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Pitt students, competing against applicants from the Ivy League and other renowned institutions, have what it takes to win the Marshall Scholarship, one of the most coveted honors sought by undergraduates. Even British royalty has taken notice.

Winning Ways

Cindy Gill

Months after graduating from Trinity College at Cambridge University, a 22-year-old sits beneath a tree in the orchard behind his family home, Woolsthorpe Manor, a plain limestone house in Lincolnshire, England. He’s often thinking about the physical mechanics behind commonplace things—clocks and the nature of time, the architecture of waterwheels, the curve of the sun’s movement across the sky, the nature of sunlight. As he thinks, ripe green apples occasionally drop from the branches above him to the nubby ground close by.

Years later, in describing this period of his life, Sir Isaac Newton said: “I was in the prime of my age for invention and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time.”

His reflections in the orchard drew on all that he learned during his initial years at Cambridge University and led to original theories about the nature of the world around him. Before the age of 25, Newton formulated the principles of differential calculus, discovered the composition of light, and put forth the law of gravity (supposedly inspired by the drop of an apple upon his head). Newton’s discoveries in mathematics, physics, astronomy, and philosophy remain fundamental to scientific method and thought five centuries later. He returned to Cambridge in 1667 as a fellow and later taught there as Lucasian Professor.

Cambridge’s nurturing of genius doesn’t end with Newton. John Milton, Charles Darwin, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are some others on its alumni list. Oxford University, another of Great Britain’s renowned universities, has its share of legendary students, too, among them John Locke, Jonathan Swift, T.S. Eliot, Indira Gandhi, and John Galsworthy.

In recent years, thanks to an exceptional opportunity made possible by the British Parliament, University of Pittsburgh students have begun to walk some of these same ancient British quads and corridors, motivated to make their own, original way in the world.

Eric Klopfer, a teen from Shaler Township near Pittsburgh, was the first in his family to go to college. In 1979, he chose the University of Pittsburgh as his proving ground and arrived as a freshman with an ardent interest in history.

Within five years, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, with an exceptional academic record. At age 22, Klopfer became the first Pitt student ever to win a Marshall Scholarship. The scholarship fully funds two, and sometimes three, years of study in the United Kingdom, including travel costs, tuition and fees, and living expenses. Marshall winners match their own scholarly interests with the best-suited graduate programs offered by any university of their choice in the British Isles, including the storied Cambridge and Oxford (which is the only option for Rhodes scholars).

On the day of his win, Klopfer told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “It’s a hell of a way to cap my academic career.” Twenty years later, he’ll tell you that it’s difficult to overstate the scholarship’s effect on his life. “Quite simply,” he says, “I have led a different life.”

Since Klopfer’s trailblazing performance, the University has produced seven other Marshall scholars. In fact, Pitt students have won the scholarship in five of the past six years, a record of consistency unmatched by any other public institution. Pitt Marshall scholars join the ranks of past Marshall winners, including three-time Pulitzer Prize awardee Thomas Friedman; Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer; and Bruce Babbitt, former U.S. secretary of the interior.

In applying for one of the 40 Marshall scholarships available each year, a select group of Pitt seniors, and occasionally postbaccalaureate students, competes head-on with Ivy Leaguers and top students from potentially every college and university in the country, large and small, public and private. G. Alec Stewart, dean of the University Honors College at Pitt, puts the challenge in perspective: “The undergraduate Nobel Prize is to win a Rhodes or a Marshall Scholarship.”

Prince Andrew, at the University’s Alumni Hall, delivers remarks before designating Pitt a Marshall Center of Excellence.

The University of Pittsburgh has done so well in producing Marshall scholars that His Royal Highness Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, visited campus last fall to designate Pitt as a Marshall Center of Excellence. While here, he also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Scholarship Program. Many of Pitt’s Marshall Scholarship winners returned to campus for the celebration. Prince Andrew praised Pitt’s record: “In the past five years, the University of Pittsburgh has won more Marshall scholarships than any other state-related university in the United States. And in the Marshall competition, its candidates have regularly outperformed students from some of America’s most famous universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania.”

Marshall scholarships were established by the British Parliament in 1953 in gratitude to the United States for the Marshall Plan, an economic recovery program that helped Europe rebuild after World War II. The plan was named for its chief architect, General George C. Marshall, who was chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff during WWII. As U.S. secretary of state under President Truman, Marshall’s efforts as a “soldier of peace” won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. Other funding awards are offered in his name, including the American Marshall Memorial Fellowship from the German Marshall Fund of the United States (see p. 35 of Pitt Magazine’s fall issue), but none match the academic focus, intensity, or prestige of the British Marshall Scholarship program.

Today’s Marshall candidates must also possess the same blend of character and intellect in service to global issues as did Marshall. “The qualities that are prized,” says Stewart, “are scope, drive, and a surpassing curiosity that transcends mere intelligence to yield the highest levels of personal attainment.”

Marshall scholarships are plum prizes in the academic world. Some universities begin in the first semester of freshman year to prepare choice students for the senior-year scholarship application process. At Pitt, though, the process is more informal, in large part because of the Honors College’s approach.

While he went on to earn degrees at Oxford and Yale, Klopfer says he has never experienced students with more intellectual curiosity and lack of pretense than those he met at Pitt in the then-newly forming Honors College.

Stewart describes the Honors College as a first-class liberal arts college with the resources of a major research university. Often the students who show up at Stewart’s door have experience with the Brackenridge Summer Research Fellows Program or Phi Beta Kappa or the Chancellor’s Scholarship program. Many of them were admitted to the Honors College as freshmen to pursue an honors Bachelor of Philosophy degree. But the college also gladly offers guidance to all interested undergraduate students. “At a large university,” says Stewart, “it’s easy for students to get lost or stuck if they don’t know where they’re going. The Honors College provides guidance, basically asking: Who are you, and what are the things you need to get to the next level of opportunity?”

Amy Eckhardt works with Stewart to manage the Honors College’s national scholarship application efforts, including those aimed at graduate study. “The Marshall people are looking for those who are well prepared for graduate school,” she says. “They’re looking for scholars and leaders. People with breadth, but especially depth. People who present well and can think on their feet. It’s a tough process.”

Eric Klopfer, Pitt’s first Marshall winner, believes that the competition for the Marshall Scholarship is as rigorous or more rigorous than “that other” prestigious prize, the Rhodes. Winning a Marshall Scholarship enabled Klopfer to earn a doctoral degree in history at Oxford, where he met his wife. He returned to the United States and earned a law degree at Yale. He worked in the federal court system, taught literature and history at several universities, and practiced international corporate law. Today, having lived in and traveled much of the world, Klopfer and his family are settled in London, where he works as vice president for global regulatory affairs at GE Mortgage Insurance.

“The University of Pittsburgh helped make this possible,” he says. While he went on to earn degrees at Oxford and Yale, Klopfer says he has never experienced students with more intellectual curiosity and lack of pretense than those he met at Pitt in the then-newly forming Honors College. “Pitt was truly life-changing for me,” he says. “The challenge and excitement, along with faculty eager to nurture these feelings, gave me a momentum that I still have not exhausted.”

Since his win in 1984, Klopfer has a lot more company among Pitt alumni who have followed him to walk the redbrick quads and ancient academic halls of the United Kingdom. He likes to think he started a legacy of sorts.

“I hope,” he says, “that my winning the first Marshall changed the University as well—from a long shot to one of the ‘usual suspects’ in the Marshall selection process. At least that’s what I tell my kids!”

Cindy Gill is a senior editor of Pitt Magazine.

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