Uncovering Your Plan A
Caroline Morris Helps Students Create a Vision for Their Future
Caroline Morris doesn’t give up, at least not when it comes to getting what she really wants out of her career and life. And she helps her students do the same. She blends pragmatism with imagination, which is the same approach she uses when she’s coaching students applying for prestigious fellowships.
How would you spend your time, if you didn’t have to be practical?
What do you want to have accomplished in 15 years? What is your secret dream, the one you almost don’t dare to articulate because it seems so impossibly out of reach?
The answer is your Plan A.
As associate vice president for Applied Learning and Social Impact at St. Edward’s, Plan A is what Morris tries to uncover when she sits down with applicants for the Fulbright and other prestigious scholarships. Finding Plan A is different from asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Plan A is the future her advisees long for but don’t know how to create — the way Morris wanted to be a writer in grade school, but instead prioritized more pragmatic ambitions until starting her first novel 10 years ago. You pick a career with your brain; you know Plan A in your gut.
“The longer I did this job, the more I understood that my intellectual head was not necessarily the best guide for helping students,” Morris says. “You’ll ask all these questions, and then there’s a point in the conversation where they light up, and their demeanor changes. They smile and get a little sheepish, and they turn red, and they’ll say” — she lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper — “‘Well, really, I’m into drawing comics.’ And you say, well, why couldn’t you draw comics?”
Plan A doesn’t necessarily equate to a practical way to make a living in the short term, Morris says. “That’s a real concern, but that’s not my job. My job is getting them to dream really big so that they can articulate how they’re going to change the world for people who want to give them money to do it.”
Morris’ diligent questioning and careful listening have helped a record number of students win that money to put their worldchanging dreams into motion. Under her tutelage, 10 students won Fulbright scholarships in 2015, making St. Edward’s University the top producer of U.S. Fulbright Students among master’s-granting institutions in the nation last year. Since Morris arrived at the university in 2007, students from St. Edward’s have won 51 Fulbright awards, 35 Gilman Scholarships, four State Department Critical Language Scholarships, a Truman Scholarship and a host of other awards. Those same years have seen the university enhance its study abroad options and support for student research, but its reputation as a powerhouse for prestigious fellowships can be traced directly to Morris and her ability to connect with her mentees.
“Caroline is uniquely talented in working with students to draw the best out of them,” says Mary Boyd, former vice president for Academic Affairs. “She has this magic that fosters the student’s own ability to bring out what is special and distinctive about them. She creates this space where the student can really explore and imagine all the possibilities, and then achieve them.”
At the time Morris came to St. Edward’s, only a handful of students from the university had ever won the country’s most prestigious fellowships. Most had been mentored by the late Associate Professor of German Harald Becker, a champion of the Fulbright Program who continued to advise students until his death in 2012.
As the university’s second director of Fellowships, Morris drew on Becker’s work and that of her predecessor, who had focused on cultivating students from the Honors Program. But she realized that for St. Edward’s to win more fellowships, she needed to broaden the pool of applicants beyond Honors and German students into “a college-wide, crowdsourced search for the best talent.”
The pool of highly qualified students was broadening, thanks to seven years of groundwork laid by the Office of Undergraduate Admission. Shortly after President George E. Martin arrived at St. Edward’s in 1999, the university adopted strategic priorities to help it become recognized as one of the best small universities in the country. Those goals included expanding enrollment and improving academic quality, which meant admission officers began traveling out of state to recruit students. The team also became more strategic in working with Student Financial Services to use scholarships and financial aid to encourage strong students to enroll.
In one measure of the team’s success, the average SAT score of incoming freshmen rose from 1067 in the year 2000 to 1137 in Fall 2015, while the size of the class more than doubled. In another, the out-of-state portion of the class has jumped from 4 to 18 percent. Students who go to college far from home, notes Associate Vice President and Dean of Admission Tracy Manier, tend to be more academically talented and adventurous.
“We’re a different university than we were 10 years ago, and we therefore attract a different kind of student,” Manier says. “Everything from the facilities that we’re able to offer, to the international experiences, to the expanded list of majors — so much has happened since Dr. Martin arrived that has placed St. Edward’s in a better position to attract the kind of student who might go on to win the Fulbright. And we have put a tremendous amount of effort into finding the best students who would be good fits and thrive here.”
Yet Morris realized that if she worked exclusively with students who entered St. Edward’s with top academic records, she’d miss out on another talent pool entirely: students who come from poor high schools, who have to work instead of joining debate or orchestra, who are the first in their family to attend college — the kind of student the admission office also focuses on recruiting, because students who work hard in high school despite these disadvantages often blossom once they get to St. Edward’s.
“We have a lot of really gifted first-generation college students who come to us underprepared,” Morris says. “Figuring out how to convince that group that they can compete at this national level — and then supporting them in getting experiences that they need to be competitive — has been a big piece of our success.”
Morris reaches out to all the freshmen in the Honors Program, as well as students who’ve made at least a 3.7 GPA their freshman year. But, knowing that students from disadvantaged backgrounds sometimes take a year or more to hit their stride, she also looks for students at any stage of their education who’ve made strong grades or taken advanced foreign language classes. She relies on professors to refer strong candidates.
In an Ivy League setting, many students are familiar with awards like the Marshall or Fulbright. That wasn’t the case at St. Edward’s, where Morris first had to explain their merits, then counter students’ assumptions that the awards were for someone else: students whose parents were doctors, lawyers, congressmen. Students from Harvard and Princeton.
“She’s great at encouraging you to see that you’re completely in line with all the other applicants from the Ivy League schools,” says Courtney Dymowski ’14, who graduated in June from the University of Cambridge, where her studies were paid for by a Davies-Jackson Scholarship for first-generation college students. “Even though you’re coming from a background that possibly isn’t as privileged, you can still capitalize on the opportunities you’ve had. She makes you feel that nothing is out of reach.”
Once Morris connects with potential applicants, her next step is to explain what it takes to win a scholarship or fellowship. The top college graduates in the country, she tells her students, have a record of independent research. Committed and sustained volunteer work. Multiple internships in their field. Proficiency in a second, maybe a third, language. Studies abroad.
But many of these pursuits take money. So, with a dedicated Summer Academic Excellence Award budget, she began granting students the funds to make those life-changing experiences possible. Dymowski applied for a grant that allowed her to volunteer teaching English in Thailand the summer before her senior year. Other students have interned in the attorney general’s office, worked at an orphanage in Ecuador, and completed a photography project focusing on small-town Texas.
Morris isn’t a Fulbright alumna herself, but her CV includes two graduate degrees and experience in the realms of public policy, law and creative writing. She grew up immersed in the political world of Washington, D.C., where her parents worked in journalism, politics, diplomacy and research, and she studied French literature and government at Colby College in Maine, a private liberal arts college half the size of St. Edward’s. She finished college in three years and went to work for the Bill Clinton presidential campaign and then the U.S. Department of Education, eventually starting, in her mid-20s, a nonprofit that taught non-college-bound students web design and professional skills. Next, she earned a law degree and practiced corporate law in New York City for several years before switching gears — and moving across the country — to earn an MFA in fiction at the University of Oregon.
Since that move, in 2005, Morris has written three novels. The first tells the parallel stories of an Alabama diver who falls in love with a German (and, to a degree, the Third Reich) while competing in the 1936 Olympics, and her granddaughter, who plagiarizes her memoir. Morris submitted the novel to editors, but no one bought it. She started work on a second novel about a gated community outside Austin, and the relationship between the children of the Anglo family that founded it and the Latino family in charge of security. The novel got much closer to selling, but the interested publisher wanted Morris to make changes she felt were untrue to the story. Her third novel, a project four years in the making, is about a 40-something environmental activist who abandoned her child and is reunited with her 18-year-old daughter to fight a powerline project. Her agent is shopping the manuscript to editors this fall.
Having put her own Plan A of being a writer into action, Morris can more authentically help students find theirs. Acting as “a combination of Dr. Phil and Socrates,” she asks the students about their dreams and desires, then repeats back what she’s noticed, to see if it resonates.
“Working with students is very much a Socratic process, where I don’t know what the answer is from any of these individuals,” she says. “What I can do is help them with the process of asking these questions. And that yields students who have thought deeply about these things — and because they’ve thought deeply, they can write well about it.”
She asks advisees to complete exercises like writing their own biography as though they’ve won a MacArthur Fellowship — often called a “genius grant” — in 2030, an assignment that forces them to think relatively far into the future but also demands they consider details like what they might study in graduate school. And she asks question after question:
How does where you come from influence your academic or professional interests? Students often answer that they come from “a normal Texas town,” but Morris presses them for details. “If you start to get into religion and race and class and politics, then you realize you have a very specific upbringing.”
Who are you jealous of? “Who is the Facebook friend whose success annoys you most? That is often an accurate barometer for what you actually want.”
What makes you mad about the world? Morris remembers an obviously intelligent but laconic student whom she just couldn’t figure out. Finally, she asked him what made him angry, and the young man straightened up: “Taxi medallion distribution systems in Dhaka, Bangladesh!” It turned out the student had grown up overseas and saw that taxi permits were unfairly and inefficiently distributed in Dhaka, which meant taxi drivers were being discriminated against. “Sometimes if you ask that question, and then you ask a bunch of substantive questions around it, that can be a great highlight because so many of our students are motivated by social justice,” she says. “And that’s what fellowships are looking for — they’re not just looking for excellent students, they’re looking for excellent students they can invest in and who will be leaders in their generation.”
Those dialogues mean that Morris often gets to know fellowship applicants closely and keeps in touch with them after they graduate.
“She’s kind of like a life coach,” says Victoria Ochoa ’16, who in 2015 became the university’s first Truman Scholarship winner. Ochoa estimates she and Morris met at least 10 times during her college years. “Over time, when you’re applying to these scholarships, you’re pouring your heart out and telling your life story, talking about your passions. She’s really gotten to know me in a way that no other faculty or staff member at St. Edward’s has.” Morris calls those one-on-one conversations the most enjoyable part of her job. While they help students articulate their goals in fellowship essays, they also help students clarify their direction in life. “The act of making these decisions and articulating this vision for what you want, whether or not you get the fellowship, gives you kind of a blueprint for your future,” she says.
These days, Morris’ job is not the uphill battle it was when she arrived in Austin nine years ago. Word gets out when 10 students win Fulbrights in a single year, or when a highly involved and influential student like Ochoa wins full tuition for graduate school through the Truman. Morris still seeks out top-performing students, but these days they’re just as likely to knock on her door.
That doesn’t mean she has everything figured out. Her applicant pool skews heavily female, an echo of a national trend, despite her efforts to engage more men in the process. Early in her tenure, several students won prestigious science awards like the Udall Scholarship and Environmental Protection Agency Scholarships, but lately those competitions have been tough to crack. Some years, despite her best efforts, no one wins a big award.
Last spring Morris got a call from some colleagues at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, a Holy Cross institution, asking about her success strategies. Start by concentrating on one or two fellowships, she told them. Branch out from there. You can’t do everything well in your first year. And keep trying.
No one from St. Edward’s has won — yet — the United Kingdom’s most prestigious scholarships, the Rhodes or the Marshall. “But I may be constitutionally incapable of declaring failure,” Morris says. “As someone who’s written three novels, none of which have yet sold, I think this word ‘yet’ is a big word for me. I am just going to keep hammering at it.”
Her approach to the job is informed by the same advice she gives her students: dream big, but remember that the dream will only happen with persistence and pragmatism. A student might, in conversation with Morris, discover a “Plan A” dream of being the secretary of energy — but in the meantime, he or she still has to make top grades, take internships that aren’t always fun and build a résumé over time.
Morris likens the process of applying for fellowships to the practice of writing. Each requires steady, sustained hard work. But each also demands chutzpah and imagination.
“You have to conceive of a story before you can write a story, and you have to conceive of a character that doesn’t exist,” she says. “You can apply that same sense of imagination to your own future. It’s both scary and fun to imagine — whether for yourself or a character — going places you haven’t been or achieving things you haven’t achieved yet. But if you can imagine the wild thing, you can construct the pragmatic bridge to that wild thing. And I actually don’t think there is much we imagine that is completely out of our reach.”
By Robyn Ross
Photography by Morgan Printy