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A behind the scenes look at the graduate experience at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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  • Meet Our Fellows: Ford Fellows on Campus

    To increase diversity in higher education, the Ford Foundation offers predoctoral, dissertation, and postdoctoral fellowships. The goal is three-fold – increasing university’s ethnic and racial diversity, maximizing the educational benefits of diversity, and increasing the number of professors who use diversity as a resource for enriching the education of all students.

    We talked to three University of Illinois graduate students from across campus who received a Ford Fellowship to learn more about the program.


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    Rico Kleinstein Chenyek is an MD/PhD student in the College of Media. Rico's major focus of study is in the social and cultural studies of science, medicine, and technology, with minors in American Indian & Indigenous studies, Latina/Latino studies, and gender & women's studies. Their interests include transnational third world feminisms, queer of color critique, critical indigenous theory, and disability studies. In particular, Rico's research focuses on networks of alternative medicine with respect to indigeneity, latinidad, and conventional medical systems in the U.S., Bolivia, and Peru.


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    Vanessa Rivera-Quinones of Carolina, Puerto Rico, is a fourth-year PhD student in Mathematics. Vanessa is developing mathematical models to better understand the evolution of virulent diseases. Her current project models the epidemiology of a lethal fungal parasite in Daphnia dentrifera, commonly known as the waterflea. She wants explore how community ecology, including conflicts among competitors and predators, shapes how disease spread among hosts. 

    Elena Catalina Montoto-Blanco is a second-year PhD student in Chemistry. She studies ways to design new or better active materials for battery systems and specifically works on polymers in flow batteries. Flow batteries show promise as a source of large-scale energy storage. As energy production keeps steering towards sustainable sources such as wind and solar, the energy created by those sources has to be stored in great quantities for when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining.

    In addition to their own research, each Ford Predoctoral Fellow is selected for their potential to impact and advance diversity in academia.

    As a Latina woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, Vanessa is dedicated to helping other underrepresented students succeed.  She is particularly active in STEM-Fem Alliance, a Univeristy of Illinois student organization she co-founded to empower underrepresented women in science, technology, engineering, and math.  “I look forward to the day when diversity in STEM, including ethnic, gender, and many other modes of difference, is no longer an aspiration but a reality,” Vanessa said.


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    “Being part of the fellowship program has also inspired me to continue mentoring undergraduate students in research,” Elena said.  Since beginning her fellowship this year, she has mentored three undergraduate students who have wanted to start doing research with her research group. “My hope is that they will enjoy research as much as I do and possibly begin their own path to graduate school,” she said.

    She’s also had the opportunity to help fellow Underrepresented Minority (URM) students with advice in the application process for grad school. “I was happy to be able to offer any assistance and/or commentary on things that worked well for me in the application process. The aim of the Ford Predoctoral Fellowship Program is to diversify the pool of underrepresented minority students going from PhD programs to the academic track, and being a fellow, I was able to do just that,” Elena said. 

    For Rico, the shared community of Ford Fellows and the resources the Foundation provides have proven invaluable to their experience. “In my participation on the Ford listserv and in the annual Ford Fellows conference, I have gained necessary tools to effectively promote diversity in and beyond institutions of higher education,” Rico said. “The Ford Fellowship Program has allowed me to promote diversity through providing access to a supportive community and network of other Ford fellows – past and present – that demonstrate by example the work of upholding commitments to diversity.”

    The Predoctoral Fellowship provides three years of support, including a $24,000 annual stipend and a full tuition waiver. The Dissertation Fellowship is for one year and provides a $25,000 stipend and full tuition waiver. The Postdoctoral Fellowship is also for one year and offers a $45,000 stipend. All Ford Fellows have access to Ford Fellow Regional Liaisons, a network of former Ford fellows who mentor and support current fellows.

    “The Ford Fellowship Program has impacted my research by giving me the gift of time. Having the fellowship has allowed me to focus on my research and other professional development opportunities that otherwise I wouldn't have time for,” Vanessa said of the fellowship. She has also valued the opportunity to keep teaching while on fellowship. “This has allowed me to develop both as an instructor and a researcher by giving me the flexibility I needed to pursue both,” she said.

    For all three Fellows, the stability and support of the program has been key and has afforded them the opportunity to give back to the campus community by volunteering with registered student organizations and other programs on campus.

    Vanessa works with the local chapter of the Association of Women in Mathematics on projects like the Sonia Math Day for Girls and the GEMS workshops. Elena is involved with the Illinois chapter for Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and the Illinois American Chemical Society’s Women Chemists Committee.

    “My most valuable opportunity as a Ford fellow has been the flexibility with which I have been able to tailor my graduate education.  There are many ways to be a successful graduate student, and I am grateful to have been supported throughout my journey of finding the one that fits right for me,” Rico said.

    For additional information on the Ford Foundation’s fellowship programs, see  

    Interested in applying for a Ford Fellowship? Mark your calendar for the Graduate College’s annual Ford Fellowship Information session, which will be held on October 6, 2017 from 2 – 4 p.m. The information session will cover the mission of the Foundation and how your application can address it, the details of the application process, and the services and resources that the Office of External Fellowships offers to U of I applicants. This is an outstanding opportunity to apply for a prestigious fellowship that will admit you to the community of Ford Scholars. Please register here for the event.

    Ready to get started on your application now? Check out our series on crafting a great fellowship proposal or schedule an appointment with one of our helpful staff in the Office of External Fellowships.



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    Caitlin Edwards is the Communications Specialist at the Graduate College. She recently completed a Master's of Science degree in Tourism Management at the university and will be pursuing her PhD in RST this Fall. Her research focuses on consent in leisure and tourism activities, particularly at Regional Burning Man events. In her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her handsome pug, Torbin.

  • Where Are They Now? Madeline Meyer

    Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this monthly series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: "Where are they now?".

    Madeline Meyer graduated from the University of Illinois Professional Science Master's Program in December 2014 with a master’s degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition. Now, she works for Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD) as a Regulatory Affairs Associate where she supports domestic life cycle management initiatives for the Infection Prevention business unit, including performing regulatory assessments and submitting new drug application supplements to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

    What was the transition from graduate school to a professional career like for you? What surprised you about it?

    One thing that surprised me when starting my professional career is how unpredictable each workday can be. You can start the day off with an agenda of items that you plan to accomplish during the day, but rarely does the day ever go as planned. Having the ability to adapt to changing priorities and respond to issues that arise throughout the day is a very important skill.

    What is the most interesting, rewarding, and/or challenging aspect of your job?

    As part of my job, I have the opportunity to work with cross-functional teams, which I find very rewarding. Each cross-functional team member looks at the project from a different perspective, so it is interesting to see how all of the cross-functional input comes together when identifying next steps for a project or assessing risks. Another aspect of my job that I enjoy (which also happens to be one of the most challenging aspects) is the evolving regulatory landscape. There are always new guidances and regulations to become familiar with, and it is always fascinating to see the differences in regulations across various countries.

    What has been the most valuable skill you gained from graduate school?

    Time management. It is crucial to be able to evaluate priorities and work effectively in the workplace. There are days when there are multiple high priority items that need to be completed, and time management skills are essential in order to finish work efficiently. I believe that being involved in multiple activities while in graduate school (whether that be a job, club sport, volunteering opportunity, etc.) helps develop these skills and apply them in the workplace.

    What experiences made an impact on your career choices?

    My internship prior to my last semester in the Professional Science Master’s Program greatly impacted my career choice. As a Regulatory Affairs Intern at Abbott Vascular, I gained exposure to the medical device industry and regulatory submissions. I really enjoyed learning about the regulatory aspects of the medical device/pharmaceutical industries and working with research and development and other functional areas on various projects.

    What do you wish you had known when you started out in your career?

    Prior to starting out in my career, I wish I would have known how transferrable skill sets are. When applying for a job, it is important to understand the skill set that is required and how your experiences (even if they are non-work related) make you a suitable candidate for the position. Being able to communicate your value to recruiters and hiring managers is essential to helping land the first job post-graduation.

    What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?

    Network and utilize the career resources available on campus. Take advantage of the career fairs and information sessions – even if you are not actively looking for a position or internship, it is never too early to learn about what opportunities are out there and make connections with company representatives. You never know what opportunities exist unless you look!


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    This interview is part of the monthly Grad Life series called "Where Are They Now?" which chronicles the career paths of recent Univeristy of Illinois Graduate College alumni. This interview was conducted by Derek Attig. Derek is Assistant Director for Student Outreach in Graduate College Career Development. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles. 

  • Get an Early Start on this Year's Fellowship Applications

    Are you thinking of applying for an external fellowship or grant this fall? If so, summer is a great time to strengthen your application’s foundation. There are many things you can do over the summer to give yourself an all-important competitive edge.   

    Take Aim

    The first thing to do is to research the awards you’re interested in pursuing. Our Fellowship Finder database is the best place to start your search for possibilities, but you’ll also need to visit the funders’ websites to make sure you know the purpose and benefits of the fellowship as well as exactly what’s required in an application. You can also see the kinds of projects funded in the past few years. Knowing all this will help you shape your narrative to target the interests of the funder, and it will position you to make great use of your time this summer.

    Strengthen Your Hand

    Many items that can make or break a fellowship application (as well as your sanity when preparing an application) are ones that you can do over the summer. Here are some ideas:

    • Take a workshop or short course taught by a prominent scholar in your research topic. The experience can stimulate further development of your research proposal by allowing you to probe the mind of a leader in your field as well as meet other young scholars who share your interests.
    • Make connections outside of your discipline. Funders are often keen on multidisciplinary projects, and summer may be a good time to branch out. Taking a course outside your field or working on a summer project or internship in a different lab, or at another institution, may help you to build such a connection and lead to a collaborative relationship.
    • Take the lead in starting a summer writing group in your department to foster peer feedback and support.
    • Push yourself to finish analyzing your data, submit a publication, or get a paper accepted to a conference. This kind of tangible evidence of your research progress might be just what you need to rank a tad higher than your closest competitor. Presentations and publications are outstanding indicators of productivity, and reviewers are very tuned into them.
    • Some funders such as NSF, Ford, and Fulbright highly value activities like mentoring, tutoring, community outreach, and other service-oriented work, so you might look for such opportunities, especially if your CV is thin in this regard.
    • Develop overseas contacts. If you’re applying for an overseas research fellowship, you’ll probably need to establish a working relationship with a scholar at a host institution and obtain a letter of affiliation. This can take months. Now is a good time to investigate the possibilities and begin nurturing that relationship.
    • Improve your language skills. If you’re an international student, you might consider coursework or tutoring to improve your English. If you’re a native-English speaker planning to do international research, intensive language training during the summer can improve your research readiness.
    • If IRB or IACUC approvals are needed for your project, go ahead and start preparing those documents. Getting approval can take time, so it’s good to get a head start in case revisions are required.
    • Connect with your referees. The importance of reference letters can’t be overstated, so do everything you can to get great letters. This means giving your referees LOTS of lead-time and lots of key information. Tell referees about the fellowship’s purpose and review criteria. Tell them about your recent research and explain how this fits into your career goals. Give them copies of your application materials and get their feedback. This will help referees tailor their letters to your recent accomplishments, your goals, and the funder’s goals.


    It’s the rare student who can whip out a winning application in a week, or even a month – so start writing early! Developing a competitive application is a very iterative process that works best when it’s not rushed because it typically involves many cycles of feedback and revision. Having your draft reviewed at multiple stages by your advisor, other faculty, peers, and a staff member in the Office of External Fellowships will help you submit the most polished proposal possible. Using the summer to refine your drafts will almost certainly increase your chances of success.  

    You Have Our Undivided Attention

    At the Office of External Fellowships, summer moves at a slower pace, which makes it the perfect time for you to discuss your application strategy with us and send us your drafts for review.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to start the fall with a well-developed application in hand? We’re here to help you with that. Check out details of our proposal review services and contact us at  


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    Colleen Vojak has worked at the U of I for over 22 years since moving to the CU area in 1988. For the past 6 years she has helped students win external funding as Assistant Director of External Fellowships at the Graduate College. She holds an MEd in counseling and a PhD in Educational Policy Studies. Colleen has been a runner for 42 years – 5 of those years running in Alaska.