A faculty member who has devoted 39 years to Mercer University is the first recipient of the Mike MacCarthy Mentorship Award, created this year in honor of the late professor for which it is named.
German professor Dr. Edward Weintraut was surprised with the award on April 12 at the Office of National Fellowships and Scholarships’ annual student recognition banquet.
“There’s a very strong correlation between faculty mentorship — in the form of mentoring research projects, in the form of classroom engagement and in the form of direct student encouragement — and student success with applying for and also winning external fellowship and scholarship opportunities,” said Dr. David Davis, director of the Office of National Fellowships and Scholarships.
For the past 15 years, Dr. Weintraut has been the Fulbright Program adviser at Mercer.
“In that time, he’s advised dozens of students on their applications and helped make Fulbright a viable entity at Mercer,” Dr. Davis said. “And so, we’re recognizing him for building the foundation for Fulbright here.”
This academic year, a record of five Mercerians were awarded Fulbright U.S. Student Awards, and one student was selected as an alternate.
“The Fulbright is one of the most distinctive scholarships that’s available to American students,” Dr. Weintraut said. “I like recruiting students to apply for this distinction. I will strongly urge any of the bright stars in my own classes to submit an application.”
One of those students was Jenna Oldja, who is graduating in May with a double-major in global health studies and religion and a minor in German. She recently was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Germany.
“My sophomore year, he reached out to me and said, ‘I think you’ll be a good candidate for this.’ And I did not know much at the time, but I attended some of the sessions, and I had another professor reach out to me by the end of my junior year,” Oldja said. “I can honestly say if it wasn’t for the two of them, I wouldn’t have applied for a Fulbright.”
Oldja said Dr. Weintraut worked with her throughout the Fulbright process. In German classes, he not only taught students but got to know them as well, she said.
“I feel like he sees his students as individuals and saw me for my potential,” she said. Even as she went through personal struggles, “I just felt really seen for what I was going through.”
One of the hardest things for students to do is recognize how wonderful they are, Dr. Weintraut said.
Working with students as they refine their Fulbright application helps them become aware of their talents and potential, he said, and even if students aren’t awarded a Fulbright, they leave the process with strong personal and professional statements that they can use for other scholarship or job applications in the future.
“I take pride in being able to help students shape these statements about themselves,” Dr. Weintraut said.
This past summer, Dr. Weintraut and the Office of National Fellowships and Scholarships set up a program in Canvas that provided detailed information on the Fulbright Program along with instructions and homework assignments to prepare them for writing their statements. In the fall, students worked with a Fulbright screening committee to refine their application.
Presli Evans, who is graduating in May with an education major in the holistic child, said that structure helped her immensely.
“I think I probably would have gotten lost somewhere along the way if it wouldn’t have been for the structure they provided,” said Evans, who was recently awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Taiwan.
Evans appreciated how Dr. Weintraut, when reviewing her application, didn’t say what he liked and didn’t like about it.
“He understood that in the Fulbright process they’re looking for a lot of different things. There’s not one specific thing they want,” she said. “So, a lot of times he would go over it, and he would ask questions about particular things, and say, ‘What do you feel maybe could be different about this?’ or, ‘Do you think that anything needs to be changed here in this area?’”
Evans said she has talked to students who went through the Fulbright process at other schools, and they did not have the level of support that she received at Mercer.
“What we do have here is kind of different, especially for a smaller school. This is not the norm,” she said. “I’m definitely grateful for that.”
Dr. Weintraut is retiring at the end of the spring semester but has offered to remain involved with the Fulbright Program.
A mentor to many students
The mentorship award is named for the late Dr. Michael MacCarthy, associate professor of environmental and civil engineering and director of the engineering for development program at Mercer. He died Oct. 22 while on sabbatical in Denver.
“Mike’s passing really signifies a loss to the University, and one of the greatest impacts of that loss is what he brought to student achievement,” Dr. Davis said. “In the past two years, his students won Hollings Scholarships. They won Goldwater Scholarships. They won Fulbright Scholarships. They were some of the most accomplished students in the University.
“So, Dr. Cameron Kunzelman and I believed it made sense that if we were going to recognize this type of faculty activity that we use it as an opportunity to memorialize Mike and to use him as a role model for the kind of achievement we want to instantiate.”
Dr. MacCarthy’s mentorship began with his “profound personal engagement with students,” Dr. Davis said. That started with encouraging students in his classes to become involved with his research projects. He then led them in finding ways to contribute their own voices to the projects and urged them to pursue other opportunities.
He nominated students for internal and external awards, offered advice on their applications, and wrote personal and detailed letters of recommendation.
“He was the kind of faculty member who shared his cellphone number with his students, who shared his time with his students and knew his students as real people,” Dr. Davis said.
Sara Binet, who is graduating in May with a major in environmental engineering, got to know Dr. MacCarthy through a Mercer On Mission trip to the Dominican Republic in 2019. There, she discovered her passion for groundwater innovation and started on a path that resulted in her receiving a Barry Goldwater Scholarship for the 2021-22 academic year.
Dr. MacCarthy encouraged Binet to apply for the Goldwater Scholarship, read her application “probably 100 times” and wrote her a letter of recommendation, she said.
“He really preached, ‘This is your work, and you need to be proud of every word that’s on this sheet of paper,” she said.
Binet conducted her research in Dr. MacCarthy’s lab and was a research assistant in the Cecil Day Family Center for International Groundwater Innovation, which he led.
“It was so obvious right away that he just loved what he did so passionately,” Binet said. “Out of everything, his main focus was helping other people.”
Hailey Ferrel, who is graduating in May with a major in environmental engineering, said Dr. MacCarthy impacted her more than he probably knew.
Initially, she was unsure environmental engineering was a path that she wanted to pursue, but Dr. MacCarthy introduced her to various aspects of the field, and she found her place.
“I want to help alleviate water poverty, or I want to help provide clean energy to the rest of the world, and because of research that Dr. MacCarthy allowed me to experience, I realized that,” said Ferrel, who was awarded a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to study or intern abroad in 2021.
Ferrel will pursue a master’s degree in environmental engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, which she chose on the recommendation of Dr. MacCarthy.
“A lot of the environmental engineers know where they’re going after graduation, which is really exciting, and I think that some of us wish that we could tell him where we’re going,” Ferrel said. “It’s very crushing to know we’ll never tell him that, but it’s also very inspiring to know that he would have been proud of us.”