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Undercover

Some students attend the University for free, but they don't want you to know who they are. Lauded as some of the best and the brightest students in the country, Jefferson Scholars receive huge incentives to choose the University over their numerous other potential choices.

Despite their achievements, Jefferson Scholars frequently are indistinguishable from other students during casual interactions, a fact many of them appreciate.

This anonymity has led to a desire by many Jeff Scholars not to flaunt their esteemed status to fellow students. Therefore, those interviewed will remain nameless.

Jefferson Scholar No. 1, a first-year College student said the secrecy "is a matter of humility."

"It doesn't carry as much of a stigma as the Echols program," No. 1 said. "But it looks pretentious enough that I walk into Maupin."

Jefferson Scholar No. 2, another first-year College student also said her secrecy stems from humility. She said she meets people every day who she thinks could easily be Jefferson Scholars.

A third Jefferson Scholar said she tries to remain discreet about her status.

"It's not that we want to keep it a secret. Most of us are generally open if people ask, but we're not going around flaunting it," No. 3 said. "We're not different from the other people at the University except that we get a check at the beginning of each semester."

Being recognized for the privilege of Jefferson Scholar status involves an intense selection process during applicants' senior year of high school.

"Jefferson Scholars show the promise of becoming tomorrow's leaders," the Jefferson Scholar Web site said. "They are students whose talent, ambition and energy set them apart as individuals who will have significant influence both on the University, and, as alumni, on the world at large."

The Web site also said scholars are chosen by the selection committee based solely on merit with a focus on leadership, scholarship and citizenship, as demonstrated by Thomas Jefferson.

Byron Hulsey, associate director of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, said alumni, benefactors, faculty and administrators comprise the selection committee.

The committee identifies scholars in one of three ways: There are 41 regional competitions, a separate at-large competition and an international competition.

No. 2 said the application to be her school's nominee was almost like an extra college application.

Following nominations and regional selection processes in some areas, a select number of finalists are invited to National Selection Weekend in the beginning of March. The event is an all-expenses paid weekend designed to showcase the University, Hulsey said.

All three Jefferson Scholars said the weekend strongly encouraged them to attend the University. The weekend was full of events -- some to evaluate the finalists and others for the finalists' enjoyment, they said.

No. 1 said the weekend was very influential in his college selection.

"The people were cooler here than at Stanford," he said.

For No. 2, the finalist weekend was both her best and worst set of days. She said the finalists were treated extremely well, but that it was stressful because they were constantly being observed by the selection committee.

No. 3 said meeting incredible people during the weekend helped convince her to come to the University.

"I was just amazed by the other people that I met," she said. "The National Selection Weekend is probably one of the greatest things they can do. It's a real selling point."

She also said the weekend was intense but fun.

"You have to put yourself out minus every flaw you have," she said.

According to the Web site, 43 finalists were offered positions within the program in 2002. Finalists who were not offered a place in the program were offered an annual renewable scholarship of $1000.

Although these students are not officially part of the program, Hulsey said they still receive some benefits.

"It is not unusual for them to come seek our counsel or advice," he said.

No. 1 said he thought about 10 finalists from the class of 2006 decided to attend the University despite not being Jefferson Scholars. He said many of them had applied for early admission.

The Jefferson scholarship offers many benefits to its recipients.

According to the Web site, in-state students are offered a $12,672 stipend while out-of-state students are offered a $27,882 stipend.

No. 1 said the stipend is not enough to live luxuriously, but it was enough and could be augmented with other scholarships the students earned.

The money was No. 2's primary incentive because her family had been paying for private school for several years, she said.

She added that the Echols program contributed to her decision to choose the University over Stanford.

No. 3 said most Jefferson Scholars do not like discussing the financial aspect of the scholarship because it seems superficial. She did say, however, that it affected her decision, adding that she is generally happy she chose to come to the University, although she said she was unprepared for the intensely competitive environment.

"For the most part I've been very satisfied," No. 3 said.

In addition to financial incentives, students attend lectures, participate in a two-week leadership institute and study abroad for several weeks following their second year, Hulsey said.

These combined incentives ultimately attract most students who are offered the scholarship.

Some students turn down the scholarship if they received an equally generous scholarship elsewhere, if a specific program is stronger at another school or if the University is too far from home, Hulsey said.

When students turn down the scholarship, the foundation is disappointed but understands, he added.

"We understand when you are recruiting the best leaders, scholars and citizens in the country, you are competing with the most prestigious universities," Hulsey said.

No. 2 said she knew students who had turned down Ivy League schools for the University after receiving the Jefferson Scholarship.

No. 2 would not have come to the University if he had not been offered the scholarship, but now that he is here, he said he is happy with his decision.

All three scholars said one huge advantage to being a Jefferson Scholar was the sense of community it created. No. 1 said he enjoys "hanging out with really neat people."

"It's like a smaller family you know is there for you," No. 2 said.

Seeking membership in this community is extremely competitive, as scholarships are limited.

According to the Web site, money for the scholarships is provided by private donors. Benefactors can name scholarships after donating $350,000.

The source of donations and purpose of the foundation led some scholars to speculate on the possibility of unofficial selection procedures.

"The politics are a little weird," No. 1 said.

He also said he thinks certain private schools automatically receive a scholarship every couple years, and said he thinks it is more difficult for a student to be offered a scholarship if several other finalists are from the same city.

Additionally, No. 1 said he thinks students are at a disadvantage if they apply early decision because the selection committee has no incentive to encourage them to come to the University.

No. 2 said she has heard that some schools always get a scholar, but she is unsure whether it is true.

No. 3 said she suspects certain considerations are made unofficially.

"I think the program would deny up and down [that early admissions students are at a disadvantage in the selection process], but it is a recruitment tool," No.3 said. "Somebody who applied early knows they're coming, so why should [the Jefferson Scholars Foundation] pay for them to come?"

Hulsey insisted that such speculation is inaccurate. He said certain schools have scholars more frequently than others because they nominate more qualified students.

Additionally, he said the students' locations neither help nor hinder them.

Furthermore, Hulsey said that not only are selection officials requested not to consider a student's standing as far as early admission, but the committee does not even have this information available.

He also said the selection committee ultimately has the final say in the selection process, and he said he is very impressed with the caliber of the recipients.

Jefferson Scholars said they are continuing the active involvement they began in high school, becoming important contributors to the University community.

"I'm way too busy for my own good," No. 1 said.

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