Selfie of Bhakwater and Khan in Milan

Honors College launches Office of Distinguished Fellowships to Promote Opportunities and Mentor Applicants

Earlier this spring, Rutgers University-Newark Honors College students Alexandra Torres and Bakhtawer Khan became the only two students in the state of New Jersey to win early-round Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarships to study abroad.

Sponsored by the U.S. State Department, the Gilman Scholarships are competitive awards created to help students meet financial needs so they can study abroad. Torres and Khan applied for early-round funds, which put them up against tougher than usual competition. Because almost half of the Honors College’s 300 students are eligible for Pell grants, in addition to having strong academic records and hands-on research experience, they can often be strong applicants for the scholarship.

Through the Office of Distinguished Fellowships, any undergrad will be able to get advice and mentoring as they navigate the complexities of applying to scholarships and fellowships, including the Gilman and Fulbright programs as well as competitions run by the NIH and the NSF, and programs like the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.

Torres and Khan recently returned to the U.S. after spending more than a month shadowing physicians at a teaching hospital in Milan, Italy as part of the Atlantis program. Atlantis, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, partners with American universities to send students abroad to shadow doctors in faraway hospitals.

Part of the obligation that comes with the scholarship is a commitment to do a ‘follow-on project’ to promote the Gilman Scholarship to other peers at Rutgers. Alexandra and Bakhtawer will have a bigger platform to do that when classes resume this fall through the Honors College’s new initiative to promote nationally-competitive scholarships and fellowships to RU-N students.

Through the Honors College’s Office of Distinguished Fellowships, any undergraduate at Rutgers University–Newark will be able to get advice and mentoring to support them as they navigate the complexities of applying to more than twenty different scholarship and fellowship programs. These will include the Gilman and Fulbright programs as well as graduate competitions run by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The office will also offer students information on more widely-known programs like the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.

“There are so many programs out there that Rutgers–Newark students can participate in,” said Honors College director Brian Murphy, who joined the university in 2016 and is also an associate professor of history. “Part of the mission of the Honors College is to enrich the intellectual life of our university and to connect students and faculty with opportunities to engage the world – whether that’s here in Newark or in Beijing,” he said. “In May I presented the idea of starting an office in the Honors College to help advise RU-N students on fellowship applications to Dean [Jan Ellen] Lewis and she said ‘go for it.’”

Starting Monday August 6, students can visit to learn about what opportunities are available. Once they’ve found something that interests them, they can complete an online form and set up an in-person appointment with Dr. Murphy or Honors College Assistant Director Jessica Zorola. “We’ll be doing outreach to students and faculty throughout the year, holding information sessions, and making sure we help strong applicants become even stronger with mentoring,” Zorola said.

“The SASN Dean’s Office fully supports the Honors College and the establishment of the Office of Distinguished Fellowships at Rutgers University-Newark,” said LaToya Battle-Brown, associate dean of undergraduate education for the School of Arts and Sciences-Newark (SASN), where the Honors College is housed. “We will now have one central location on campus that will guide, assist, and support all undergraduate students interested in research and graduate study in applying for prestigious national fellowships. The Office of Distinguished Fellowships will be a valuable resource to students in not only helping them through the application process, but also prepping them for the interview process as well.  Applying for national fellowships can be intimidating and daunting on many levels, but now RU-N students will get the resources and support that they need to make it through these competitive processes.”

Here’s a report from the field from Alexandra Torres and Bakhtawer Khan, Honors College students who won Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarships to study abroad in Italy through the Atlantis program.

What was it like to be in a foreign hospital?

Torres: In Milan, we got to shadowing specialties that are hard to shadow in the U.S., like pancreatic surgery and neurosurgery. We were stationed at a teaching hospital, so there were fewer boundaries in terms of viewing procedures and patients. In any given room, you’d find a team of a dozen or so physicians and residents who’d surround the patient and assess his or her condition. In the U.S., our experience has been that an attending physician discusses a patient’s condition privately with residents, almost always out of the patient’s view. But in Italy these hospital rooms were less private, and there’s sometimes no air conditioning or curtains between beds.

What was your favorite thing to do in your free time? What was the most amazing place you went?

Khan: During the weekdays, our favorite thing to do in our spare time was to eat! We went to different restaurants but also loved grocery shopping at markets in Milan. We took a few cooking classes to learn more about Italian cuisine. Lake Como and Verona were our favorite places because of the lake and river in each city. It was so peaceful and full of greenery there that it almost felt like we were on vacation.

You’re both pre-med students. Do you think this will change the way you practice medicine?

Khan: Viewing medicine as a foreigner rather than as a native helped us realize that there no “correct” way to be a doctor. Different places have radically different systems that can work equally well, but the one universal theme is that compassion and kindness towards one’s patients, colleagues, and staff is deeply important. Medicine is an exercise in humanity every bit as much as it is an exercise in intellect, and our experience abroad really underscored that.

What are you doing with the rest of your summer?

Torres: We’re both back at our internship in the Mena Lab in the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience. We each have projects that require quite a bit of time, but outside of that, we both volunteer at our local library and plan to continue shadowing within the U.S.