Christine Pham
Christine Pham, a UCI senior in biological sciences who plans to attend medical school, leads an exercise and nutrition course for grade school students in Orange – courtesy of a $10,000 Donald A. Strauss Public Service Scholarship she first learned of in a SOP workshop. Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

UC Irvine senior Christine Pham’s passion for health and fitness has taken her back to elementary school, where she leads an afternoon exercise and nutrition course for students in Orange. One activity involves placing prop foods in a box and challenging kids to run to it and return with the most nutritious, least caloric or trans fat-filled item.

“I’m targeting fourth- and fifth-grade students, because they’re more mentally mature to understand topics that I discuss, such as fats and fiber,” says the biological sciences major, who plans to attend medical school and work in a community clinic. “Also, the activity allows students to move around and get their hearts pumping.”

It may sound like fun and games, and in a way it is. But Pham’s project is the result of a rigorous, yearlong planning process that involved partnering with THINK Together, a local after-school program. Called My Healthy Start, it’s funded by a $10,000 Donald A. Strauss Public Service Scholarship, awarded annually to college juniors for public service projects during their senior year.

At elementary schools in Orange, universities in Helsinki and many places in between, UCI students are pursuing research interests and passions thanks to the generosity of top scholarship providers.

Pham is grateful to the campus’s Scholarship Opportunities Program for helping her apply. She first learned of the Strauss scholarship during a workshop hosted by SOP.

“We went through so many revisions with my application and my proposal,” Pham says.

SOP staff advise undergraduate candidates seeking prestigious national and international merit scholarships. They conduct outreach and manage the campus-level application and endorsement processes.

For the highly competitive grants, students usually work with the office over a six-month period, says SOP coordinator Michelle Tsai ’10.

She and her staff meet with individual applicants to conduct mock interviews and review essays and proposals. Many top scholarships require official campus endorsements, and the SOP office is responsible for providing those.

“It’s a very long and challenging process, but candidates come out of it stronger and with a renewed sense of their academic and career goals,” Tsai says.

She speaks from experience. The same year Tsai earned degrees at UCI in psychology & social behavior and criminology, law & society, she received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship – and later spent nine months at a teachers college in Queretaro, Mexico.

In February, SOP will host eight sessions of its Big Workshop, during which students will be exposed to the most distinguished grants – Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, Truman, Gates and Fulbright among them – and learn how to position themselves to be good candidates.

Anteaters have an impressive track record. The Marshall Scholarship was recently awarded to Felipe Hernandez, a 2013 graduate in music performance and political science, one of only 40 recipients nationwide. He was also a 2012 Truman Scholar. Kelly Maglia claimed a Marshall Scholarship in 1996.

Megan Braun became UCI’s first Rhodes Scholar in 2011, and Brittany Schick became its first Mitchell Scholar in 2006. Gates Cambridge Scholarships went to Shu-Ping (Cleo) Tung in 2010 and Mukul Kumar in 2007. Kumar also was a 2006 Truman Scholar.

Additionally, hundreds of UCI students have won Goldwater, National Science Foundation, Strauss and Fulbright grants – the last of which fund a year of graduate study, research or teaching in more than 155 countries.

One Fulbright recipient is Kenneth Lai, a UCI senior majoring in classics who’s now studying at the University of Helsinki and becoming well acquainted with the unique qualities of Finnish culture.

“Finland is the home country of the sauna,” he notes. “It’s not uncommon on a chilly Friday night to jump from a hot sauna naked into the snow or go skinny-dipping in the frozen lake, all the while sipping beer, chatting with friends and munching on grilled snacks.”

Lai has some advice for students considering applying for prestigious scholarships: “Names like Fulbright and Marshall and Rhodes are all quite daunting, but when reduced to the category of grant – a category that is part and parcel of academic study – I treated the application process as I would any other.”

He credits SOP and his research advisers in the School of Humanities for facilitating his Scandinavian sojourn.

“Meeting people who underwent the rigorous application process, especially those who shared my background in the humanities, was incredibly helpful in designing a project that could appeal to a general audience while producing interesting results within the field,” Lai says.