Joachim Lyon

Globe Americas

Thanks so much for your email — the scholarship I received while at UC San Diego had a resounding impact on me in both tangible and more psychological terms, and I’m happy to have a chance to share my reflections.

The scholarship I was awarded was the Borton scholarship for a year study abroad. Throughout my time at UCSD, I had to take loans and work (I used to work at the Mandveville Coffee Cart “Art of Espresso”) in order to stay afloat. This particular circumstance was the cause for a lot of anxiety and frustration each quarter because both my academic and extracurricular interests were very broad, and I did not want to give up any of them. On one hand, I wanted to study many things at once — even the demanding requirements of Revelle College were not enough for me: I wanted to major in cognitive science, take philosophy and political science courses, learn mandarin, study abroad for a full year, and even pack in some Chinese history. On the other hand, I also found myself in student government for two years, worked as a resident advisor, rowed crew, played basketball intramurals, and read and wrote items of my own personal choosing outside of class. And I wanted to do all these things without foregoing the possibility of affording graduate school, wherever that would be. Given these interests (as I look back), I was constantly forced to trade off academic pursuits, extra curricular pursuits, and the need to support myself in any way that could offset amassing loans. In some respects, my decision to take a fifth year by going abroad during my fourth year was a bit reckless — it essentially added on a year of loans to repay. But in doing so, not only did I take an important step in sticking to a no-holds-barred attitude towards self development, but I also found, for the first time, a tangible message that someone else respected and encouraged my goals and motives.

In my general application for an abroad scholarship, I wrote clearly and simply about some of these goals: I wanted to immerse myself in another culture; I wanted to return semi-fluent; I wanted to build bridges between my Jewish family and my new Chinese relatives by marriage (I was later to go visit them in Yunnan province). When I received the Borton scholarship of several thousand dollars, I simply remember feeling shocked that I had gotten the scholarship at all. Why had they picked me? What did they see in my application? I am a little embarrassed to say that, having amassed a solid debt in college so far, I almost didn’t notice or appreciate the amount of the scholarship. When it was credited to me, all I really noticed was a reduction on my university bill of the large amount that would have to be covered by loans. Yet the real effect that scholarship had on me — the first I had ever received — was the incredible feeling that someone had actually read my application, had seriously thought about what I had to say about my hopes and dreams and plans to achieve them, and had decided to invest in me. Later during my year abroad, the Borton’s only confirmed this deeper message, replying in length and quality to the stories and reflections I emailed to them. And when I found myself struggling as all serious abroad students do, I remembered that they knew I would do well, that I would learn something, that I would change deeply — they were prepared to be proud of my accomplishments.

I can’t impress upon you, or anyone else, how lasting was the emotional effect of that scholarship. Two years later, while applying to Edinburgh University’s master’s program in philosophy, I noticed that the university only offered two scholarships to American students. I thought of my relationship with the Borton family, and I applied for the Edinburgh scholarships anyhow, later receiving their International Masters scholarship of 12,000 dollars. But most of all, I also decided at this time to apply (recklessly, as usual) for the extremely competitive Jack Kent Cooke graduate scholarship — the largest and most flexible scholarship available to graduate students in the United States, awarding up to 300,000 dollars. The application took three months to complete. Each day I would ask myself, given the incredibly small percentage of applicants who get the award (I think it was 3.5% that year), why put in the immense effort? But I would also think, even if the award value is much larger than the Borton scholarship, why should they read my application with any less interest? And so I worked on it daily, receiving guidance and constructive criticism from Dr. Ross Frank and my research advisor Prof. David Kirsh — all the while trying to remind myself that I indeed had a chance. Against what felt like all odds, I became a JKC scholar during the summer before my year in Edinburgh: I knew then for the first time in my life that I would be able to afford both my Masters degree and a PhD program.

The day I became a JKC scholar, over three years after I received the Borton abroad scholarship, I wrote to the Borton family:

“…I want to thank you again for the Borton grant you gave me to study abroad. I’ve thanked you before, but now I want to give some context: the Borton grant is the first scholarship I ever succeeded in receiving. It made for me the possibility of such successes an actual reality — one which I ought not fear to strive for. I mentioned the Borton grant in my most difficult JKC [Jack Kent Cooke] essay response, where I commented on the dreams I had expressed in my small application to your foundation, and the ways in which I had realized those dreams during my study abroad. Had you not given me that first vote of confidence in what I intended to make of myself and my hopes and my ability to work hard, I would never have been able to muster the courage to go for the JKC scholarship, let alone write a compelling application.”

I recognize it must be terribly difficult to make scholarship decisions — there must be many more over-qualified applicants than the various funds, foundations, and generous individuals can possibly support. But I wanted the Bortons, and their board, to know that they had sent me a message which continues to reverberate in every step I take.

I recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a Masters in Philosophy, earning a distinction (honors) mark on my thesis. At present, I am a first year doctoral student at Stanford University, affiliated with the Centre for Work, Technology, & Organization. I hope one day to be a professor myself, not only teaching and conducting research, but also encouraging another young student to apply for the impossible, even if that impossible is only a modest scholarship to study abroad.

As you can see from my personal reflections, I feel it is important to encourage donors, even those with only “small” amounts to give, by reminding them that the psychological effect of being selected for an award likely does more good than even the increasingly important monetary benefits. Getting a scholarship, no matter how small, tangibly says: We think you are worthwhile; we think your efforts mean something; we take seriously what you are working on and we hope you too continue to take it seriously; we believe in you. In this way, scholarships not only open doors for those who already know they can succeed but just need the money — they also open doors for those who can reach and grasp so much more on the basis of just a little more reassurance regarding their value and potential. As it turned out, I was one of the latter.

Joachim Lyon
China, 2004-05