Kristopher Jansma saw it as a profound show of faith. He hadn't even begun his undergraduate career at Johns Hopkins, yet here he was being offered a $10,000 fellowship award to pursue, over the next four years, an independent research project of his own design.
Jansma said he felt both elated and slightly burdened by the charge.
"I had never been trusted with so much responsibility before," Jansma said. "I wasn't 100 percent sure of what I was going to do, but I knew that this was way too good an opportunity to pass up."
He didn't, and so Jansma's research journey began. Four years and one documentary film to his credit later, his particular voyage of discovery is about to come to an end.
Jansma is one of 25 Woodrow Wilson fellows who on Friday, May 2, will display and discuss the results of their research at a poster session to be held from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Homewood's Glass Pavilion. This group of seniors, the second to complete the Wilson program, was the first to receive the awards as incoming freshmen.
Founded in 1999, the annual Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program allows students in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences to delve into unconstrained research during their undergraduate experience, mentored by distinguished Johns Hopkins faculty. Each Wilson fellow receives a grant of up to $10,000 to be distributed over four years to support research expenses, including costs associated with travel, equipment and use of archives.
The awards are given to incoming freshmen of outstanding merit and promise and also to rising sophomores, who receive up to $7,500 for three years. For high school seniors, a Woodrow Wilson brochure is included in the application packets mailed out by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Current freshmen, however, must submit a two-to-three-page proposal, a resume, a first-semester transcript and a letter of recommendation from a JHU faculty member who would become the student's mentor.
The award is named after the former U.S. president, who received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins. The program was developed for the School of Arts and Sciences by Herbert Kessler, then dean of the school and now a professor of art history; Steven David, associate dean for academic affairs; and university trustee J. Barclay Knapp, who funded the fellowships through the school's James B. Knapp Deanship, named for his late father.
The individual research projects are designed by the Wilson fellows, and each student has the choice of focusing on a single long-term project, exploring several aspects of a particular discipline or working on various short-term undertakings in an array of fields. Students can opt to pursue research in their own major or, if they wish, branch off into a totally unrelated discipline.
In Jansma's case, this Writing Seminars major chose to write, direct and edit a full-length mock documentary about college life. His mentor was Tristan Davies, a senior lecturer in the Writing Sems. Jansma briefly considered writing a book, he said, but decided that would be biting off too much.
During his first three years at Johns Hopkins, Jansma worked on his script, in essence teaching himself how to write a screenplay from scratch. He said he labored through six versions before he was finally satisfied. Last summer, using a digital camera and editing equipment he purchased with his award, he filmed and pieced together his work.
The title of Jansma's project is 2:37 a.m., the time the documentary's subplots come together in one great climax. The film, which premiered at this month's Johns Hopkins Film Festival, revolves around five fictional Johns Hopkins students, one making a documentary that exposes both his personal life and that of his friends, one who lost a student election and sets out to prove the person who beat her is part of a drug ring, a third in search of $100 to get to New York for a job interview, another crushed with guilt from a recent romantic breakup and, for comedy relief, one student who ambles through his four years in search of a vocation.
Jansma said the work, "very loosely" based on friends, drew some of its inspiration from the film Clerks, written and directed by fellow northern New Jersey native Kevin Smith.
Looking back, Jansma said he is pleased with the final product and the decisions he made.
"It would have been a lot easier to do a short film, but that would have been a wasted opportunity in my eyes," he said. "This movie really challenged me, and I was able to get so much out of it. I learned how to write a screenplay, film a scene, edit a full-length movie and a slew of other production skills. The Woodrow Wilson award was the best thing that could have happened to me."
Subjects of other Wilson projects on display at the Friday poster session range from the archaeology of the almshouse cemetery in upstate New York and the medieval art of Ireland and Spain to Chinese orphanages and landmine detection technology.
Steven David, the program's director, said that while it's still too early in its history to fully assess its impact on the lives of these students, the initial returns are extremely encouraging.
"[The Wilson fellows] are an exceptional group coming in, and an even more exceptional group coming out," David said. "Anecdotal evidence tells us that they have learned and benefited from the experience a great deal. As an undergraduate group, they are way out of proportion in terms of [being elected to] Phi Beta Kappa and [earning] other academic awards. They are also going on to some of the best graduate law and medical schools in the country."
David said the program's selection committee, which is made up of faculty and changes each year, takes pains to identify students who will rise to the occasion.
"The students we select demonstrate outstanding promise, not only in terms of grades but in their maturity and self-discipline, to be able to embark on such a journey," he said. "It's not an easy task for an 18-year-old to devise [her] own project and see it through the next four years of [her] life, even with the help of a faculty mentor."