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Wanted: Another Martin Luther King, Jr.

Scholarship committee searches for next generation’s social justice leaders


Kenneth Elmore, dean of students (from left), Kelly Walter, executive director of admissions, Chris Downe, associate director of admissions, and Rachel Boyle, assistant director of admissions, survey a projected list of 30 applicants for a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Scholarship. Photos by Vernon Doucette

On Friday morning, February 19, four people sit around a conference table laden with papers, laptops, and bagels at 881 Commonwealth Avenue to answer one question: who will be the next students to follow the path forged by Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59)?

The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Scholarship committee annually chooses a handful of students from hundreds of applications for the four-year, full-tuition awards, given to those with “proven leadership abilities, a strong commitment to social justice, and a record of community involvement.” As an undergraduate, each winner will complete at least 100 hours of community service through the Howard Thurman Center, the University’s multicultural center.

For the coming year, 632 students applied for the coveted awards; last year’s total was 508. Only 30 have survived the first cut. Snippets of their academic and personal lives are projected across the front wall in an Excel spreadsheet.

“They’re definitely strong, definitely the cream of the crop,” says Chris Downe, associate director of admissions, as he surveys his notes.

“All of these students could be winners,” concurs Kelly Walter, executive director of admissions. “They’re just so phenomenal.”

Kenneth Elmore (below), dean of students, and Rachel Boyle, assistant director of admissions, join Walter and Downe in analyzing school transcripts, nomination letters, a personal essay, and a second essay based on a preselected King quote. Each grades the 30 applicants from one to three, one being the strongest score. The four grades are averaged and ranked.

Downe says they choose 10 winners and slate another 10 as alternates — not every student accepts the scholarship. Of the nine receiving offers last year, only three came to BU. As Walter explains, many students apply to other top-notch universities and receive similar scholarships. Winning students are informed in early April and must accept by May 1.

Weighing a committee decision on grades is a moot point when each applicant is an academic star. Many are among the top 10 percent in their class. GPAs range from 3.3 to 4.0, and ACT scores from 29 to 34.

What catches the collective eye are strongly written and passionate King essays. Other big pluses are solid recommendations and participation in community service and social justice movements.

Starting with the highest ranked students, Downe gives a quick synopsis of the applications, pointing out strong or weak points. Others jump into the discussion and make their pitch: yay, a winner; nay, a loser.

Walter says one student’s King essay brought her to tears, her voice catching as she mentions highlights. Elmore says he wrote one word to describe it: “Siddhartha,” referring to Siddhartha Gautama, known as Buddha.

Some students were strong on community service and social justice, but whiffed on their King essays. “I’m not looking for a history report,” Walter says. “I’m looking for students who don’t just empathize. I’m looking for someone who wants to do something.”

Downe zeroes in on another: “I thought it was good, but I thought I’d read it before.”

In personal essays, students write of individual struggle, activism, and search for identity. Committee members find themselves wanting to share a cup of joe with many of the applicants, learn from them, and offer a scholarship that “could be instrumental in changing a life.”

Downe hits it on the head: “Here’s another student who makes me feel I should be doing more with my life.”

By now, five students are highlighted in dark green, an indication they’ve made the cut. The group considers the diversity among winning candidates and sees two dominant themes: too few men and too many white candidates.

Of the 632 total applicants, only 153 are men, and only 5 of them become finalists. Finding enough solid male candidates is a yearly discussion, committee members say. As to race, candidates run the gamut.

Elmore relays a plea from Howard Thurman Center director Katherine Kennedy, supervisor of King scholarship recipients, to select more African-American males.

“We want a diverse group of students,” Walter agrees.

The committee continues down the list, but it’s slow going. They have a strong top 10, but need the 10 alternates. Earnest deliberation begins; they are in territory where a weak essay or a less-than-glowing nomination letter means elimination.

“I think this student’s MLK essay completely missed the point,” Walter says. “You gotta pay attention to what the question is.”

“I’d like the student to come here, just not as an MLK scholar,” Boyle says. Others nod in agreement.

Committee members won over by a particular student’s story work to convince the others. They point to an alumni connection, effusive nomination letters, or an essay’s turn of phrase. Sometimes it works; Downe highlights a name in green. Other times it doesn’t; a name turns bright red.

Downe pulls up an application for further scrutiny. The nomination letter is cookie-cutter — not the student’s fault, but a strike all the same.

“At least check your typos.” Elmore says, squinching his face.

More than two hours in, someone pops into the conference room to remind Elmore of a noon appointment. The group moves rapidly through the rest of the list as the dean dons his coat and scarf.

At last, 20 are chosen, in hopes of snagging 5 for next year’s freshman class.

“This was a good bunch,” Elmore says, shaking hands all around. And no, he promises on the way out, he won’t share the list with anyone.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu.


One Comment on Wanted: Another Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Renee G. on 03.13.2010 at 8:43 pm

    I can't wait!

    I applied to BU for FALL 2010 and applied to this scholarship. I hope my essay and social justice work has proved me to be one of the 20, especially the 10 winners. I can’t wait to hear from BU in April and even though I don’t go to BU (yet), thanks for writing about this because it gives me an idea of what’s going on with the application and scholarship process.
    Only less than a month away !!!

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