by Stephen Largen of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Converse College treated student Stephanie Jennings with a level of attention and coaching more commonly associated with a star athlete. Soon after the graduating senior from Spartanburg arrived on campus four years ago, a group of professors realized she had great academic potential. Their confidence in Jennings paid off when they learned earlier this semester that she had been awarded a prestigious Fulbright scholarship.
“It was sort of a long-term type of recruitment by several of her professors who had been telling her for several years that she needed to look into this,” said Edward Woodfin, an associate professor of history and politics. The Fulbright Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is an international exchange program offering opportunities for students, scholars, and professionals to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and teaching in elementary and secondary schools worldwide.
Jennings started the application process last fall, which included several essays and an interview by a campus committee. A major portion of the interview was conducted in the language of her target country — Germany. She made it through each test and travels to Germany in September for 10 months to work as a high school English teaching assistant. She said she’s hoping to be assigned to Berlin, where she studied abroad earlier in her college career. But where she ends up will be determined by the German Fulbright committee, which selected her for the program.
“It’s a really big deal, especially for someone in her case who’s interested in international relations and politics,” said Woodfin, a former Fulbright participant. Jennings’ interest in Germany began as a kindergarten student studying German at a local Montessori school. She also interacted with many students whose families had come to Spartanburg from Germany. “I would go to their houses and listen to them speaking German to each other,” she said. “And if they had just gotten home from a trip to Germany, they would bring stuff back.” When she was a student at Spartanburg High School, she took more German classes and more later at Converse. In college, Jennings took German classes taught by Mirko Hall, an assistant professor, who also is a Fulbright scholar. Hall described Jennings as “very focused,” “determined” and “friendly.” In addition to her German studies, Jennings became interested in politics and participated in the college academic debate program, Model Arab League.
Joe Dunn, chairman of the history and politics department, Woodfin and Hall helped steer Jennings toward the Fulbright program. The college started an initiative five years ago to recruit students to apply for prestigious scholarships as part of a new strategic plan. Woodfin was chosen to lead an effort to recruit students to apply for distinguished scholarship programs. Jennings is the second Converse student in two years to be selected for the Fulbright program. Megan Madison received a Fulbright scholarship in 2009. Both students were participants in the college’s Nisbet Honors Program. The college also had another Fulbright and a Goldwater Scholarship finalist this year.
Converse President Betsy Fleming said getting students involved in the programs has evolved into part of the college’s central mission. “It is an effort that’s truly driven by faculty and their work to mentor students towards achieving the goals that they set for themselves,” Fleming said. Jeffrey Barker, Converse vice president for academic affairs, said the focus on cultivating such students also helps build the college’s reputation, in turn boosting recruiting and giving.
For her part, Jennings said she’s grateful for the opportunity to pursue her passion abroad and for the mentors and professors who steered her along the way. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” she said.