UB students on the scholarship grind

UB student Samah Asfour awarded more than $20,000 in scholarship money


In less than one semester, Samah Asfour applied for 10 scholarships and was awarded $21,250. She needed to get to France.

Within the same week of her mother’s death, she received four congratulatory emails.

“Here I was at one of the lowest points in my life, and yet, I was receiving all these emails every day – ‘Congratulations you won,’” said Asfour, a senior double major in political science and global Gender Studies. “It was a great blessing at that time. It solidified my desire to study abroad and I felt like I had to go.”

At the national level, Asfour won $5,000 for the Benjamin A. Gilman Study Abroad Scholarship. Locally, she received scholarships ranging from $750 from Wegmans to $8,000 from UB’s College of Arts and Sciences.

As student loan debt climbs across the United States – now reaching about $1.1 trillion – students may be feeling the push now more than ever to get scholarships. UB awarded more than $4 million in merit-based scholarship money to this year’s incoming freshman, according to the school’s website. For students like Asfour looking to study abroad without getting buried in debt, UB’s Office of International Education offers nine scholarships and links to 17 other external or departmental scholarship choices on its website.

Asfour’s scholarships funded her semester-long study abroad program at the Institute of American University (IAU) in France and her travels to seven other European countries.

She said the most rewarding part of the application process was not receiving an award but being able to self-reflect.

“Every student has a story, and these scholarships really help you piece your story together,” she said.

So how do you snag some extra money to fund your education?

Elizabeth Colucci, UB’s coordinator of fellowships and scholarships, encourages student applicants to focus on their own interests and to take something they’re passionate about “to the next level.”

“I want to help students enhance their undergraduate experience and take advantage of things that make them happy and interest them,” Colucci said. “It’s their life. I don’t ever want to tell a student what to do.”

As a junior, Asfour walked into Colucci’s office to review her application for the Honors College International Study Scholarship – one of the eight scholarships she won.

After Colucci read Asfour’s application, she reached into a filing cabinet and pulled out an application for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship – an award that funds up to $30,000 in graduate studies for students dedicated to public service.

“Take a look at this,” she told Asfour. “I think you have to apply.”

Asfour said that without Colucci’s insight, she would not have seen herself as a competitive candidate for the scholarship.

She said Colucci helped her “connect the dots” and see experiences such as leading UB’s Girl Effect club and volunteering as an English as a second language teacher at Journey’s End Refugee Services in Buffalo gave her the potential to win the Truman scholarship.

UB nominated Asfour for the second round of applications, but she did not become a finalist.

“Even though I didn’t necessarily win that one, I still feel like I was a winner in a way,” Asfour said. “That one helped me more than the others figure out my future career and really map it out.”

Colucci said the application process requires students to strategically think about their future.

“You not only need to be passionate about your work but then you need to be able to justify it, and defend it and really explain what you’ve done and why you want to go to a certain graduate school,” she said.

Nigel Michki, a junior computational physics major, said applying for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship – a national scholarship that designates money to students researching in science, math or engineering – during his sophomore year helped him solidify his goal to work in medical physics.

Michki learned he was a finalist a month and a half before he received an official email from the program. He was home for the weekend and “felt this urge” to go check the program’s website. When Michki checked his phone, he couldn’t believe his name was on the list of finalists.

“I ran over to the real computer because I thought my phone was lying,” he said.

Michki is also a UB Presidential Scholar, which means UB fully funded his undergraduate education. As a Presidential Scholar, he said he feels he has a responsibility to contribute to the university and the community.

“I like the idea of being able to give back not on my personal time but as a career,” Michki said. “I really consider it more of an employment thing. They’re paying me to do good and ideally help other people to do good as well.”

Michki questions if scholarship nominations and selection processes are entirely merit based and said they could be based on luck and what discipline the panelists are in.

Joseph Gardella, a SUNY Distinguished Professor and John and Francis Larkin Professor of Chemistry, is regularly involved in the nomination process for scholarships and didn’t find that to be the case in his selection experiences.

Gardella said members of selection committees do not lobby for the applications from their respective students, but instead help other committee members have an informed perspective on their students’ applications.

Michki advises students interested in applying for fellowships and scholarships to develop strong relationships with faculty members. He said letters of recommendation carry the most weight in a student’s application.

“Someone else’s word about you is probably worth a thousand times what your word about you is worth,” he said.

Gardella said strong letters of recommendation show a genuine relationship between the student and the faculty member and address the student’s strengths and weaknesses. Michki said it’s important for students’ essays to be clear, thoughtful and resonate with experts in the applicant’s field of study.

Asfour took initiative in her undergraduate experience in applying for scholarships and she encourages others to do the same.

It’s not enough to leave UB with a just a transcript, even if students have a 4.0, according to Colucci.

Asfour didn’t only fund her trip to Europe, she enhanced her résumé. She said she took control of her future.

“You can’t just sit back and say, ‘Oh if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” she said. “You play a relevant role, a very crucial role, in your own career, and where life takes you.”

email: features@ubspectrum.com