Make This a MacArthur Summer – The Reward Is All Yours

By Sam Rosensohn

Robert C. Allen, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was talking to a university alumnus and successful venture capitalist, in hopes of persuading him to fund a portion of the honors program that Allen directed.

“What made a difference to you when you were a student at Carolina?” Allen asked the alumnus, Lucius Burch, in a bid to generate easy conversation.

“Well,” he replied, “one of the best things that happened to me while I was at Carolina had nothing to do with any course I took, and it didn’t even happen on campus. One summer, I persuaded my daddy to let me go to Alaska, and while I was there I learned how to fly-fish. It taught me a lot.”

Allen, who recounted the tale in an articled entitled, Hail, Fellows, Well Met, said a day or two later he realized that “Mr. Burch hadn’t been talking about fly-fishing so much as he had the opportunity to use his time in college to pursue his own  interests wherever it made most sense to do so.”

Earlier that morning, Allen heard a story on National Public Radio about the MacArthur Fellows Program, which awards $500,000 to exceptionally talented and industrious people to follow their passions in any manner they choose without having to produce an academic product.

“Mindful of Mr. Burch’s fly-fishing story and the academic autonomy of his summer experience,” Allen proposed creating a fellowship at UNC that would neither generate course credit, nor require fellows to produce an academic product.

To Allen’s delight, Burch financially supported the notion. Over the last ten years Allen noted that student “fellowship experiences have had a significant and, in some cases, transformative effect on their intellectual and academic development.”

Allen believes the Burch Fellowships work wonders because they “reward passion and curiosity over an ability to perform consistently well on multiple choice tests or in traditional college courses.”

This all got me to thinking – in part because I’m so ready for warm days – that summertime is a terrific time for all of our kids to do what the MacArthur and Burch Fellows do: Explore what they’re most passionate about.

I took a quick look at the MacArthur Fellows Program, sometimes called the Genius Awards, and noted that the “program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations.

“In keeping with this purpose, the Foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations.” Sounds to me like all of our kids fit somewhere in the above.

It gets better. Fellows are chosen for the $500,000 award. Nominators choose the winners. In other words, you can’t apply for a MacArthur. So, I’m now officially making myself the unofficial “MacArthur Jr. Fellows Program” nominator, and I officially in my unofficial capacity name each and every high school student to be a fellow sans money.

Allen and the MacArthur folks have known for a long time that the great discoveries are made when people follow what they gravitate to naturally – whether that be baseball, song, or watching movies as Allen did with his fellowship in Europe.

“Recipients are chosen for their potential to make exceptionally creative contributions to their respective fields,” according to MacArthur guidelines.  “We believe that highly motivated and talented people are in the best position to decide how to allocate their time and resources. By adopting a ‘no strings attached’ policy, we provide the maximum freedom and flexibility for the recipients to use the fellowship in ways that most effectively facilitate their future work.”

Why not try and think of the summer as one great big MacArthur – a time for high school students to use a couple of months to explore what interests them most and to see what comes out of it.

If students do that they will find themselves on a frontier of their own, exploring something that’s important to them.

And because I do like the pragmatic side of life, it’s useful to point out that there are two very practical sides to taking me up on the “MacArthur Jr. Awards.”

One, if a student does identify something and makes some discoveries about just that, he’ll be that much closer to choosing a college that will suit his needs.

Two, colleges are looking for students who’ve committed themselves to pursuits they can further explore on their campuses.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com