Monroe scholars discuss research, opportunities

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November 3, 2014

10:36 PM

Out of the several thousand undergraduate students at the College of William and Mary, a small number within the population are designated as Monroe scholars. Members of the James Monroe Scholar Program represent the distinguished top students of the College, less than 10 percent of all undergraduate students.

“Every student who applies to William and Mary is automatically considered to be a Monroe scholar,” Director of the Charles Center and Dean of Honors and Interdisciplinary Studies Joel Schwartz said. “It certainly includes standardized testing, grades, how demanding of a high school curriculum they took, any signs of academic interest beyond just classwork.”

The most common way to become a Monroe scholar is to be admitted into the program during the freshman application process, but some students become Monroe scholars after entering the College.

“The way we invite students to apply as rising sophomores is almost completely based on grades — the students with the highest GPAs,” Schwartz said. “It’s much more targeted on the things the Monroe program actually does than the entering freshmen.”

After spring grades are finalized, a select number of rising sophomores are invited to apply to the program. Whereas rising freshmen do not need to fill out an application, rising sophomores must submit a personal statement, details about their involvement on campus, letters of recommendation, and a proposal for a summer research project. A committee of faculty members reviews these applications.

“For the first many years of the program, the only way to be a Monroe scholar was as an entering freshman,” Schwartz said. 

“I was always aware of the fact that this designation is not a science and that … having a second chance is a good idea.” -Joel Schwartz

Since the application is so detailed, it is due around mid-November of applicants’ sophomore year. This allows them time to connect with professors about possible summer research projects.

“Exploring ideas and figuring out what I wanted to do with my project was very exciting,” Katie McGhee ’16, said.

McGhee, who became a Monroe scholar during her sophomore year, based her research on a subject she was already interested in: special education. She interviewed local elementary schools to figure out which teaching practices do and do not work when teaching students with high-functioning autism in general education classrooms.

“Doing the project has been really eye-opening and it’s caused me to change the course of classes that I want to take,” McGhee said. “I wouldn’t have traded that time for the world. It’s probably been one of the most rewarding experiences of college so far.”

Freshmen Monroe scholars receive grants for two summer research projects: one for the summer after their freshman year and another for a summer after sophomore or junior year. Since rising sophomore applicants get only one summer grant, a proposal is part of their application to make sure they are prepared to complete it in advance.

“I don’t feel disadvantaged [coming in late to the program],” McGhee said. “The only [disadvantage] I can think of would probably be not having the environment of going into it together and having that support system living in a freshman dorm together.”

About 120 students become Monroe Scholars during the freshman application process with 30 more admitted after freshman year, leaving each graduating class with about 150 Monroe Scholars.

Other than summer research projects, the program includes supplementary advising to help the students apply to post-graduate and other programs, and to help connect them with professors who could possibly assist with their research. There is also a Monroe Scholars lunch seminar series to introduce events and projects happening around campus.

The program started in 1982 with the Presidential Scholars program and was changed to the Monroe Scholars program in 1992. Invitations to eligible sophomores were first extended eight years ago.

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