If you stopped to chat with a member of the band of bewildered-looking high schoolers with lanyards and folders strolling around campus a couple of weekends ago, you would have been introduced to the most recent round of competitors for the University of Dallas’ Scholars of Excellence competition. Now in its fourth year, the scholarship competition invites the best of the applicants for the upcoming freshman class to visit campus for a weekend, attend mock lectures and speeches by UD faculty, and compete in an essay competition for a full-tuition scholarship.
While over 80 students were invited on campus to compete this year, there are only 10 scholarships available. Who gets these scholarships is determined entirely by the students’ essays and the grade they receive from members of the faculty who know nothing of the student but an ID number.
Carey Christenberry, director of Admission, says that an essay competition is the best and most practical way to see who will really excel at UD. He said, “The reality is that the more skilled you are at [essay writing], the more you really do get a sense that this student has a more sophisticated writing style and a larger vocabulary.” That things like interviews and debates, though they give a fuller sense of the applicant as a person, are subject to time constraints and limitations of size would ultimately defeat the purpose of the program.
Scholars of Excellence replaced the National Merit scholarship because it allowed a larger pool of applicants to be invited to see campus and enjoy its community. Christenberry says that visiting is perhaps the most important part of any student’s decision process and that UD’s true value is seen in such visits. He said, “What we do know is that students who come visit UD … will matriculate here because again, we have the best students on the planet.”
The students who attended Scholars of Excellence in the past and matriculated here say that that weekend did, in fact, greatly impact their college decision. Cecilia Geiger, a sophomore English major, said, “That weekend was definitely what made me definitively want to come to UD.”
The community they experienced here was a major draw for many of the students who attended. Margaret Jennings, a junior English major who attended the first year of the program, said, “Getting to meet people that way definitely made a huge difference in finding community, which I hadn’t actually been looking as much for.”
“Regardless of whether I got the scholarship or not, I think the fact that UD’s super, super welcoming, and the community was very, very present there,” said Tri Ha, a sophomore biology major. “[It] really caught my attention.”
Several students who attended the program said that while the personability and sociability of both the faculty and staff were compelling, it was the competitive atmosphere they experienced that ultimately drew them to commit to UD. The academic nature of the Scholars weekend gives prospective students a glimpse of the intellectual life at UD that other visit opportunities just cannot provide.
Lucy Gallagher, a freshman English and drama double major, had visited the campus several times before the competition. “I saw UD from a different angle,” she said. “One of my big, big decisions when I was trying to choose a college was how much I would actually be challenged by the academic sphere. And I guess going to that weekend actually showed me that I would be challenged for sure.”
Molly Zepeda, a junior politics major and the student government president, said: “It was really a humbling experience to know that … there are a lot of other people applying to the school who are better than me. And that was really attractive, that I would be entering an academic environment in which I would be challenged.”
On the question of why challenge is attractive, Zepeda said, “Having a fulfilling life is one that encounters challenge and suffering head on. And that’s what I saw with the students of Scholars of Excellence.”
Zepeda explained that this attraction to challenge did not just draw her to the UD atmosphere, but to her potential peers, as well. She said, “Those initial friendships made at scholars are incredibly foundational. And I’ve found those friendships to have challenged me to think harder, especially in student government.”
From competitors’ experience of UD President Dr. Jonathan Sanford’s lecture on friendship and a mock class on Dante led by the chair of the English department, Dr. Debra Romanick-Baldwin, to the conversations had at the breakfast table and the enthusiasm of the admissions department, students who attend Scholars of Excellence leave with an impression of a genuine community, an intense academic atmosphere and a worthwhile challenge. These impressions become lived-out realities when they become members of the Crusader community.
Christenberry emphasizes that this community and the individuals who compose it are the purpose and pleasure of UD. He said, “Look at the students here and you will find all the beauty you ever need to fulfill you, sustain you for four years.” The students who attend Scholars of Excellence see this beauty of challenge and community and are drawn into the life of personhood, productivity and prayer at UD.