MaryClaire Schulz called her mother in tears on a recent Thursday afternoon.

Her mother assumed Schulz had bad news, but the opposite was true: Schulz was calling to tell her mother she had just been awarded the Lumen Prize.

“She said, ‘Stop crying, you should be happy,’” Schulz said. “And then her immediate next question was, ‘So what is your research even on?’”

Schulz and 14 other sophomores at Elon University received emails Thursday, April 6 informing them they had been awarded the Lumen Prize, one of the university’s most prestigious research scholarships.

“It was really exciting,” Schulz said. “It was very much like, my life is going to be very different [whether I win or not].”

Lumen has awarded $15,000 to 15 remarkable sophomores each year since its establishment during the 2007-2008 academic year.

Lumen Scholars spend the last two years of their undergraduate careers working on advanced research projects in their respective fields with the help of a faculty mentor. But, according to program director Ann Cahill, professor of philosophy, Lumen is more than simply a research grant.

“I haven’t seen a lot of prizes like the Lumen Prize at other universities,” Cahill said.

Cahill said Lumen takes a holistic approach to research and funding. Rather than requiring all funds to be devoted exclusively to research, the program allows scholars to use the funds in any matter that forwards the student’s intellectual development.

The 2015 Lumen Scholars have only just joined the Lumen community, but the journey to this point began months ago, when Schulz and her cohort began the process that would lead them to Lumen.

Deciding to apply

Before they could start the application, Schulz and her peers had decisions to make. Each scholar had a different process that lead to him or her deciding to apply, but for most, that began with finding a mentor.

Students must submit a letter of nomination for Lumen from their mentor with their application. Lumen Scholars work closely with their mentors for the two years of their research.

“The first step in the application process is finding a mentor who wants to do this intensive, high-quality work with that student for the next two years,” she said.

Lumen Scholars must find a mentor for more than just a nomination, though.

“It’s the mentor’s job to make sure the scholar is developing and the scholar is learning about themselves as a scholar, is learning about the kinds of contributions they can make to a field,” Cahill said.

Schulz, a strategic communications major, said she hadn’t seriously considered applying for Lumen until she met her mentor, assistant professor of communications Lucinda Austin.

“It really started when I made connections with my mentor,” she said.

Schulz took one of Austin’s classes, where the two began discussing their common interests. They quickly realized they clicked well, and Austin encouraged Schulz to apply for Lumen.

“I always knew I wanted to go into communications,” Schulz said. “Meeting Dr. Austin and starting working on this research definitely solidified those interests.”

But for sophomore Ben Bridges, another 2015 Lumen Scholar, the process began with the decision to apply.

“It’s interesting because, for MaryClaire, she found a mentor then decided she wanted to do Lumen, and I decided I wanted to apply then found a mentor,” Bridges said.

Bridges selected his major, anthropology, in part because he was fascinated by the opportunities for research within that field.

He came to Elon intending to study biology and quickly realized that research in that field did not interest him as much as he thought it would. Bridges spent his freshman year talking to students in different majors and searching for the right major for him.

“Leaving my first year, I knew that I wanted to do social sciences,” he said.

So, when Bridges returned to Elon for his sophomore year, he gave it a try.

“A month and a half into my ‘Intro to Anthropology’ class, I was like, this is definitely where I’m supposed to be,” he said.

Bridges declared his anthropology major in October 2014 and decided to apply to Lumen that same month.

He began the process — which he described as “intellectual courtship” — of finding a mentor in November, and in December he asked professor of anthropology Tom Mould to be his mentor.

Completing an application

Once they found mentors, Schulz and Bridges began developing their projects and working on their applications. This year’s application was due March 18, but both students began working on it over Winter Break and continued throughout Winter Term and the first half of the spring semester.

“Applicants really know that in order to consider the Lumen you need to start on the application some months in advance,” Cahill said.

The extensive application calls for a significant amount of time spent working on it. In addition to the letter of nomination from their mentor, applicants must have a letter from someone else, such as a faculty member, who can speak to the applicant’s accomplishments and potential.

Students must also submit a transcript and a detailed application that includes an abstract, a personal statement, a project description, a feasibility statement and a specific plan for allocating Lumen funds.

Unsurprisingly, Lumen applications are typically polished products.

“Obviously, for the Lumen, there’s a high level of self-selection,” Cahill said. “Students who apply for Lumen tend to be excellent students. They tend to have already had a significant degree of academic success in their undergraduate years, so we don’t see a lot [of applications] that are just sloppy.”

Applications are reviewed by a selection committee composed of faculty from a variety of disciplines. Members of the committee change from year to year, though some faculty members remain for several years.

After the committee reviews applications, select applicants are invited to the second stage of the process: an interview.

“The night before the interview, I was as nervous as I was the night before I found out about Lumen,” Bridges said.

Interviews are in front of a panel made up of a committee member and two other faculty or staff members. The panel doesn’t always include a faculty member related to the applicant’s major or project. The committee member is the only one on the panel to have read the entire application, so applicants are often asked to explain their proposed research projects to the other two without using major- or discipline-specific language.

Schulz and Bridges said this process is intended to gauge the applicant’s descriptive ability and to judge his or her passion.

Soon after all interviews have been completed, scholars are informed of their awards.

Lumen Prizes are always limited to 15, and while Cahill was hesitant to share the exact number of applicants, she said that over the course of the program approximately 40 percent of applicants have been awarded a Lumen Prize. She said this number reveals the competitiveness of the program.

Of this year’s Lumen Scholars, 12 are women. They come from a variety of majors from international studies to exercise and dance science, which Cahill said is reflective of Lumen’s support of all disciplines.

Cahill said selection is based on merit and that the committee has the difficult job of comparing excellence across disciplines while making their final decisions.

“We’re really trying to get the 15 applications that show the greatest promise, the greatest intellectual potential,” she said. “We’re looking for scholars that are remarkable and that are well-positioned to make remarkable contributions to their fields. We do not consider disciplinary quotas or anything like that when making our final decisions.”

Of this year’s cohort of Lumen Scholars  all but one of the award winners are involved in a Fellows program at Elon.

Cahill said that, while the number of Fellows who won Lumen Prizes is higher this year than it has been in recent years, the status of applicants as Fellows rarely comes into play and is not necessarily seen as an advantage, though Fellows do tend to have a foundation at Elon that supports them as they go through the application process.

“There’s no doubt that Fellows students come into Elon expecting to do undergraduate research, expecting to find a mentor,” she said. “They have great structure to support them in finding really good topics and taking the time to develop really good relationships with their mentors. Students who are in these programs have the opportunity to think about undergraduate research from the very moment they step on campus.”

Schulz and Bridges are both Honors Fellows, and both agreed that Honors requirements prepared them to apply for Lumen. They also said there were older Honors Fellows who had won Lumen who both were able to reach out to during the application process for advice and support.

“Every year, a lot of Fellows get Lumen, so you see the people older than you get Lumen,” Bridges said.

Honors Fellows and Elon College Fellows are also required to do undergraduate research, which Schulz said made information on Lumen more available to her and other Fellows.

“Honors and College Fellows have to do research anyway, so it’s like, why not apply?” Bridges said.

Looking ahead

Now that they have been awarded Lumen Prizes, Schulz and Bridges both have big plans, many of which they wouldn’t have been able to do without Lumen’s financial assistance.

Funds don’t have to be used exclusively for research, which Cahill said is one of the things that makes Lumen unique.

“Lumen funds can be used for experiences or other kinds of costs that forward the student’s intellectual development in general,” she said.

Schulz’s project title is “International Corporate Social Responsibility and Female Stakeholder Entrepreneurship: The Case of Coca-Cola’s 5by20 Initiative.”

While Schulz will be using some of her funds to present this research and see what others are doing with corporate responsibility, she is also using them to support her own development.

“One thing about Lumen I really appreciate and what differentiates it from other research grants is that they want to invest in you as a person, as someone interested in research but with other pursuits as well,” Schulz said. “It’s not just money for this project you’re going to do and then be done. It’s something you’re involved in for the entirety of your time at Elon and probably after you leave Elon. It’s nice to know they care about you as a person outside your project.”

Cahill said this is one of the goals of the Lumen Prize.

“The program prides itself on saying, ‘We support scholars, not projects,’” she said. “That is, we’re committed to providing a variety of kinds of support to really remarkable scholars so they can fulfill their academic and intellectual potential.”

Bridges, whose project title is “Navigating Globalization through Myth in Quechua Communities of Southern Peru,” is using some of his funds to do his ethnographical research on-site in Peru. He will be studying abroad in Peru fall 2015 and returning to complete his research summer 2015.

Bridges, who wants to pursue a career in academia, said receiving a Lumen Prize validated both his goals and his research. During the application process he downplayed the prestige of the award to his family, but once he found out that he had won, he was excited to explain it to his family.

“I didn’t realize how emotionally invested I was in it,” he said.