One of the most selective college scholarship programs in the U.S. could wind down in the next few years if it doesn’t raise a substantial sum to shore up its endowment.
The program is the Mitchell Scholarship, which sends 12 undergraduates to study at a university in Ireland every year. Run by the nonprofit US-Ireland Alliance created in 1998 to administer the scholarship, the program is more selective than Harvard, and some years it’s harder to win than a Rhodes Scholarship.
But its founder and longtime leader, Trina Vargo, is nearing retirement age, and she’s worried that the scholarship’s bank account isn’t substantial enough to continue funding the effort.
“We’re either gonna have to raise that endowment pretty quickly so it can go on after me, or I will unfortunately be the person who will also shut it down,” she told EdSurge.
The Mitchell Scholarship will soon select its 24th cohort, and has supported more than 250 students over the years, some of whom have gone on to hold elected office or other influential political positions. Each year more than 300 students vie for the 12 slots, filling out extensive applications and securing the endorsement of their colleges.
There’s an ecosystem of prestigious scholarships, and universities around the country have set up offices to help students win. Some of the opportunities are government supported, such as the Fulbright Scholarship, run by the U.S. Department of State, and the Marshall Scholarship, established by a gift from the British government in 1953. But these opportunities are more commonly privately funded, including the Rhodes Scholarship (to study at Oxford University), the Gates Scholarship (to pursue studies at Cambridge University) and the Schwarzman Scholars (to study at Tsinghua University).
All of these opportunities have a crucial fact in common: they were founded by billionaires—all of them white men.
As a first-generation college student raised by middle class parents in Pittsburgh, Vargo’s story stands apart, and she says that may keep the scholarship from continuing.
So how did she come to create this scholarship? And what does her story reveal about which educational opportunities get funded and which don’t?
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: How did you come to create the Mitchell Scholarship?
Trina Vargo: I used to be Senator Ted Kennedy’s foreign policy advisor a gazillion years ago. And I was heavily involved in the Northern Ireland peace process. That was around 1998 [when] Senator [George] Mitchell was the negotiator of what ended up being the Good Friday agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland.
Kennedy always used to say to me, ‘the Irish never get their act together like Jewish Americans do and Greek Americans do’. And he said, ‘What are they going to do when we’re not around anymore?’
He realized—and I realized—watching all of this, that when there was an issue that came up with Ireland, the Irish ambassador or the prime minister would call Ted Kennedy, or they’d call [Senator] Pat Monahan. And there was a generation of people who were very connected to Ireland, and they were fading away. They were leaving the scene, they were retiring, most of them have now since died. There’s only a few left. The only ones who were still around who were connected to the Northern Ireland peace process would’ve been Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi—Senator Leahy just retired.
And if you look at the number of people coming from Ireland to the U.S., that’s declined significantly since the 1980s because Ireland is not a poor country anymore. So there are all these demographic reasons that it’s a question mark as to whether or not the connection will remain in future generations. But I thought that the scholarship was a way—a piece—of making that kind of a connection.
And so when I was leaving Senator Kennedy’s office, I had the idea for the scholarship and wanted to name it after somebody. And Senator Mitchell had just had this massive achievement with the Good Friday agreement. So I just asked him, ‘Do you mind if I put your name on the scholarship that I’m creating?’
When we did our Bootstraps podcast series, we dug into the history of the Rhodes Scholarship, and its founder Cecil Rhodes, who made his fortune in diamond mining with practices that are now widely seen as cruel and exploitative of workers. It has an endowment of about $529 million. But your scholarship’s story has been one more of moxy than of money.
And probably naivete more than anything else.
I keep hoping that someone will give. It could be governments, it could be corporations—there are so many American multinationals in Ireland—or just a wealthy individual that says: You know what? This is a good idea. I care about the future of this relationship. I’m gonna lock it down. And they can even add their name to it if they want. I mean, Senator Mitchell would be the first to tell you. Absolutely. So as legacies go, it would be much less expensive than the other ones that exist.
Your scholarship, and the other similar opportunities like the Rhodes Scholarship, only support a small number of students each year. Why is this approach worth all this money and effort?
That’s a fair question, and I think we try to make it more impactful than just the 12 that receive it.
One thing that I realize is that for someone to fill out this application—to put all the effort into getting recommendations, doing all that they’re doing—they have a very small chance of actually being selected. So one of the things that we started doing years ago is if we have a corporate sponsor … we will say to our applicants … check this box if you allow us to share your CV with this corporate sponsor … and with an Irish University. And we will give the Irish universities or our corporate sponsors at the end of our process all the CVs of those people who checked off and asked us to share them with them. [This sometimes leads those universities to accept them or companies to hire them.]
And when you have these [alum] out there, that impacts the U.S.-Ireland relationship. These people have studied on the island. They know Ireland. They can maybe make decisions that help benefit the relationship. I always knew in creating this that I would not see the true value of it in my lifetime.
Cecil Rhodes did not see Bill Clinton, who was a Rhode scholar, become the president. That doesn’t happen in your lifetime. So basically what you need is that bridge to get there. Ted Kennedy used to talk about it all the time. He would do many things, but he knew he wouldn’t see the value of [those efforts] in his lifetime. But you just have to push it out there … [because] someday, someone else will see the value of it.
Did you ever think of putting your name on the scholarship?
Never. It’s funny now when I look back because I have to honestly recognize that I think that’s very much a female sort of thing. I think every other scholarship’s name that is on a major scholarship is a man, and it’s white man. So I would love, if Rihanna is listening (I think she has some Irish American heritage) … If [Melinda] Gates or [MacKenzie Scott] want to … I would love to see a woman’s name on a major scholarship. It needn’t be mine. If some woman wants to [donate the] money for [our] endowment, I’d be very delighted to put her name on it.
How hopeful are you at this point that you can set this next chapter in motion to continue the Mitchell Scholarship?
It is a flip of a coin in my view, to be honest. Only because there is this part of me that feels like it is successful—it’s proven itself. So if anybody wants to invest in it and give to it, they’re not taking a chance on something that may or may not work. It’s already [working]. So that part of me is always hopeful.
But then there is the part of me that says, we’ve been looking for 25 years, and if [we] haven’t found that person, [maybe that’s a sign].
Listen to the complete interview on the EdSurge Podcast.