The Carroll Fellows: Georgetown’s elite academics


“It really causes you to question who you think you are,” Jessica Hickle (SFS ‘18) describes how she believes the Georgetown’s Carroll Fellows Initiative has shaped her time on the Hilltop. “It reframes the way you’ve been taught to think and write.”

In the mid-1990s, Dr. John Glavin (COL ’64), a professor at Georgetown since 1967, picked up an extensive report from the executive faculty of the College that shed light on the intellectual life of the undergraduate population, and, specifically, how they spent their time on academics and extracurricular learning.

The report, Glavin explained, revealed that many undergraduates had felt unsatisfied with the intellectual life, especially with inter-student dialogues, on Georgetown’s campus.

Glavin felt compelled to address these concerns and created the Carroll Fellows Initiative, a program that is now self-described on its website as “Georgetown’s flagship opportunity for its most academically talented and ambitious undergraduates.”

Since its conception, the CFI has grown into an elite, highly selective program which is set apart from the rest of the university’s academics. Still under the leadership of the man who created it and designs its curriculum, the CFI now looks to develop into a new era wherein the students who join have more control over the program.

A large part of reshaping the program is CFI’s updated application and interviewing standards. Glavin uses the acronym CRIG when examining which applicants to admit to the program. The acronym identifies students that are creative, risk-takers, independent, and, as Glavin puts it, have lots of grit. He described grit as sustained application in pursuit of a goal.

“[People today] are much more concentrated on immediate results,” Glavin said. “There’s value in risk. Risk is something that people need to take into account.”

The program has a one-time application period for freshman during their fall semester and for sophomore transfers that apply the summer prior to matriculating. CFI’s directors believe that the program is uniquely beneficial to freshmen.

“Freshman year, you have a wide variety of different kinds of information you’re trying to absorb,” said Laura Wagstaff, assistant director in Georgetown’s Office of Fellowships, Awards, and Research for Undergraduates. “Being involved in the Carroll Fellows at that time is really important because you’re beginning to form a platform for what you’re going to be doing for your next three or four years at Georgetown.”

As part of the CFI’s recent effort to change, a much smaller number of applicants were accepted this year. According to Glavin, the CFI had a problem retaining new members in past years. Prior to this year, about 45 fellows would be accepted each year, but about 25 fellows would graduate. This fall, the class of 2018 saw 25 students accepted, 22 of whom are currently still enrolled.

Hickle, along with a number of currently enrolled freshmen, said that the CFI application process is a huge challenge. With an entrance exam involving writing three essays, and a closed interview conducted by a panel of current fellows, Glavin’s emphasis on finding extraordinary undergraduates takes priority.

The interview in particular was described by some freshmen as extremely rigorous and stressful. “[The panel] further questioned you on your answers,” Hickle said. “The essays assessed how you think, how you put together an argument. You had to be able to defend that in the interview. It was very intense, they pressed you over and over again on your points.”

Fellow Maximilian Fiege (SFS ’18) also said that the interview was particularly demanding. “You have questions coming from all sides,” Fiege said. “It was intimidating, and their line of questioning would follow any tangents you made in your answer.”

Fellow Tim Rosenberger (COL ’16) said the high bar set by the CFI for acceptance ensures that every accepted student is prepared for the program’s imposing amount of work. Rosenberger added that it is only by rising to that challenge that a student can get the most out of what the program has to offer.

“The workload is very challenging to anticipate,” Wagstaff said. Wagstaff said that the CFI teaches novel ways of thinking, memorization of facts and figures, and that the work involved can be extremely time-consuming.

The CFI’s rigorous academic standards are designed so that its members will be challenged to think differently. Hickle said that a recent class taught the fellows to avoid binary thinking or seeing challenges solely as black-and-white and to explore all possible options when solving a problem. In one common exercise, Glavin asks fellows to list all the causes of the sinking of the Titanic as a way of demonstrating that no problem they face has a simple, singular exercise.

Two of the program’s requirements are the Carroll Plan and the Carroll Challenge. Matthew Quallen (SFS ‘16) described the Carroll Plan as an annual assessment designed to help fellows establish goals for the year ahead and work with the staff in Gervase, where the CFI offices are located, to achieve these goals.

“The Challenge requires fellows to select a topic of real interest to them on which to become an expert,” Quallen said. “During their senior year, it asks that they become as knowledgeable as possible on their topic of choosing.”

While the CFI has always emphasized an intense academic experience, the program was mostly commanded by Glavin. Now, a major paradigm shift is underway, and the students themselves are starting to control the CFI.

“We want to work on taking away some of the stiffness of the program,” fellow Paul Healy (COL ’15) said. The student leaders of the program are known as the Carroll Magi and now have larger leadership roles and responsibilities.

  For example, the CFI is implementing an expanded mentorship program. Fellow Jason Petty (SFS ‘17) said that there is a concentrated effort to provide incoming freshmen with a more consistent upperclassmen presence by assigning them mentors. These freshmen would then become mentors their sophomore year.

In addition, a focus is being put on increased networking, both vertically with alumni and horizontally among the the students. A major goal in the future of the program is having the students who graduate continue to stay connected with the Initiative. Wagstaff said that events via LinkedIn and on-campus events for Homecoming are being planned.

Healy said that these interactions that take place outside of the classroom are what make the CFI a positive experience. “The alumni network is expanding,” he said. “We’re focusing on hosting at least one alumni panel per semester.” Healy said that he hosted dinners over the summer for current members and alumni to meet which have become a major priority for the program.

“There’s an increasing investment from the alumni in undergraduate students,” Glavin said. “Now, I think people are starting to understand that the human connection is really very important. I’d like us to shine out with a very robust linkage between individual alumni and individual students.”

Regardless of the CFI’s bright plans for the future, however, past and current concerns have been raised about CFI requirements and management.

Some members take issue with the athletic requirement, which requires all applicants to participate in a club sport on campus. Hickle said that she had heard of several potential applicants who were discouraged from applying because of this requirement.

Glavin, however, justifies this component of the program as an important complement to the overall academic experience.

“It’s not only your physical well being,” Glavin said, “[It’s] your psychological well-being that comes from engaging in competition; winning, losing, getting a series of satisfactions on a daily and weekly basis. … In comparison to the academic year, where everything is deferred. There’s something gratifying about engaging in athletic competition on a regular basis.”

The program offers some flexibility when it comes to what can satisfy the athletic requirement. Participation in certain non-athletic extracurriculars, such as Mask and Bauble, can count for a fellow. Glavin said that there was no worry that potential applicants would be pushed away by the requirement, and that any sort of physical disability would be understood by the leaders of the CFI.

Members of the program can leave for a number of reasons. Former fellow Zijie Yin (SFS ’17) said that he was asked to leave the program due to a dip in his GPA and because the proposal for his forum was rejected twice. Yin added that he and the rest of the CFI parted ways amicably and that the experience was still positive overall.

Other students choose to leave because of the program’s academic requirements. “Many students leave because of other priorities,” Healy said.

According to Petty, the workload overwhelms some fellows. “The program only counts for one credit … and there’s definitely a psychological toll, a very pressuring force on the freshmen and sophomores,” Petty said.

Glavin says that the CFI’s historically low retention rate is deceiving. Students sometimes leave because of the workload, but other times they leave because they’ve discovered other opportunities through the program.

“People discover an internship or some other activity in Washington which really absorbs them, and they can’t really accommodate what we’re looking for,” he said. “We are delighted when that happens. The whole purpose is to find your excellence. If you find that someplace else, that’s great.”

Past criticisms levelled at the program included accusations of unfairness. In a March 2009 op-ed in The Hoya, Eamon Nolan (SFS ’09) argued that the CFI was an unfair program that was not necessary at an elite university where every student should be on a level playing field.

“The CFI gives certain students on campus an advantage over the majority of students,” Nolan wrote. “What is more appalling is that it gives them an advantage in the very service Georgetown claims to be offering to all students–education.”

Nolan also alleged that Glavin’s position as both the director of the CFI and the university Fellowship and Awards Secretary means he has an inherent conflict of interest as to who receives Georgetown fellowships. Nolan alleged that Glavin favors his own Carroll Fellows who apply for university fellowships.

Glavin dismissed Nolan’s criticisms and defended the program, saying it is open for all students to apply to.

“That would be a valid criticism if there was some sort of selection process that students were excluded from,” Glavin said. “We look at every applicant we possibly can. … There are all kinds of different resources on campus for all kinds of different needs, and we simply supply one of those needs.”

Glavin also said there is no conflict of interest and clarified the roles of his two positions.

Glavin said that selecting fellowship winners is not part of the secretary’s job. “We set up committees to decide which fellowships to select, on which I do not sit or vote, so the selection process is completely independent of me.” Glavin said that, by chance, one of the four nominees for the Truman Fellowship this is a Carroll Fellow, but he also pointed out that there were numerous Carroll Fellows who applied who were turned down.

Glavin emphasized that there is absolutely no link between the processes. Students who pursue scholarships are the ambitious type that the CFI attracts, so it can sometimes be a self-selecting process. Healy, for example, credits the CFI for helping him find other academic opportunities.

“If I had not joined, I would not have known about the fellowships,” Healy said. “The students who apply for the fellowships are the types of students who self-select.”

As the leader of the program, Glavin garnered praise for his intensity from some members of the program. “He’s constantly trying to make you uncomfortable to make you a better person,” Fiege said. “He may seem stern on the surface, but he pushes Fellows beyond their limits. When I receive a compliment from him, I know it’s sincere,” Fiege continued.

Many members said that Glavin provides advice that no one else can provide. “He’s not afraid to call students out to make them stronger servants to the world,” Petty said. “He pushes you further through negativity to maximize your potential. There’s no such thing as ‘good enough’.”

Nonetheless, other fellows have criticized both Glavin and the program.

“I was not the biggest fan of Glavin,” former fellow Alexandra Colyer (SFS ‘17) said. “I didn’t learn anything from it [the CFI], but I’m glad I did the Carroll Fellows and I met a bunch of amazing people. I would say it was a neutral experience.”

Former fellow Nandini Mullaji (SFS ’17) said that the program was too much, too soon.

“It forced me to specialize, to choose one thing out of many activities,” Mullaji said. “[Dr. Glavin] was like an eccentric old uncle, and there was an incredible amount of individual attention. It was just too early for the commitment.” Mullaji added that she did have a valuable experience overall.

The CFI has taken these concerns in stride and look to keep improving going forward. Glavin and Wagstaff both expressed optimism for the CFI’s future.

“I’m really excited to see what the current and future Fellows do in terms of cultivating that horizontal relationship among students who are here at Georgetown,” Wagstaff said. “It’s been very impressive to watch them have both formal relationships with the mentoring that we do … And the more informal activities and social events.”

As the program becomes increasingly student run, Wagstaff expressed confidence that the members will continue to grow closer together in mentoring and supporting each other. With increased participation from upperclassmen, there’s hope that the program will evolve into a community going forward. Rosenberger summed up his sentiments towards the program simply: “It’s one of the jewels of Georgetown.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly said that Jonathan Nolan and Mike Birbiglia are Carroll Fellows alumni. The two were students in Dr. Glavin’s screenwriting class and not members of the CFI, which did not exist in its current form when the two were freshman at Georgetown.

About Author


Graham Piro Graham Piro is a former editor-in-chief of the Voice. He isn't sure why the rest of the staff let him stick around. Follow him on Twitter @graham_piro.

2 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The Carroll Fellows: Georgetown’s elite academics”

  1. Avatar disgruntled says:

    I’m glad to that the Voice is writing about Carroll Fellows. I, however, believe this article missed a few key points:

    First, at an elite university there is no reason to have a program of 20 students considered by some arbitrary determination to the “best.” I was a Carroll Fellow during my freshman year, and Glavin continually told students they were the only people at Georgetown with the talent to offer something important to the University. Students would nod as their egos were stroked to perfection. If you think you are better than everyone else, you haven’t listened to a single person around you. I know so many smart, talented people who inspire me to be greater, and to be honest, none of them are in Carroll Fellows. The program actually lacks any coherent mission that truly outlines why it exists–after a semester, I certainly cannot tell you.

    I also think that it’s fascinating that the article says the athletic requirements or academic rigor might be a reason for dropping, when I think it actually has a lot more to do with the pointlessness of the program and the emotional abuse handed down by Glavin on a weekly basis. Glavin accused multiple students of being illiterate, replying to their work with the deep concern that their illiteracy would inhibit their success in college and beyond. There is not a single student at Georgetown who is illiterate, but illiteracy is also a serious concern for students in the American education system and it is offensive that Glavin would make that accusation.

    Glavin spent hours of the seminar Georgetown-bashing. He would say Georgetown is stuck in a Cold War mentality, that our students can’t hold a candle to Harvard, and that the only worthwhile endeavor is entrepreneurship–coming from a scholar of Dickensian literature… Let me tell you, as a senior, I have loved my experience at Georgetown and I’m happy I don’t go to Harvard.

    I would often leave his seminars in a rage. He used only negativity, tearing down Georgetown and his students with insults that we were all drones, without a critical bone in his body. I am shocked the University allows this program to continue. As a freshman, I was deeply upset by participating in this program, but I had no where to turn. I had no idea who to talk to about what was going on in that seminar. Eventually I left, and unfortunately began to forget how awful it was.

    I would argue that Glavin is also not a welcoming professor to female students. On multiple occasions he made remarks about how women should appear, how they should not cross their legs in public, and how they should behave even in an elevator without similar stipulations for men. I can cross my legs–you tell me who is stuck in 1950!

    I have a 3.9, I have excelled at Georgetown without Carroll Fellows. I am glad the Voice has at least drawn attention to this , and I would hope that the Voice and the University open up a longer dialogue about this program, because it has existed in the shadows for far too long.

  2. A few months after graduation, the shininess of the ‘real world’ disappears. As an alum, my experience was to quickly realize that the one thing Georgetown’s classes rarely taught was how to actually cope and create change in a world where you are not constantly told you are special. The usefulness of writing memos to the President, studying ancient history, organizing student politics, and walking down Prospect Street after countless exciting parties becomes evident – none of it is useful at first. Because at first, you must again know nothing and begin learning a new set of skills in your chosen career. The Carroll Fellows Program was really one of the only experiences that I have found instrumental to my success post-Georgetown. Without the challenge and support from that program, I would have encountered many more problems in the world beyond Healy Gates. Eventually, all that you learn can be useful, but you need core skills and sometimes just grit to get to that point and make it happen.

    I understand the program is not for everyone- either is skydiving. You shouldn’t be forced to skydive and you shouldn’t be forced to join CFI. But anyone who tries to characterize the entire program based on their individual experience only misleads their peers. Some people love the thrill of skydiving, and others could retell it as a traumatic, near-death experience to be avoided at all costs. The same could be said of going to college generally. The CFI is ultimately an individual experience, and everyone can walk away from the same program with different takeaways. I am still friends with fellows- those who completed the program with me and those who did not. There is no ill will at all, it is just an individual decision based on your priorities and goals. Even the most ambitious students may find it does not suit their priorities.

    I really truly wish the best to all the Hoyas at Georgetown, and certainly do not wish to challenge other’s feelings. But for anyone who reads this considering the program, keep in mind the range of opinions. For me as an alum on the other side, it has had a profoundly positive impact on my life. I agree with the quote in the article that the CFI is THE Jewel of Georgetown, and wanted to write a small amount of support.

    PS- In the back of my mind, I also hope this is not reviewed for writing quality by my fellow Fellows- sorry folks. Life of the mind for the world, not punctuation and grammar.=)

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