez and Rudy Santacruz, Assistant Director of SAGE Scholars, at the screening of the Road Trip Nation documentary Why Not Us? on April 14, 2015

Reflections on the Marshall Application Experience

The Marshall Application process was long and arduous but also enlightening and rewarding. Although I had already gone through two similar long application processes for the Truman and Fulbright, this application process was different in terms of my approach.

I never planned on applying for the Marshall Scholarship. It was never something that I had factored into my career. In fact, I did not know that the Marshall Scholarship (along with the Rhodes and Mitchell Scholarships) existed until I received the Fulbright Scholarship and the Scholarship Opportunities Program at UC Irvine recommended that I apply for it. Although I initially dismissed it, I came to the realization that this was the best option for me after reflecting on my work as an ETA in Colombia. In Colombia, I found that I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in education and policy in an international context to figure out how to help entire communities mobilize economically and socially via education, particularly low-socioeconomic communities. My work in Colombia served as my motivation to apply for the Marshall Scholarship because I was working with underprivileged communities that unified around education as the catalyst for change. However, these communities faced several systemic barriers which severely hindered the mobilization of those most in need, which, in this case, were children affected by the ongoing civil war. I also knew that I wanted to comparatively analyze social policies from various governments to learn about effective and ineffective policies in varying contexts. This provided my motivation and focus to apply for the Marshall.

The more I researched the more I discovered that I would fit in well with various UK programs with support from the Marshall Scholarship. I compiled a list of suitable programs that fit my goals. Next I researched the curriculum, faculty, research papers, alumni, current student profiles, and the city to refine my decision. At this point, I knew that I preferred faculty with educational policy and leadership experience specifically focused on serving underserved and low-socioeconomic regions inside and outside the UK. Ultimately, what helped me make my decision was a combination of the program, country, city, and the fact that my roommate, who was currently teaching English in Colombia with me, happened to be attending the University of Bristol and had nothing but great things to say about it.

The SOP staff were key throughout the entire process. They not only helped refine my choices and helped me research various programs but also constantly provided support in the form of mentorship. The best advice I got from various people, including the SOP office, was to continually ask questions and do as much research as I could.

During this process, my focus was not on getting a Marshall Scholarship. Rather, I focused on fit and whether the program met my goals and personality. Once I narrowed my choices to four or five top programs I proceeded to contact current Marshall Scholars in those programs and faculty in those programs. I asked about their experiences and sought advice. This was crucial in refining my choices. They all echoed what the SOP staff had advised to focus on fit. At the same time I contacted faculty members who taught the courses that I would take and asked them questions about their backgrounds and the course(s). Later, when I was selected as a finalist I looked at their research papers, previous work experience, and current work.

At the same time, I was constantly reevaluating and reflecting on my choices and reasons for applying until I submitted my final Marshall Scholarship application. I was fortunate enough to participate in Road Trip Nation’s First Generation Roadtrip* across the US which provided me with the perfect opportunity to ask questions, reflect, and work on my essays while on the road. After spending a couple of months in Colombia, the most difficult aspect was spending time away from my family and hometown. Spending two years abroad in another country away from my family and California would be a challenge within itself. I would advise all potential applicants to take time away from the hustle and bustle of your daily activities to meditate, reflect, and ask yourself “Why do I want to apply for a Marshall?” Throughout the process I was able to select my affiliates, programs, courses, and extracurricular opportunities that I would partake in by doing just that.

Preparing for the First Year of Graduate School in the United Kingdom

I am most excited about doing what I spent a year planning and researching. I am excited about integrating myself into a new community, meeting the other Master’s students, and challenging myself in a new community with different barriers. I am also excited about traveling across the UK and Europe, befriending other Marshall Scholars and British students, and taking advantage of the new opportunities available to me. To prepare, I contacted both universities (University of Bristol and King’s College London) to obtain information on pre-arrival tasks to complete and have been reading the suggested reading material, continuing my conversations with current Marshall Scholars, and reaching out to faculty and community organizations. I have also been watching documentaries that relate to the subject that I am going to study as well as about life in England in general.

*The Road Trip Nation special will air on PBS in spring 2015 and can be viewed for free here: