Job: Director, Office of Fellowships, Honors College
Last year brought a record number of fellowships to Mason, with 19 students winning prestigious national awards, including nine Fulbrights. Six of these were mentored by LaNitra Berger. Since coming to Mason in 2010, Berger has been instrumental in assisting students seeking awards and in addressing the underrepresentation of minority students.
Record Fulbrights: Berger credits a high caliber of applicants and a bit of luck for last year’s wins, but also students’ ability to carefully follow directions. “They came to me early,” she says. “It takes a year to write a successful application—they followed all the steps in the process, then they worked on draft after draft of their essays. It’s the hard work students put into their applications that makes the difference.”
The Process: Each fall, Berger begins recruiting students for fellowships and advises them on their applications. Then personal statement specialist Betsy Allen, a graduate student in Mason’s Creative Writing Program, brainstorms with them on how to approach their essays. Students submit materials to a campus committee for feedback, and Berger helps them revise and submit applications by final deadlines. Finally, they practice interviewing. By April, most applicants have been notified of decisions, and “we usually have some good news to celebrate,” says Berger.
Going Where Students Hang: To reach out to the thousands of undergraduates she serves, Berger keeps weekly office hours in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education. There’s typically a line outside her door, and several of last year’s winners came from meeting her there.
What’s on Her Wish List: 1) Getting more students to apply for awards, particularly in the sciences; 2) cracking the Marshall Scholarship—a British program that sends 40 American students to the U.K. for two years (Mason students have made the finals twice); and 3) getting more faculty members to encourage students to apply, serve on mock interview committees, and “just see what happens when a student gets excited about something in their class, does a research project, and wins a fellowship to do it overseas.”
Best Thing About Mason: “The representation of minority students in our fellowship winners,” she says. “If you look at profiles of who generally wins fellowships, it is not students of color, it is not first-generation students. So I was very happy that of our 19 winners last year, 10 of them were low-income, first-generation students. At Mason, not only are we talking about diversity, we’re making it something that is actually living up to our own values.”