Jason Roberts and his wife hiking Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington.

An Interview with Jason Roberts, Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University

We sat down with Jason Roberts, associate director of outreach and communications in Northwestern University’s Office of Fellowships, to learn more about his experience as a fellowship adviser and the students he supports.

You play such an important role with college seniors. Tell us what you do at Northwestern and about your experience talking with young people about the future.

One of my primary roles is to advise first- and second-year students, especially through our annual “talent search” meetings, when students learn that a faculty member has recommended them to meet with our office.  I am also the advisor for most postgraduate fellowships that take place in the United States, so it is not uncommon for me to introduce a Northwestern (NU) student to the world of fellowships, then advise them throughout their undergraduate years, culminating in successful pursuit of a bridge-year fellowship as a graduating senior.

Along the way, I am also happy to help NU students better understand the internal opportunities available to them as they seek the experiences and credentials that will make them stronger candidates for external awards.  I have worked at Northwestern for a very, very long time (and it feels even longer than that!), so I take it as my responsibility to do my part to help NU students maximize the value of their entire time as undergraduates, which entails considering what they want to do beyond the relatively narrow purview of applying for an external award and showing them how this powerful, wealthy institution can enrich and expand their humanity.

And the best part of that journey is helping them to learn who they are and what they want to do, both in the near future and for the rest of their lives.

For applicants who ultimately want careers serving the environment or working in a humanities-related field, the FAO Schwarz Fellowship offers rare and much-needed opportunities.

How have our national conversations on leadership, social change, inequality, environmental justice, and civil rights influenced the post-college plans of the students you are advising? Have you noticed any particular trends or themes as they ponder their future and what happens next?

As we often say on campus, Northwestern is a very “pre-professional” university, and here is how I define that to students when I discuss this issue with them:  NU students are often A-types who overachieved in high school and see college first and foremost as a path toward entering their desired profession, with medicine, law, finance, and consulting accounting for the professional aspirations of many of our students.  

However, I noticed a change in student attitudes in response to the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown.  Suddenly, it seemed many of our students were generally more politically aware and more concerned with what it meant for them to be good citizens.  Although this shift did not necessarily entail a corresponding rejection of the career paths named above, it did seem to mean that students were, on average, more thoughtful about how they might do more than get a good return on investment for their education. They, instead, began to think more deeply about how their careers could be ethical and meaningful.  While students rightly feel a lot of anger about inequality and anxiety about the environment, I find that their youth typically makes it possible for them to access hope in the fight against despair, and it is one of the intangible benefits of my job that I get to have my own sense of hope renewed by my work with them.

We’ve been so lucky to have had four Fellows from Northwestern University (Natalia Wang ’22; Serena Salgado ’20; Kayla Jones ’18 and Karen Wilber ’16) participate in our program in recent years. What do you think it is about the program that appeals to your seniors?

There is a lot to like about the FAO Schwarz Fellowship.  The financial compensation is excellent. Very few awards pay as well as this one does, which undoubtedly makes it easier for students to follow their ideological convictions (and their hearts) to pursue work that prioritizes social impact over profit and higher salaries. 

The fellowship also offers a compelling mix of autonomy, responsibility, community, and mentorship.  Applicants know they will have the chance to engage in meaningful work, with a structure that encourages them to target specific professional development goals, all while receiving support from their peers in the cohort and mentorship from the leaders in their host organizations and the fellowship foundation. For applicants who ultimately want careers serving the environment or working in a humanities-related field, the fellowship offers rare and much-needed opportunities.

Lastly, I am sure that the placement cities are especially appealing to our students, many of whom come from large coastal cities.

We know from our research that a lot of students don’t believe they are good candidates for prestigious Fellowships or don’t even know what a Fellowship is. What do you tell them?

This conversation is a very common feature of our work with prospective fellowship applicants, and I handle it in a couple of different ways.  First, I try to help students understand a few basic facts about applying for selective external awards.  These awards are all highly competitive, which means you cannot find an “easy” award to apply.  Because these awards are so competitive, they need to accept that fact as a reality and focus instead on their desire to have the experience being offered (while also making sure they are eligible before expending unnecessary effort).  I encourage students to imagine they have gotten an offer from the award at hand and then gauge their emotional response—are they on the fence about it when they hear the news, or are they excited to immediately say yes?  If they give me the latter answer but still need encouragement, I remind them of something they likely already know but often need to hear again: the only way to be sure you don’t win a given award is to never apply in the first place.

Alongside this discussion, our work together on an application offers the students a chance to gain confidence about their competitiveness for the award in question and for their future moving forward, and I especially appreciate the specific requirements of the FAO Schwarz Fellowship as a way to achieve this goal.  Because the fellowship requires a cover letter and a resume but not a personal statement, my work with applicants can focus on helping them better understand and more powerfully articulate just how significant their experiences have already been for building the skills and acquiring the tools they will need to be successful in their fellowship placement and in many other roles beyond it. 

Over the past few years, I have found myself frustrated by much of the instruction around these genres of writing (i.e., cover letters and resumes) and have devoted much more effort and attention to helping students learn how to write effectively in these genres, and I have been particularly happy with how my FAO applicants have benefitted from that process even when they did not get chosen for the fellowship.  The cover letters and resumes they wrote for the fellowship were directly applicable to other opportunities they pursued and were given offers for, demonstrating the value of the process and, more importantly, the value of their own experiences and credentials.

Picture of Jason Roberts

Jason Roberts

Jason Roberts (he/him) is the associate director for outreach and communications in Northwestern University’s Office of Fellowships


Feature image courtesy of Jason Roberts.