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Office of Merit Awards Sees Banner Year in 2012

By Roxana Hadadi

2012 OMA Luncheon

Professor Kiho Kim with scholarship mentees.

The Office of Merit Awards (OMA) saw record success in 2012, with a 46 percent increase in the number of American University recipients, alternates, and finalists for national awards. OMA Assistant Director Liz Romig credits strong support from AU faculty and staff, who volunteer countless hours as mentors and mock interviewers, for this achievement.

One hundred twenty AU students and alumni were recognized in numerous competitions throughout the year, an increase from about 80 the previous year. Student recipients represented each of AU’s colleges: 62 percent were undergraduate students, 23 percent were graduate students, and 14 percent were alumni.

Romig notes, “It would be impossible to prepare students for competition without the help of AU faculty and staff members,” more than 200 of whom assisted scholarship applicants in 2012, an 11% increase from the year before. “Whether they are reading student applications, providing feedback, connecting them with experts, or administering language evaluations, faculty and staff are an indispensable resource,” Romig adds. “We exist because of the generosity of faculty, who all do this as service.”

The concept of “service” isn’t new for AU’s Diplomat-in-Residence Ambassador Anthony Quainton, who draws from his years in the Central African Republic, Nicaragua, Kuwait, and Peru for his classes on U.S. foreign policy. Involved with OMA for about eight years, Quainton does interviews with about five students a year, and has worked with more than 30 students during his time with the university. This year, Quainton—who studied as a Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford—served as a mentor to a graduate student who received both a Boren Fellowship to study in Morocco and the Kathryn Davis Fellowship for Peace to study at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Helping in the interview process “is a chance to meet the very best and brightest students AU has to offer, to engage them in dialogue and conversation,” Quainton says. “[The other reason] is to help the university get its students on the map. It’s rewarding to help the university, it’s rewarding to get to know these students, and it’s rewarding, frankly, to challenge oneself—to think about the proper questions that ought to be put before these very talented and able students.”

It’s important to get students thinking about applying for these opportunities early, says Associate Professor Kiho Kim, with the Department of Environmental Science. A marine ecologist specializing in tropical coral reefs, Kim recruits ambitious freshmen for his lab, working with them for two to three years as they build their research goals. “When it’s time to apply for merit-based opportunities, students are already familiar with the process,” Kim says. Three of his students received awards this year.

OMA’s record success is also partly because of a wider range of scholarships. “We are continuing to diversify what we do, so we can attract different types of students,” Romig says. “When you look at the numbers, we are really trying to broaden the focus.”

The office’s broadened portfolio of scholarships includes additional Fulbright opportunities, teaching scholarships, and international fellowships, a decision that attracted more students to OMA’s mission of “increasing awareness for opportunities that exist,” Romig adds.

“We have a lot of great students at AU, and a lot of them don’t know what the OMA offers,” Kim says. “We’ve been very successful in getting students through some of these application processes.”

Whether students receive the scholarships they applied for—like one of Kim’s students, who received a Fulbright Grant to study in New Zealand—or find other ways to pursue their academic goals, the effort is worth it in the end. “It’s not time lost; you learn a lot through the process—about how to set up a research design and build faculty relationships,” says Romig. “The hard work and effort that goes into the process is an undeniable learning experience,” Kim adds.

“In many ways, I consider these students my academic children,” Kim says. “It’s an affirmation for what they’ve done so far, intellectual icing on their work.”