It's no surprise that a senior at Johns Hopkins, known for its emphasis on undergraduate research, has won a Marshall Scholarship, one of the most prestigious research-based scholarships an American college student can receive.
But the surprise this year is that Hopkins' first winner since 1998 isn't majoring in biology or mechanical engineering. Lionel Foster is a Writing Seminars major.
"What I find interesting is that Hopkins has won the award for the Writing Seminars rather than one of the sciences," says John Bader, assistant dean for academic advising in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and Foster's coach through the scholarship's application process. "I couldn't be more thrilled. For researchers, the Marshall Scholarship is the crown jewel."
Marshall Scholarships are funded by the British government to commemorate the Marshall Plan, the U.S. government program that assisted in the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. The two-year full scholarship will allow Foster, 21, to attend the University of Kent, where he will study the social impact black churches have in impoverished communities.
Specifically, his research will compare the success of black churches in Baltimore with their counterparts in Birmingham, England--cities comparable in size with large minority populations living in poor communities, Foster says. He aims to pinpoint why some black churches in troubled communities are agents for change while other churches' pews are empty on Sunday.
"Urban regeneration specialists look at economics and politics to examine trends, but I feel that churches are being neglected," Foster says. "I'm going to look into how churches can increase their potential."
Accepted to Johns Hopkins to study physics, Foster thought he was more likely to win a research scholarship before a change of majors--and a change of heart--led him to the Writing Seminars.
"While working in the labs, I realized that I'm fascinated by concepts like E=mc2--how Einstein figured it out and how I could explain that process in writing," Foster says. "But I knew that if I had to sit and play with Bunsen burners for seven years, I wasn't going to make it. It took a lot of soul-searching to ask myself the question, What do you really want to do? That was tough to answer honestly because at Hopkins, there are so many doors open to study whatever we want."
Growing up in a low-income single-parent household in Baltimore, Foster struggled to find a way to prove himself worthy of moving up and out of the city. After graduating from the first of two phases of the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in the summer of 1999 and completing two stressful but lucrative internships with Merrill Lynch, Foster says he had an epiphany. Though he had written several stories and plays about life in Baltimore, he suddenly realized he was running from his own story about "a young black boy from Baltimore who wanted up and out but could not leave because he had to serve."
Foster's study of the success of black churches is his way to serve the congregations that were his sanctuary throughout childhood.
"For me, going to church every week was so natural," Foster says. "I felt like I had an appointment with God. I think that's the kind of relationship he wants to have with everybody. I went to a couple different churches during my childhood, but wherever I was going at the time, it always felt like I was home."
This is the second year in a row that a black student at Johns Hopkins has won a major academic scholarship. Foster's friend Westley Moore was also a senior when he was selected as a Rhodes Scholar in December 2000.
"It says something about the African-American community at Johns Hopkins that in successive years, the two most prestigious awards in the academic world were won here by two African-American students," Bader says. "Hopefully these awards will attract more black students to campus, especially students from Baltimore."
Growing up in a neighborhood near the university's School of Medicine, Foster says he didn't think he would one day attend Johns Hopkins.
"A lot of money flows into the medical center, but I was on the other side of the street. We didn't have much money," Foster says. "A lot of the kids I went to City College High School with went on to big schools, but not many of them think of Johns Hopkins. A lot of minorities don't see themselves fitting in at Hopkins. I hope this sends a signal to a lot of minority students that you can get a lot of things done with the resources here."
Foster began working on his Marshall Scholarship application with Bader during the summer. Besides a letter of endorsement from their university and four other letters of recommendation, applicants must submit an outline in early October of their proposed studies in Great Britain along with a personal essay. After a selection committee reviews the applications, finalists are chosen for an interview in mid-November. The names of the 2002 winners are expected to be officially announced this week.
More students at Johns Hopkins should be applying for the Marshall Scholarship, Bader says. School administrators need to do more to spread the word to students, who are unaware of all the scholarship opportunities out there, Bader says.
"This is definitely an object lesson for this university," Bader says. "It's important for a university to support students applying for these scholarships. It's about working with students and making sure they are polished and their work is presented in the best light.
"It's really more a matter of allowing yourself to dream about what your future could be like," Bader says. "Hopkins students need to do more dreaming because when they do, the results are quite extraordinary."