Excelsior Scholar explores microloans in Costa Rica

Now in its second year, the Excelsior Scholar Program provides students incentives to excel in academics. Unlike other competitive programs at Hastings College such as Knappenberger Travel Grants, a funding source for off-campus travel, and IMAGINE Grants, which support projects with a community service component, the Excelsior program strictly funds independent student research with the expectation that the research can be presented at a national conference.

Photo of Jennifer Zarek.
Jennifer Zarek ’15

All Hastings College undergraduate students who have at least one year left on campus are eligible to be an Excelsior scholar.

The application is fairly straightforward. Jennifer Zarek ’15, the 2013 Excelsior Scholar, explained that Excelsior’s application requires a personal statement and an outline of the research you intend to conduct.

“[The selection committee] wants to see your thoughts so they can assess the proposal,” said Zarek.

The selection committee provides students feedback on proposals if a draft is submitted prior to an established date. The application also requires no interview, thus placing more importance on the quality of the written application.

Her project assessed the impact of microloans in Costa Rican women’s lives. Zarek, who also earned a Knappenberger Travel Fund to cover her travel costs, had an internship with the microcredit institution Fundación Mujer that allowed her to combine two of her great passions, Spanish and economics. She chose Fundación Mujer because microloans interest her. Her main internship duty lied in creating and implementing the impact assessment, for which she distributed surveys and conducted interviews.

When she started her internship, she spent a lot of time learning how the organization functions, but as she became accustomed to the organization, her responsibilities shifted to completing her impact assessment and performing translation duties. Through her internship, she gained experience she feels will prove useful in the future, which includes the opportunity to conduct research in the real world, witness firsthand how a microcredit institution works, and refine her Spanish skills.

After the research project is complete, the Excelsior scholar must present the results twice—on campus (in a forum such as Academic Showcase Day) and at a national or competitive conference. Not only do these presentations provide students important experience, they also allow the student’s experiences to be appreciated throughout the Hastings College community and in a broader academic community. Excelsior scholars also are encouraged to submit their research results to a scholarly journal in their discipline for publication.

Professors have been very helpful to Zarek throughout the entire process—from the application process, throughout her research project and to her presentation.

“I definitely have a lot of faculty support,” she said. “Dr. Liz [Frombgen, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs] met with me several times during the application and offered me feedback on the draft, [Economics Professor] Dr. Amy Black is finding a conference for me to present at and Dr. [Douglas] Kinnear read over drafts of my research paper. At other places, you wouldn’t get that at all.”

If a topic piques a student’s interest, the Excelsior Scholar Program provides a wonderful opportunity for a student to get funding to complete the research.

Zarek is certainly glad she applied for the Excelsior Scholar Program.

“If someone has an idea, I would totally encourage them to apply for it,” she said.

Written by Liz Case ’14

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