SARASOTA — Mariah Arnold had only just applied to New College of Florida the day she visited the campus and saw a flier about students winning prestigious Fulbright grants.
"In four years," she told her father, "that will be me."
It was. In 2008, Arnold won a Fulbright grant to study sustainable aquaculture in Malaysia. Now 24, she's working on a doctorate in environmental toxicology at Duke University.
And she's not unique. New College has just 800 students, but last year it was among the top 10 liberal arts colleges producing the most Fulbright student scholarships. On a per capita basis, its students win the grants at higher rates than their counterparts at many research universities, including those in the Ivy League.
"We hear the shriek in the corridor, we know another one has come through," said Suzanne Janney, a special assistant to New College's president and a key guide to students seeking the grants.
It's a heady honor. The Fulbright program pays for students and scholars from the United States and other countries to travel for study and teaching. Among its alumni are winners of the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, members of Congress and heads of state.
This year, seven New College students won Fulbright U.S. student grants to study or teach overseas. Last year, eight did.
By comparison, the University of Florida, with more than 50,000 students, had nine Fulbright winners last year and four this year.
Three things contribute to New College's success, administrators say:
• New College not only attracts bright applicants, but emphasizes student research and independent study.
• Professors and administrators scout student talent early, recruit good prospects and invest hours helping students revise applications.
• To compensate for the lack of intercollegiate sports, Greek life and other parts of the traditional college experience, New College promotes a global outlook.
And that leads students to think about studying abroad.
"When you're small, beautifully located and a little smug, as we have tended to be over the years, you can become provincial real fast," New College president Gordon E. "Mike" Michalson Jr. said. "One way to counteract that is to emphasize it's a big world, and part of the experience of being at New College is to be connected to that big world."
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From the start, New College was meant to be different.
It was founded 50 years ago this fall by Sarasota civic, business and religious leaders who felt they lived in a college town without a college.
For the campus, they acquired the estates of circus boss Charles Ringling and railroad executive Ralph Caples, each with sweeping views of Sarasota Bay.
But the founders also wanted to create something as academically distinctive as the Asolo Theater or the Ringling Museum of Art. Although the state took over the college in 1975, much of the original vision remains: Classes are small. There are no grades. Nor is there a rigid core curriculum required of all students.
Instead, each student sits down with a faculty sponsor before each semester. Together, they come up with an academic contract after discussing the student's goals, choosing his or her classes and establishing how the student's progress will be measured. Although there are no universally required core classes, New College does have more than 30 traditional majors, each with its own prerequisites or requirements.
At the end of the semester, professors write narrative evaluations for each student in their classes. In a page or two, they assess whether the student's performance was satisfactory and met the goals of their academic contract.
It's an alternative philosophy that attracts an alternative student. New College students tend toward the hip and left of center. But once students sign an academic contract, they become responsible for fulfilling it, Michalson said.
"The constant message we try to send here is that sure, this is an open, free arena in which you can pursue your personal interests," he said, "but the flip side of personal freedom is personal accountability."
The problem, if there is one, is New College's six-year graduation rate. It's a lackluster 60 percent — "out of whack" with the private liberal arts colleges that New College aspires to be like, said Michalson.
Part of the problem is the school's small size. Some students tire of the social atmosphere. Others can't fulfill their academic interests.
In response, administrators have upgraded how they track students at risk, encouraged students to consider taking a semester abroad and begun offering a special seminar on research and writing skills.
"We've fretted and fussed about this," Michalson said.
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Often, it's not a student who comes up with the idea of applying for a Fulbright grant.
It's a professor who has been watching for students who have lived abroad, might speak another language and have wide-ranging interests.
"Sometimes that means tracking people from the very beginning," said Glenn Cuomo, a professor of German language and literature and one of New College's Fulbright program advisers.
Once students get interested, the college's team warns them of the work ahead. Students typically spend 40 to 50 hours working on their applications, and rewrite their essays four, five, six or more times.
"We're tough on them, but we're tough in a good way," said Jeanne Viviani, director of New College's research programs and services. "Some of them cry. I think we always get at least one or two criers a year."
The rewrites are necessary, Janney said. To capture the attention of a screener with a stack of applications, students have to be clear, distinctive and compelling.
"The reader makes a judgment at the end of that first paragraph," she said.
Janney would know, because before coming to New College she worked at the Institute of International Education, which does the screening.
"Suzanne's sort of our secret weapon," Michalson said. "She spent 20 years working for the Fulbright folks. She knows what they like to see on the other end."
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Unlike Arnold, Christin Murphy didn't come to New College determined to win a Fulbright.
Murphy said she chose New College partly because she wanted to study marine science and partly because other colleges said she probably would have to wait until graduate school to do much hands-on research.
At New College, she got involved in several research projects, including a manatee study at Mote Marine Laboratory, as a freshman.
During her junior year, she grew excited about a lab in Spain that specialized in the neuroscience of spatial learning and memory in fish. She wrote to the head of the lab, who told her she was welcome to come if she found some funding.
That wasn't the only challenge. Murphy spoke some Spanish, but not enough to discuss technical or scientific matters. New College's advanced Spanish courses focused on literature. They wouldn't teach her the Spanish word for "scalpel."
So she told her faculty sponsor, and together they designed a new class, a Spanish technical writing tutorial.
Murphy said the research opportunities and chance to design a class that met her academic needs put her in a position to apply for the Fulbright grant, which she won in 2004.
"The way that they teach you to think for yourself and drive your own education, everything from the first day at New College was really preparing me for that experience," she said.