So Much More than the Money: A Scholarship Story
Twenty years ago, in July of 2001, I was privileged to be one among a group of thirty winners who received National Federation of the Blind scholarships at our National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was seventeen, had just graduated high school, and at the time had absolutely no concept of how that experience would affect the course of the next two decades of my life. For the past four years I have served as chairperson of the NFB scholarship committee, and as we approach the twentieth anniversary of my own award, I can’t help but reflect on how the most significant part of that experience had nothing to do with the dollar amount on the scholarship check I received.
For the past several years, I have submitted an article to the Braille Monitor entitled, “The Secret to Winning a National Federation of the Blind Scholarship.” The article debunked some myths that are often circulated regarding the scholarship process and offered some tips for students regarding best practices for submitting high-quality applications. There is, however, one last secret that article addressed only briefly, which is that the process of applying for a scholarship and the experience of being a winner are the true prizes, above and beyond the financial award.
The rewards of the scholarship experience begin with the application. Each year at our national convention, the banquet closes with a ceremony during which thirty blind students from across the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are awarded scholarships, ranging in value from $3,000 to $12,000, in recognition of their academic aptitude and demonstrated leadership qualities. While the attention and admiration of the Federation focuses on these deserving individuals, and speculation about who will win the top scholarship amounts always runs high, it is worth mentioning that behind these thirty winners are several hundred applicants who may not have come away with a check but who have participated in an experience that has the potential to help them grow personally and professionally.
Each year, the NFB scholarship program receives many times the number of applications than we have scholarships to award. As a result, many winners have applied more than once before being selected. Through the years, as these students, undaunted, continue to submit their evolving applications, we have the privilege to observe them grow and develop as scholars, as leaders, and as individuals. Some of this growth comes from the dedication and perseverance required to complete the scholarship process and the accompanying interview with an NFB affiliate president. Our youngest applicants gain experience through this process that can be applied to their college and career advancement as they take on the responsibility of gathering and submitting all of the required application components. Our more experienced applicants gain the opportunity to reflect on their own sense of themselves as blind people and their impact on the world as they complete the essay and the president’s interview.
One of the most important goals of our national scholarship program is to find, recruit, and encourage new members. As our state scholarship chairs reach out to students in their states and our affiliate presidents conduct their individual interviews, hundreds of potential new leaders and members of our Federation have the chance to get to know us for the first time each year. Even before the scholarship committee meets, these applicants have an opportunity to receive the gift of the Federation, a gift that will last far longer than scholarship dollar amounts. For those applicants who are already familiar with and involved in the Federation, the scholarship application process provides an excellent opportunity to deepen existing relationships with state presidents, as well as to take stock of their personal leadership experiences and the ways they themselves give back to the organization.
For the 30 finalists the scholarship committee selects annually, the announcement of the prizes on banquet night is only one facet of the award. During the NFB’s national convention, which all finalists are required to attend in full, scholarship finalists have the opportunity to network with other blind students, to exchange information and ideas, and to meet and talk with hundreds of blind people who are successfully employed in many occupations and professions. Whether convention events take place in person or virtually, our past winners often comment that the money was quickly spent, but the contacts they made and the information they gathered at convention have continued to make their lives richer than they ever imagined.
There is no dollar amount that can be assigned to the friendships that develop among the members of a scholarship class as they support one another during an action-packed week of getting to know the Federation and sharing their own accomplishments and goals with us. Likewise, there isn’t a financial equivalent to the unprecedented access our finalists gain every year to the outstanding leaders who serve as members of the scholarship committee. Through discussions with these successful blind mentors, scholarship winners have an unequaled opportunity to get to know our organization’s leaders by asking questions and discussing their own ideas and opinions. They also have the chance to make all of our Federation experiences more rich, as they share their own diverse experiences and perspectives with us during the Board of Directors meeting and at student division events.
When the gavel drops each year and convention draws to a close, the rewards of the scholarship program do not come to an end. Our winners continue to deepen their connections and maintain their collaboration with one another as they pursue their various academic degrees and professional goals. They continue to build relationships with the Federation through involvement with their state affiliates, strengthening and evolving the foundations laid during those initial applicant interviews and enriched during the week of the convention itself. Our winners develop and strengthen professional networks with other blind people in their chosen fields and with members who share in their intersectional identities through the work of our divisions and groups. They serve on NABS boards, take on the work of the Federation in their affiliates, and carry what they have learned about the capacity of the blind into their schools, communities, and families. The scholarship checks are mailed and cashed in August, but the rewards of being an NFB scholarship recipient last for a lifetime.
Twenty years ago, when I won my NFB national scholarship, I had previously had no direct exposure to the Federation. I sincerely expected to “take the money and run”, and did not go into the process with the hope of receiving anything more than some financial aid. Through the application process, I came to know my state affiliate president, who took the trouble then and in subsequent years to encourage my involvement in Federation work, and to engage me in discussions and debates that broadened my understanding of myself as a blind person and my role in the NFB community. During the week of being a scholarship finalist, I laid the groundwork of friendships and relationships with my classmates that I still maintain today. Many of these people have since taken on leadership roles in the Federation all across the country. I now serve as second vice president of the New York State affiliate of the NFB, president of the National Organization of Blind Educators, and as scholarship chair, and it all started with an NFB scholarship.
It is my sincere wish that as many blind students as possible can have the opportunity to engage in the scholarship process each year, as each step along the scholarship pathway brings with it tangible rewards, most of which will far exceed and outlast the financial benefits of a scholarship check. The 2021 application deadline is March 31. If you are a legally blind student and will be enrolled full-time in a US degree program in the fall of 2021 (either in person or virtually), and are able to attend the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind from July 6-10, I hope that you will grasp the same opportunity that I did twenty years ago and apply for one of the National Federation of the Blind scholarships. The benefits of engaging in the process will be yours for a lifetime.
- Cayte Mendez
National Federation of the Blind
Scholarship Committee Chair
The 2021 scholarship program details, checklist, application, and more can be found at nfb.org/scholarships.