Are you a 7ft left-hander called Zolp? It could be your ticket to college

September 24, 2004

In America, you don't have to be a straight-A student to win a scholarship. Stephen Phillips surveys some of the more offbeat awards.

Chicago's Loyola University has an unusual quandary. The 13,000-student Jesuit-run institution has been unable to fill one of its scholarship programmes for four out of the past eight years. It might seem odd, given that it is a scholarship that potentially covers the full cost of attending the pricey urban campus. But few people can clear the first hurdle - your surname must be Zolp to apply.

There are, of course, scholarships for the academically gifted, for sporting or musical genius, or for those in financial need, but enterprising US students who do a little homework may find they can subsidise part, or all, of their higher education costs if they are tall, short or unabashedly heavy; can belt out the US national anthem "with sincerity"; emulate the mating call of a duck or converse fluently in Klingon (the language of the ridge-browed aliens from Star Trek ).

Indeed, academic high-fliers should forget altogether about applying for the David Letterman Telecommunications Scholarship. The award, which the late-night US talk-show host established for telecommunications students at his alma mater, Ball State University in Indiana, is open only to "average students". Dullards need not apply, however. Candidates must demonstrate "a creative mind" in multimedia projects to scoop the $10,000 (£5,500) grant.

US scholarships come in all shapes and sizes - literally. Women who are 5ft 10in tall or taller and men who are at least 6ft 2in can apply to Tall Clubs International for $1,000 towards their college costs. At the other end of the scale, students under 4ft 10in can seek financial assistance from the Little People of America, founded by Billy Barty, the 3ft 9in star of Rumplestiltskin and Willow .

"High-school seniors who are obese" have the chance of collecting a $500 scholarship from the New England Chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. If those students are left-handed, they could also apply to the Frederick and Mary F. Beckley Scholarship, which offers grants of up to $1,000 for southpaw students attending Pennsylvania's Juniata College.

Beyond physical attributes, there is an array of offbeat talents students can exploit. The ability to create a stylish costume for that American rite of passage, the highschool prom, using only a popular brand of insulating tape could earn a couple of students $2,500 scholarships in the Duck Brand Duct Tape "Stuck at Prom" Contest.

This year's winning duo, who saw off 324 other entrants, clad themselves in "a white Cinderella-like gown with red, yellow and blue detailing [and a] white jacket featuring red and yellow epaulets, with red pants," the manufacturer's website says.

Mark Kantrowitz, who runs FinAid, a website that gives students scholarship information, is impressed. "The costumes are extremely elaborate and detailed."

The fact that such scholarships do not reward academic excellence does not mean the recipients are undeserving, he says. "They might be offbeat, but that doesn't mean the sponsors aren't looking for talented students."

Mastering Klingon is certainly no mean feat. Past winners of the $500 Kor Memorial Scholarship - Jput up by the Klingon Language Institute, a group of avid Star Trek fans featuring "academic chairs and deans" - have submitted their entire applications in the alien tongue, Kantrowitz says.

Some scholarships have a decidedly regional element. It's only natural that Stuttgart, Arkansas, the "Rice and Duck Capital of the World", should host a contest offering scholarships to students skilled in the art of duck calling. Contestants are assessed in four disciplines: hail, feed, comeback and mating.

Other grants can only be described as esoteric. The $500 Karma Award, administered by the Coven of the Sacred Waters, is for Pagan and Wicca students; the Eileen J. Garrett Scholarship ponies up $3,000 for students studying the "science of parapsychology".

Qualifying for some scholarships is all in the name. The Scarpinato scholarship, established by Texas cattle magnate Lee Scarpinato for cash-strapped students sharing his surname, rarely lacks takers.

At Loyola, the outreach efforts of Edward Moore, the scholarship director, for the obscure Zolp scholarships consist of thumbing through the local telephone directory whenever he's on the road at recruitment fairs.

He usually draws a blank, but a few weeks ago he struck gold, stumbling across a pair of Zolp twins about to enter their final year at high school.

Together with their elder brother, whom Moore hopes to persuade to come to Loyola for a graduate degree, he is confident of landing three Zolp scholars in 2005-06.

Father Zolp, a local Catholic priest who died in the 1970s, was not a Loyola alumnus. He wanted "to keep the name in Chicago and help people get educated", Moore says.

The motivations of other benefactors in endowing scholarships can be more difficult to divine. The Gertrude J. Deppen Scholarship, which offers a free ride at Pennsylvania's Bucknell University, is open only to local students who shun alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and "strenuous athletic contests".

The somewhat bizarre prohibition on sport reflects the observation of the late Joseph Deppen that, while talented American footballers enjoyed a passport to higher education via athletics scholarships, less athletically inclined youngsters had no such way of reaching university from the poor coal-mining region around Bucknell.

Deppen scholars participate in intramural sports, but they are barred from representing the university in any of them, says Linda Reinaker, who manages endowed gifts at Bucknell. As for the stipulation that they be clean-living, this means that they must not be involved in any "alcohol-induced infractions", she says.

"Benefactors provide money for something that's near and dear to their heart," Kantrowitz says.

Thus, the Patricia Kerr Skateboard Scholarship was established by a mother whose son was killed while skateboarding. It is available to university-bound skateboarders with reasonable secondary-school grades in an effort to help counter perceptions of skateboarding as a delinquent pastime.

Entering more political territory, drug reform groups have clubbed together to establish scholarships to help young people who have been convicted of drug offences and are thus denied any financial aid from the US Government to attend university under the 1998 Higher Education Act. The John W. Perry Fund has disbursed eight scholarships worth from $600 to $2,000 since its inception two years ago.

Some scholarships may take things too far, however. Earlier this year, Jayson Blair, the disgraced former New York Times reporter, offered to donate proceeds from his book, which details how his made-up and plagiarised articles rocked America's most august newspaper, to endow journalism scholarships at the University of Maryland. Authorities at his alma mater turned him down.

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