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Laure Pengelly Drake

Laure Pengelly Drake, coordinator for writing center programs, external scholarships and advising at the University of Montana, helps students choose their paths, navigate lengthy applications and prepare for interviews. Drake said UM is competitive with Ivy League schools for prestigious scholarships.

A Truman Scholarship worth up to $30,000? More than one University of Montana student has won it.

A Udall Scholarship recognizing leadership and public service? UM noted in a news release in April that it leads the nation with 42 Udall Scholars and 13 Honorable Mentions.

Marshall Scholarships? Two in nine years for an award just 3 or 4 percent of applicants receive, according to UM.

The list goes on, and behind the prestige and big bucks sits Laure Pengelly Drake, nudging students toward their dreams. She helps them identify their passions, muscle through lengthy applications, and prepare for intimidating committee interviews.

In any given semester, she may count some 200 meetings with students and 30 finished application packets.

"I think of my job as helping them compete with students who went to Yale," said Drake, coordinator for writing center programs, external scholarships and advising.

And UM students win.

This coming school year, UM student Andrew Castellanos will head to Kazakhstan on a Boren Scholarship to study Russian, according to UM. Last year, UM's Jed Syrenne won a Goldwater Scholarship, UM's 17th in the top national award for undergraduate research in science, math and engineering. The year before, UM graduate Rebecca Boslough took home the Marshall Scholarship.

Said Drake, who noted other faculty and staff also work on scholarships: "The University of Montana punches above its weight."

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At UM in a full-time capacity since 2002, Drake has worked with students on scholarships for 13 years. Although students, faculty and staff celebrate wins — and many of them — Drake said UM and the National Association of Fellowship Advisers keep the focus on the process, a journey of discovery for the student.

"The mantra of our fellowship organization is that the process is worth it, no matter what. You learn so much about yourself and about the language and about your topic and who you want to be," Drake said.

Advisers share a philosophy, and thus, a collegiality; they help each other help students because they believe each one deserves an opportunity to succeed, Drake said: "It's a strange world in which we help each other compete."

Drake describes her work as "an intuitive form of advising," a job that requires more than academic facility. Sometimes, she'll push a student with questions to test their reactions, and on other occasions, she's blunt.

Once, a student Drake knew marched into her office in the Liberal Arts Building and announced she was going to be the CEO of a major company. Drake said she applied a tactic she calls "intrusive advising."

"I said, 'No, you're not,'" Drake said.

The student was studying psychology, and Drake saw her other interests bubbling to the surface. The adviser told the student she believed she had a desire to help people in a more direct way, and Drake was right. The exchange took place a while ago, and they've since laughed about it.

At times, Drake's work means "fending off terrified parents" in order for students to find a path that will be meaningful to them.

"You don't necessarily make a lot of money doing what you love, but you can have a really fulfilling life doing what you love," Drake said. "Some jobs give you both, and some you have to choose."

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As UM has collected honors, Drake said she's proud the university hasn't placed more pressure on winning and continues to value the process, along with awards that aren't "fancy or famous." She said faculty know a scholarship application can be a "crap shoot," and she knows at least one student who was run through a "buzz saw" in an interview.

One UM student was studying local organic farming and encountered a committee with a member from Big Ag, Drake remembered. The member steered the interview, and Drake said the student wasn't asked a single question from her field, and she didn't have a shot.

Other times, unusual stories from Montana help a student stand out, and Drake said she tries to help students see those connections and understand the world they might see as mundane really isn't. One student grew up on a farm in a small town and helped cows give birth. She wanted to study music, and Drake helped her see a relationship she might not have understood on her own.

"You need that kind of discipline and the-show-must-go-own sensibility for music. There's a performance, and it's wildly different than giving a cow what it needs, but it turns out to be a similar character trait," Drake said.

Those intriguing stories catch the eyes of reviewers, especially as more and more schools bring on fellowship advisers, and more applications start sounding similar, she said.

At UM, the application work runs every month except maybe July, when students are "checked out to the mountains" and no deadlines are on the calendar. Come August, the chances start increasing they'll be burning the midnight oil in LA 144, and it'll be "all hands on deck."

"My greatest fulfillment in this job is being able to help these amazing students be their best selves," Drake said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.