35 Park Place

Housed within 35 Park Place is OHIO's Office of Nationally Competitive Awards, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.

Photo courtesy of: University Communications and Marketing

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ONCA celebrating 15 years of helping to provide life-changing opportunities to OHIO students

Tucked away in the offices at 35 Park Place on Ohio University’s Athens Campus is the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards (ONCA). It’s a relatively small office but one that helps deliver life-changing and career-enhancing opportunities to the students it serves.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of ONCA’s founding. Housed within OHIO’s Honors Tutorial College (HTC), ONCA and its staff serve the entire campus, working with and advising undergraduate and graduate students from all of the University’s academic units as they compete for such prestigious honors as the Fulbright, Marshall and Rhodes scholarships.

“ONCA is really one of the premier programs at Ohio University,” explained Jeremy Webster, dean of HTC who oversees ONCA.

Webster joined Beth Clodfelter, director of ONCA, and some OHIO students who have benefited from ONCA in sharing the office’s story at The Ohio University Foundation Board of Trustees luncheon on Feb. 14. It was a fitting setting for celebrating ONCA’s 15th anniversary as the initial funding for the office came from an 1804 Grant from the foundation.

A pioneer among the nation’s public universities, when ONCA was founded in 1999, it was one of the first such offices in the country at a non-Ivy League institution.

Fifteen years later, ONCA is proud to say that almost every year every college on the Athens Campus has at least one student who has received a competitive award with the office’s assistance. In fact, according to Clodfelter, in the past five years more than 630 OHIO students have applied for at least 803 competitive awards.

“ONCA reaches out to students all over campus,” Clodfelter explained. “We try to find the most outstanding students who can go head-to-head with Ivy Leaguers and the best students around the country and earn these awards.”

After identifying those students who are capable of competing for these national and international awards, the ONCA staff advises the students through the process of applying for the awards.

“This gives us a chance to get to know these students as people, to try to help them clarify their career goals, to talk to them about how to progress toward those goals in concrete ways and to try to help students maximize their educational experience at Ohio University,” Clodfelter said.

ONCA’s rather small staff and its work are supplemented by the generous contributions of OHIO faculty and staff who help students through the awards application process. Clodfelter noted that this past fall 92 faculty and staff members helped OHIO students applying for the Fulbright U.S. Student Competition by writing letters of recommendation, by participating on interview panels and/or by administering foreign language evaluations – all for just one award. In any given year, she said, 200 or more OHIO faculty and staff members assist ONCA applicants.

And while the end goal is that these students will receive the awards they compete for, ONCA also aims to make the application process itself an educational experience for students.

“Students have told us that their interactions with us and their professors has helped them clarify their career goals and gain practical skills that will be beneficial for future grant proposals and future competitions,” Clodfelter said.

One of those students is Austin Way, an OHIO senior studying engineering physics through HTC who shared his story at the trustees’ luncheon.

With ONCA’s assistance, Way was awarded the Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship his sophomore year. The scholarship is provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to students whose studies focus on the environment and includes tuition assistance as well as a stipend for a summer internship or lab.

Way opted to pursue lab work at the NOAA Earth Systems Research Lab in Boulder, Colo., where he worked on a computer modeling program and was introduced to the lifestyle of a government researcher. He walked away from the summer experience with great professional contacts, including his advisor at the lab who offered him a part-time job and a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., who expressed interest in working with him. Both offers were contingent on Way attending graduate school in Colorado.

“This experience very much confirmed my career path,” Way explained. “It confirmed my decision to attend graduate school and to become a research scientist. Getting research experience at a national lab is not something most undergraduates can say they’ve done. … I believe it’s safe to say that this award will really make me stand out among other graduate school applicants.

“This is really where I want to thank ONCA because it was this experience that really put me in the right place,” Way continued. “They did so much for me. We went through so many revisions to my essay that it wasn’t even funny. It was an extreme process, but it really prepared me for what I needed to do later on.”

Way credited the application process he embarked on with ONCA with helping him to secure a fellowship nomination at the University of Illinois as well as a fellowship offer from the University of Wisconsin. He is still weighing those options against the offers in Colorado and said he will rely on his contacts at ONCA to help guide him in making final decisions.

“The work that the people at ONCA do, the knowledge and expertise that they possess is really enlightening and helpful for students,” Way said. “I can’t say enough about what ONCA has meant to me personally.”

Annie Sand is yet another ONCA success story. A senior English literature major in HTC, Sand is a Fulbright finalist who explained that ONCA helped her broaden her educational horizons.

“We use a lot of construction metaphors in education,” Sand said. “We talk about laying a foundation for success or building for a better future, and it’s a great metaphor. One problem with that though is we talk about building our students almost as pyramids. We lay the groundwork with general education courses, and it narrows through courses in our majors and internships and all these opportunities, leading to that one thing a student wants to do – a capstone, a career, that perfect resume for the job we want. I found that what ONCA has done for me and a lot of other students is given them the opportunity to build horizontally and not vertically and give a breadth to their education that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Sand explained that ONCA’s previous director, Brandon Bute, had encouraged her to participate in a program in Israel – an experience that completely changed her college experience. After returning from Israel, she started pursuing an Islamic Studies certificate, began learning Arabic and became involved in campus organizations dedicated to peace in the Middle East. She was, in fact, building a pyramid with the end goal of returning to the Middle East.

By her senior year, Sand said she began questioning if that was really what she wanted to do. Sand visited Clodfelter last spring, explaining that she was considering pursuing a Fulbright and was seeking some advice.

Clodfelter asked her simply, “Where do you want to go?” Sand replied, “Southeast Asia.”

One year later, Sand said, “Suddenly I’m a Fulbright finalist to go teach English in Malaysia. I found that instead of being a pyramid, my education has been like building this incredible city with all these back alleys and tangents … and I’m so much better prepared for so many different things that I want to do. I have so many options on the table. I’m not limited. I can do anything now. And I really have ONCA to thank for that.”