How Community College Students Can Find and Win Competitive Fellowships

Apr 19, 2022

By Nicholas Shafer 

If you’re reading this short little guide, you probably already know what makes you — community college, transfer, and non-traditional students — special and unique. You know that community college students overcome so many barriers in their personal and educational lives (like holding down second jobs, maintaining caretaking responsibilities, and navigating the demands of “the real world”) that draw time and resources away from educational endeavors. 

At the same time, perhaps you struggle with communicating how those experiences are actually an asset in advancing your academic and professional career. Perhaps you struggle with what we commonly refer to as imposter syndrome, that little devil in your ear that whispers, “I am not enough.”

The world of fellowships, scholarships, and competitive opportunities can feel far away and unattainable from your current position at a community college. However, the complete opposite is true; in fact, it is because of your non-traditional educational experiences and the barriers you’ve had to overcome that you’re an incredibly strong applicant for competitive opportunities

Why Your Community College Experience Makes You A Competitive Fellowship Applicant

Before discussing some specific tips and tricks of how you can leverage your unique experiences to win funding, here are a few reasons why you are perfectly positioned to be a competitive applicant who stands apart from the crowd: 

1. You have your own unique educational journey

You’re not “just a community college student.” Being a community college student is only one part of your identity. You have a rich identity juggling education, work, and family. You are a student, yes, but perhaps you also are a caretaker and have housekeeping responsibilities. Perhaps you have to work a job or two to pay for your education. Perhaps you are a non-native English speaker, and community college is the most affordable option to gain fluency in academic English before going into mountains of debt to pay for a traditional four-year degree. No matter what, you are definitely a commuter student who has a robust off-campus life, since almost all community colleges are non-residential. 

This all leads to you having a unique story of explaining “why community college” you can articulate when applying to transfer to a four-year institution or competitive scholarship and fellowships. For example, when I chose to leave my four-year liberal arts college and enroll at my local community college, it was primarily for financial (less cost), structural (quarter system rather than semesters), and geographical (California rather than the Midwest) reasons. Articulating why you make the decisions you do and how those decisions reflect a unique “you” is important in any application process!

2. You tell a different story than the usual 

Reviewers and interviewers rarely see applicants who are able to confidently articulate why their community college experience was valuable and how it linked “where I come from” to “where I am going.” 

Rather than shying away from your community college experience as “just a stepping stone” to more prestigious/recognized four-year degrees, it is far better to embrace your community college experience and explain the skills and values you gained from it that make you a competitive fellowship applicant. Any reviewer worth their salt will recognize the different experience you bring to the table from traditional applicants, and be curious to learn more about you and your journey.

3. You are just as, if not more, impressive as applicants from a four-year university

Your experience in the community college system likely helped you develop flexibility and the ability to roll with the punches. You’ve likely had to navigate vast differences in culture and academics as you navigated different institutional cultures, not to mention how quickly you had to adapt with only two years at your transfer institution. All of these experiences have helped you build resilience, strength, and creativity, which allow you to think outside the box about your educational possibilities and the unique skill set you bring to the table. 

4. Programs want applicants like you

The world of competitive scholarships and fellowships is rapidly seeking to diversify its recruitment pipelines beyond traditional institutions and participants. Many programs are actively recruiting candidates who break the mold and bring a unique perspective to the program. As community college, transfer, and non-traditional students, this is great news: you are who they are seeking to recruit! This is why learning how to have confidence in telling your story and explaining “why community college” is such an important part of successfully applying to competitive scholarships and fellowships.

How You Can Start Preparing For Competitive Opportunities Today

Armed with these general reflections on why you are strongly positioned to be a competitive applicant, we can now turn to what you can do today to increase your competitiveness for scholarships, fellowships, and other academic or professional opportunities. Here are seven key steps to leveraging your community college experience for future success. 

1. Discover and keep track of external opportunities 

Community colleges rarely offer robust scholarship and fellowship advising. That means it’s important to be proactive and take initiative to learn what opportunities are out there yourself. 

Google is your best friend! Simply utilizing a keyword search can reveal lots of opportunities. The free Profellow database, which lists over 1,500 funding opportunities, is also a great place to start, as are organizations like the Association of Professional Schools in International Affairs (APSIA) and volunteer mentoring networks like Global Community College Transfers (GCCT)

Many of the super awesome gateway fellowships are difficult for community college students to compete for while at the community college level. Take the world of critical language funding, for example. If you haven’t had access to critical language training (i.e. Mandarin, Arabic, etc.) at the community college level, receiving competitive funding through a Boren Scholarship or a Gilman Scholarship could be a challenge. While community college students should definitely apply for these, you’ll be a much stronger applicant once you can get letters of recommendation and support from a full language department at your four-year institution. Being aware of these opportunities is the first step, ensuring that you can build prerequisite coursework in your undergraduate experience that will make you eligible for opportunities you want to pursue. 

Many of these scholarships and fellowships will be for later down the line once you’ve transferred to your four-year university; however, as you learn about new opportunities, take mental notes that they exist, or bookmark them in your ProFellow account, and start preparing a to-do list of things you can do right now in your local community to start building up a competitive resume that meets the criteria. 

2. Connect locally to build your leadership skills

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Before putting your hat in the ring for nationally competitive opportunities, it’s best to start small and grow big. This is actually an advantage of community colleges! Community-based institutions are deeply embedded within local communities and serve a dual function of a community center and an educational institution. They promote education and enrichment for everyone from 18-year-olds straight out of high school to returning adult learners. This is a golden opportunity to strengthen your community leadership skills and get involved in community service, both of which will be helpful when applying for future opportunities. 

3. Build and maintain personal relationships at every stage of your education

The three core components of a successful fellowship application are a compelling personal statement, evidence of commitment/achievement, and letters of support. This last one is very important, as letters of recommendation will be a requirement for almost all competitive scholarship and fellowship applications.

Identify 3-4 mentors and faculty members in your area of interest and go out of your way to attend their office hours and go above and beyond in their courses. This will not only more generally ease your educational journey and improve your grades, but will also help you have strong supporting letters when applying to future programs.  

4. Get involved at other educational institutions while at your community college

There are likely other major universities in your area. Attending their public lectures and trying to meet others in your area of interest can allow you to develop connections and build expertise. It’s also worth reaching out to campus representatives over email to see if they have any resources specifically for community college students in the area, either for research or personal enrichment. 

This is especially useful if there are surrounding major universities that your local community college transfers into; for example, Berkeley Community College has a strong transfer community to UC Berkeley, and there are lots of research and part-time positions at Berkeley that are open to current community college students. Taking advantage of the networks and opportunities available at larger institutions is a great way to learn about competitive opportunities you might be eligible for once transferring, and is also a great way to build your resume to help you land some of your first positions.

5. Practice, practice, practice!

Get into the habit of “voting yourself in,” even if it’s for smaller opportunities like a local scholarship, fellowship, or internship. You’ll never be in the running for an opportunity you don’t apply for. It’s important to submit lots of applications to familiarize yourself with the process and market yourself as a competitive applicant. 

Over time, this will help you refine your personal story. As you build the skill of applying and articulating yourself, you’ll get better at it. If you start practicing this early, you’ll improve your chances of being a strong, well-versed applicant for bigger opportunities later in your educational career. It is an overused expression, but practice really does make perfect.

6. Tell your story… a lot

Success has nothing to do with being a one-shot wonder. Instead, it requires the commitment and persistence to try your hand at many different opportunities and eventually find the ones that are the right fit for your interests and experience level. After achieving your first couple of successful applications, it becomes easier to make it through to the next round of competition. 

Telling your story through applications is a great way to build this skill, but it’s also equally important to get used to describing your journey verbally. This will be essential in establishing connections at networking events, and will eventually aid you in the interview process for future opportunities.             

7. Connect with Alumni

You’re not alone in struggling to know where to start when completing and submitting applications. Almost all community college, transfer, and non-traditional students can identify with that experience. But unlike four-year universities, community colleges often have an unstable and difficult-to-reach alumni community that can make finding mentors a challenge. This leads many community college and transfer students to feel alone, like you have to constantly reinvent the wheel and are always one step behind. 

Fortunately, in the age of the internet, we can take advantage of online connectivity to find mentors we wouldn’t otherwise have access to. One way to do this is by utilizing LinkedIn. Through a LinkedIn keyword search, you can find graduates from your community college, students and professors at the institution you hope to transfer to, alumni of the programs you’re planning to apply to, or even just people in your area of interest who may be open to mentoring you or sharing their experience. Learning from these connections will allow you to learn more about how you can build your resume and create a plan to successfully apply for future opportunities. 

While you may not always think it’s true, fellowships are for everyone; and that includes community college and non-traditional students. Let this handy guide be a reminder that your unique experiences set you apart from the rest of the crowd, and that you have the potential to bring a fresh perspective to the world of competitive fellowships and scholarships. Now — time to start finding the right opportunity for you!

Nicholas Shafer is a current Marshall Scholar studying development and Middle Eastern Studies in the United Kingdom. A past recipient of the Boren in Jordan and Fulbright in Morocco, Nicholas previously worked at the USAID Middle Eastern Bureau as a Yemen & Gulf desk officer. He is a proud graduate of UC Berkeley and Foothill College and invites any potential mentees to get in contact directly. 

Looking to connect with other non-traditional students? Learn how Global Community College Transfers is building networks of success.

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