This year’s Robertson Scholars Leadership Program selection process joined the growing list of cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No scholarships will be awarded to any of the applicants.
Founded and funded by Julian Robertson Jr. and his late wife, the Robertson Scholars program encourages collaboration between Duke and UNC and promotes the development of young leaders at both universities, according to the program’s website.
The program provides selected Robertson Scholars with eight semesters of full tuition, room and board, and most mandatory fees at Duke and UNC as well as access to funding for summer experiences, conferences, and study abroad. Scholars spend time at both campuses during their four years of college.
“Unfortunately, however, fate has intervened to cancel our program for this year,” Robertson said in a March 13 email sent to applicants.
Anwar Boutayba, a UNC first-year majoring in global studies and advertising and public relations, was expecting an email notifying him if he was a finalist for the scholarship. He said he was completely surprised to receive a one-paragraph email announcing that the selection was canceled entirely.
Boutayba said the email was vague and did not explicitly state COVID-19 as the reason.
“There was a lot of ambiguity in that email,” he said. “However, if they would have been direct, I think it would have been fine. It would have sucked, yes, but we are in the middle of a global pandemic and everything is getting shut down.”
At the time of the cancellation, interviews had already been conducted to narrow the applicant pool. The remaining stage of the selection process was finalist weekend.
“I really hurt for all the applicants that got so far along in the process and really got their hopes up about joining what is a life-changing program,” Lawton Ives, a junior Roberston Scholar at UNC, said. “I’m sure it would seem like it’s going to waste to hear news like this, especially so soon before finalist weekend.”
Finalist weekend was scheduled to occur from March 21 to 23, but on March 10, the program’s executive director, Allen Chan, sent an email announcing the cancellation of the event due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
Aaron Stern, a member of the Board of Directors of the Robertson Scholarship program, said finalist weekend would have brought together a group of interviewers, scholarship finalists, and current scholars that would have tallied over 100 people.
Robertson expressed similar concerns.
“The selection committee is a very senior group of people and there was a great risk to them and also to everyone else involved,” Robertson said.
In a subsequent March 17 email to current scholars, Chan said that the program’s staff began organizing ways to replicate the finalist weekend selection virtually, but Robertson and his advisors decided to instead cancel this year’s selection altogether.
Stern said it would not have been feasible to do video conferencing with that many people and the quality of the interviews would not have been the same.
Carrigan Price, a first-year Robertson scholar at UNC, agreed that the experience of finalist weekend could not have been simulated virtually.
“It’s really important to have a good understanding of what it’s like to be a Tar Heel and what it means to be a Robertson, and an important part of that is interacting with the current scholars,” Price said. “I think that without the actual physical piece of interaction, you wouldn’t be able to obtain that.”
Robertson said once it was determined that scholars couldn’t be selected this year, the Robertson Foundation professional staff decided to take this opportunity to analyze and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the program.
While there will be no incoming Robertson scholars in the class of 2024, Robertson said he plans for the scholarship to resume next year.
“There’s a lot of incredibly deserving folks, but moving along in that process correlates really well with taking advantage of the opportunities that are available at a place like Carolina or Duke,” Ives said. “I hope that the applicants that were going through that this year can keep that in mind and keep up the good work.”
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