Whenever fourth-year UBC student Alice Farrer starts speaking Mandarin with Chinese immigrants, they’re invariably very surprised.
That’s because there are very few young white women in the city who can speak the language, let alone read it.
In an interview at the Georgia Straight, Farrer revealed that she was born in Mazomanie, Wisconsin, a tiny all-white, all-Christian community. But that didn’t stop her from developing a fascination with Far Eastern culture, at first through television.
After graduating from high school in Florida, she enrolled at UBC, specializing in Asian language and culture.
Her oral and written Mandarin improved dramatically as a result of a two-month scholarship at a language school in Taipei, courtesy of Taiwan’s Ministry of Education.
“I went there on my own,” Farrer said. “I had to find my own housing. I had to do all the paperwork for the school.”
Scholarships have traditionally been associated with grade-point averages. But according to financial-aid administrators at local universities, student awards are increasingly being linked to community engagement and service, advancing cultural understanding, and promoting equity.
For instance, the Okanagan Pride Society recently announced two $250 awards for college- and university-bound high-school students who have helped foster safe and accepting environments for LGBTI youths. Community Living B.C. and the B.C. Government Employees’ and Service Union have created a $100,000 scholarship fund to help adults with developmental disabilities.
Vancouver Film School offers a Women in Games Scholarship to cover tuition for female game designers, who are dramatically underrepresented in the industry. The school's admissions manager, Simon Custodinho, told the Straight by phone that applicants must submit an idea for a game, which could be published and distributed.
Another VFS contest asked applicants to create a 90-second video embodying one of the lines of the school's manifesto.
"We got a tremendous response to that," Custodinho said. "It really helped us pinpoint some of the best talent out there seeking postsecondary education within the entertainment arts."
Millions of dollars are given away
There’s a lot of free money available. In 2012–13, there were 125 new scholarships, bursaries, and awards created at UBC alone. More than $10 million in student awards and another $2.4 million in financial aid were distributed that year, according to a report by the UBC development and engagement office.
Manoj Bhakthan, SFU’s director of financial aid and awards, told the Straight by phone that the university annually distributes approximately $13 million of internally and externally funded bursaries, awards, and scholarships to undergraduate students.
That number could go up significantly in future years. That’s because SFU is in the midst of a $250-million fundraising campaign to coincide with its 50th anniversary in 2015. If the goal is reached, $100 million more will be set aside for scholarships, bursaries, and awards.
Bhakthan recommended that students and their parents pay attention to application deadlines.
“For example, our major entrance scholarship deadline is February 28,” he said.
Travel is being incorporated into education
Farrer credits a visiting professor, Yu-chi Kuo, in UBC’s department of Asian studies for encouraging her to apply for the trip to Taiwan. Farrer received more than $900 per month for living and travel expenses. It wasn’t always easy doing everything in Mandarin: she recalled that one of the biggest challenges was creating her own bank account.
“I like to think I was independent beforehand, but this definitely helped push me along,” Farrer added with a smile.
According to Grace Ou, director of the education division at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vancouver, 121 Mandarin-language scholarships to Taiwan were awarded to western Canadian students between 2005 and 2013.
“Every day, they have to spend three hours in the class,” Ou told the Straight. “After that, they have more time to read by themselves. On weekends, they go to different heritage attractions to learn more.”
Allison Griner, a UBC graduate school of journalism student, counts herself among the lucky ones who’ve been able to learn through travel. As an undergraduate anthropology student, she also won a scholarship to Taiwan, where she studied Mandarin for two months in the southern town of Pingtung.
After she enrolled in UBC’s journalism school, she qualified for a two-week Fellowship at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics. It involved visits to Berlin, Krakow, Auschwitz, Nuremberg, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. Part of the program focused on why the Holocaust never received much media coverage during the Second World War.
“Their idea is, ‘We’re just going to make such a big impression on you that you will never forget to think about ethics,’ ” Griner told the Straight in a campus coffee shop. “You’re walking in mud that literally has human ash in it still. It’s terrifying.”
Recently, she travelled to China to examine waste management there as part of an international-reporting course. This fellowship was mostly funded by a $1-million gift from philanthropist Alison Lawton. And this month Griner qualified for a News21 fellowship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where she’ll join other students to investigate gun control and gun lobbying. The fellowship provides travel expenses and $7,500 for the 10-week experience.
Griner repeatedly expressed appreciation of her professors for these opportunities. “It makes me feel so spoiled,” she confessed at one point.
In the past, the results of News21 research have appeared in major U.S. media outlets. The UBC journalism school’s director, Peter Klein, told the Straight by phone that Griner’s fellowship illustrates where journalism education is heading. He compared it to teaching hospitals, where future doctors are permitted to care for patients while still being mentored. In the same way, students like Griner are out in the field doing their work, which is being monitored by experienced practitioners.
“There is a need for journalism that isn’t necessarily purely market-driven—that is reflective, that is thoughtful, that allows you to delve deep in a topic like they do in News21,” Klein said. “At the same time as they’re teaching these students from all over North America, they’re also producing really good works of journalism.”
Websites help students collect cash
In a recent interview with the Straight, UBC’s associate director of enrollment services, Darran Fernandez, said that people are sometimes confused about the difference between a scholarship, an award, and a bursary.
University staff called “enrollment-services professionals” advise students about bursaries, which are provided on the basis of financial need. These staffers also offer guidance on where more specialized information is available.
“We like to refer to them as the student’s general practitioner at UBC,” Fernandez said.
He added that scholarships are linked to academic merit, whereas other awards may result from community service, a parent’s place of employment, a union, and even a financial institution.
Some awards are restricted to those who meet certain criteria, such as students with a disability or those of aboriginal background.
“Canlearn.ca is a Government of Canada–based website that talks about government student loans, financial planning, debt repayment—all that fun stuff,” Fernandez said. “Studentawards.com is the main hub site for awards from across the country, from private organizations to public groups.”
He encourages students to spend at least 20 minutes a week on studentawards.com, which enables them to know which prizes they’re eligible for.
Langara and Douglas College students benefit
Faculty can also help students get free money. In an interview with the Straight in a Vancouver Starbucks, former Langara journalism student Steven Chua mentioned that his instructors often spoke about the Jeani Read–Michael Mercer Scholarship for Journalism at Langara.
Generously endowed with $1.3 million from the estate of playwright and screenwriter Michael Mercer to honour his deceased wife, former Province columnist Jeani Read, this gift funds two $10,000 scholarships designed to help graduating students find their first job in the industry.
Chua, a UBC psychology grad, won after proposing a series last year on mental-health challenges faced by people from different ethnic groups.
He mentioned to the Straight that it’s no secret that suicide and depression rates are far higher on First Nations reserves.
CBC Radio’s Early Edition show broadcast the series in September, and now Chua has been hired at the station on a casual basis. He also works weekends at Canadian Press.
When asked how he reacted upon learning of the award, he replied: “There’s not really a word that I can put to it. I guess I was shocked.”
Others can relate to that feeling. Douglas College business student Gurpreet Bhangre told the Straight by phone that she was home in Burnaby when she learned that she had won a Frank Giustra Commerce and Business Award. She noticed an envelope with her name on it, opened it up, and discovered a cheque for $1,500.
“I was so surprised and excited,” she said. “My family was really proud.”
Giustra, a mining tycoon and founder of Lions Gate Entertainment, is a Douglas College alumnus. Those enrolled for nine credits in the bachelor of business administration program are eligible for $1,500; those with 15 credits can collect $2,500. If they maintain the required grade-point average, they receive up to $2,500 in the following semester.
Bhangre said she has never met Giustra but was so grateful for the help that she wrote a thank-you letter.
“It was so nice that someone would give me this money,” she commented.
Community service can bring huge rewards
Two young SFU students won even more lucrative honours in November. Deven Azevedo, 18, and 17-year-old Andy Zeng received 2013 Schulich Leader Scholarships.
These awards, which are managed by the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, pay $60,000 to each student over four years. In return, they must study either science, technology, engineering, or math as undergraduates.
These prizes are linked to community engagement. As a high-school student, Azevedo created a community garden in Fort Langley, raising $45,000.
Zeng helped create a network of humanitarian clubs in the Coquitlam school district to promote understanding of water security. He also assisted the homeless while serving as president of his school’s Red Cross Club.
Bhakthan said that although SFU is trying to attract the best and the brightest, it’s also focusing more on what they’re doing outside of the classroom.
“Our scholarships are tending toward looking at students holistically, not just looking at grades,” he said. “Yes, we do have scholarships that just focus on grades because maybe the student doesn’t have the opportunities or even the time to actually volunteer in the community. So we will still recognize those students who are academically strong. But I think our goal in terms of some of our major entrance scholarships is to recognize those students who are also engaged in the community.”
The Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation’s Loran Scholarships are among the most coveted undergraduate awards in Canada. Named after the term for long-range navigation, they are granted to high-school grads on the basis of their character, service, and leadership.
Aaron Bailey, president of the UBC Science Undergraduate Society, told the Straight in an interview in the Student Union Building that he was “overwhelmed” when he was selected. He had served as president of his high-school student council in Niagara Falls and as cochair of the mayor’s youth advisory committee.
“I remember getting the phone call—sitting in a hotel waiting for my mom driving from Niagara to pick me up from Toronto—and just breaking down and crying and being so happy that I had been blessed with this sort of opportunity,” he said. “My mother did the same thing.”
Bailey explained that through agreements with universities, undergraduate tuition is waived, plus students like him receive $4,500 per term to cover living expenses. That’s so they can focus more attention on serving the university community and developing leadership skills.
He appreciates knowing that someone he’s never met is willing to invest so much to help him achieve his potential.
“In the first year, that was something I struggled with a lot,” Bailey admitted. “Did they make a mistake? Did they choose the wrong person? You do fall into those complexes.”
He said that the award offers an opportunity for internships around the world, but he has to maintain his grade-point average for the funding to continue. He advised anyone thinking about becoming a Loran Scholar to start early.
“It’s a fairly lengthy application,” he said. “They’re not looking for a cookie-cutter individual. They choose people from very different backgrounds with different experiences. The most important thing is to portray who you are, because that’s what they’re looking for.”
Giving brings a family together
Donors also feel rewarded. Jeff Norris, chief advancement officer at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, has funded eight $1,000 annual awards at his school.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Norris said that he was thrilled when he was approached by a single mother of two kids who won the first of his many gifts. She asked if she could have her picture taken with him.
After tax credits, each award costs him less than $600, which he finances through payroll deductions. Norris revealed that he has named two of the awards after his daughters, and this year his eight-year-old handed out her first cheque.
“She was excited to do that,” he said. “When the other one gets old enough, she’ll get to do that. I had my mother hand out one before, so it’s neat to get the whole family involved.”
It’s not difficult for companies or individuals to fund their own student awards. According to the administrators contacted by the Straight, a good start is to contact college or university advancement offices, alumni associations, student financial-aid offices, or the awards and development offices on campuses.
“There are endowed scholarships, where a certain amount of money will generate a certain amount of interest that will be there in perpetuity,” Bhakthan said. “There are also annual opportunities [with] a minimal amount of money there that can be given out annually to students. So there are various options that donors have to provide in terms of funding.”
It’s often said that it’s better to give than to receive, but with student awards, both parties seem pretty satisfied.