By Laela Zaidi
Alumni of Phi Beta Kappa are known for continuing a lifetime of outstanding academic achievement and civic engagement shaped by a commitment to the liberal arts and sciences. Many associations focus on supporting individuals throughout their professional careers after they receive a coveted diploma. The New York Association of Phi Beta Kappa, however, is investing in the next generation through a scholarship program benefitting New York City-area community college graduates entering four-year universities and pursuing the liberal arts.
In the process of creating and executing a scholarship program, ΦBKNY has also discovered something else: a deepened purpose through actively engaging the community and relationship-building amongst each other.
The scholarship program has existed in some form for at least ten years. Initially, the chapter provided books to outstanding high school students. After two years of this, the chapter transformed their assistance into a direct, one-time financial grant to local community college students going on to study the liberal arts at four-year colleges. Now, the association gives two $2,000 scholarships—one purely on the basis of merit, and the other considering both merit and financial need based on an applicant’s EFC score.
The adoption of an EFC score criteria was a recent change, designed to help the scholarship committee ensure that they are honoring top students while also investing in those who need the most support, especially given the high cost of tuition at New York City-area schools.
“It is always meaningful to help promising students with their educational goals, but it is also meaningful to engage with our own ΦBK colleagues in the process,” said Leslie Verter, outgoing scholarship committee chair. “I am exposed to the variety of points of view of others, forcing me to think reflectively about my own perspective on each student—all this while we operate within a shared set of criteria.”
The ΦBKNY association is highly active, with frequent events, discussion groups, and alumni networking opportunities for ΦBK members. The scholarship program, however, keeps the association grounded in the New York community and connected to the upcoming classes of students.
“The scholarship program introduces the national Phi Beta Kappa Society to new classes of students every year and celebrates students who might one day be inducted as members,” said Tom Wang, the incoming chair. “Serving on the Scholarship Committee and supporting promising and determined scholars have been some of the many ways that being part of ΦBK have been meaningful to me.”
This year, both scholarships went to students of color with immigrant backgrounds—Veronica Martinez Castro and Natassia Walker. Born and raised in Jamaica, Walker graduated from Borough of Manhattan Community College and is now at NYU pursuing a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in systemic racism and economic development and policies. Castro, who immigrated from Ecuador, graduated from LaGuardia Community College and is now at Columbia studying environmental biology.
Both Castro and Walker expressed excitement towards the pursuit of their liberal arts degrees. Walker, for example, sees the liberal arts as a critical tool for her interests in violence prevention and racial equity.
“We’ve been trying to address these issues with one lens for too many decades. I’m trying to see what else can we do? What other approach can we implement to shift the narrative? In order to do that you have to decolonize what you’ve already learned, and relearn new things to form new solutions,” Walker said.
For Castro, she has intentionally chosen to pursue environmental biology through a liberal arts curriculum. “I know that conservation and ecology and wildlife is not just science, but also there are more things that come into play like economics, communities that interact with the ecosystem, so I hope that being able to study these things for my major I will be able to get a better understanding,” Castro said.
Though the scholarship is a one-time grant of $2,000, both winners acknowledged that it will assist them in their journey at elite schools, where a well-rounded degree can come at a high cost. Castro noted that despite the modest amount, “It really helps make this dream of becoming a conservation biologist a reality…it’s giving somebody who does not have a traditional way of approaching education an opportunity to participate and be part of this.”
The scholarship is open to applicants of select New York City-area community colleges. Applications typically open in the winter. More details can be found at the ΦBKNY association’s website. The scholarship is supported by donations, and donors do not have to be members of the New York association.
Laela Zaidi earned her Bachelor of Arts in religious studies from Hendrix College, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in May 2018. Hendrix College is home to the Beta of Arkansas chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.