Mitchell Robson ’20 applied for the exceptionally selective Coolidge Scholarship just to experience the demanding candidate-review process, but the outcome permanently altered his future
The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation recently awarded St. John’s Prep junior Mitchell Robson a one-of-kind grant. As a winner of the nation’s only unconditional merit scholarship, Robson can take his award to any accredited U.S. college or university he can get into and receive the following: free tuition, room, board, and associated expenses for four years of undergraduate study. Yes, that would be a full-ride. Anywhere.
It’s a safe bet to assume young Mr. Robson, who turned 17 just last month, would be feeling pretty good about himself. But that’s a wager bettors would lose. Robson isn’t dwelling on the platform of being a 2019 Coolidge Scholar. He’s more interested in where he can take the opportunity.
“The peers I encountered face-to-face as a finalist for the award were exceptional students with exceptional extracurriculars,” says Robson, who serves as co-captain of the Eagles’ Academic Bowl team and co-president of the Prep Mock Trial team. “My fellow finalists are genuine, possess strong character traits, and all want to follow their passions to make an impact in their community. It was an intense competition, but there was also a real sense of camaraderie.”
“Intense” might be underselling things a little. Robson is one of only four high school students in the country to be named a Coolidge Scholar this year (his fellow honorees are from California, New Jersey, and Vermont). Robson completed a comprehensive and rigorous application in January and based upon that first impression, he was named one of 12 national finalists in March.
“It was kind of a fun application,” he says. “There was a lot to research and write about. It focused a lot on your values, and that part was easy in a sense because I felt like that aligned with my own experience of how we approach education at St. John’s.”
Once he became a finalist, Robson commenced weeks of preparation for a finalist weekend at the Coolidge Historic Site in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, where candidates are flown in to interview with the Coolidge Scholars Finalist Jury.
NO SWEATING THE VETTING
The evaluation process during finalist weekend features three stages. Finalists rotate between a public-speaking assessment, a timed-essay exam, and a lengthy sit-down interview. Robson felt prepared for every segment. Upon being named a finalist, he poured over dozens of President Coolidge’s speeches and devoured the definitive biography on the nation’s 30th president.
“It took hours and hours, but it was enjoyable,” says Robson, who competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee from 2014-16, qualifying for ESPN’s primetime top 10 and ultimately tying for seventh place in his final year as a contestant. “Ideally, in any walk of life, the work you do is fun. It really felt like that throughout this process.”
Whether it was writing an essay, giving a speech or interviewing with the finalist jury, Robson was most gratified by the opportunity to form lasting friendships. In fact, two of his four closest connections over the weekend also wound up being named Coolidge Scholars. “I want to major in physics and pursue a career having something to do with STEM, and I think it’s great that the Coolidge Foundation isn’t necessarily looking for scholars who want a career in public policy,” he says. “Three of the four scholarship winners have more of a STEM focus, but we all want to be active citizens in our communities, state and country.
“That’s how I envision college,” he adds. “I want to learn a diversity of things beyond science and technology—history, public policy, international relations. That’s why I love St. John’s because we talk about educating the whole person, and that’s a fit for me because I just want to learn.”
THE RIGHT STUFF
Leading up to the speech portion of finalist weekend, candidates were sent five addresses that were once given by President Coolidge and asked to choose one to prepare and deliver. As it happened, Robson was already familiar with four of the five from his preparatory research. He also enlisted the support of St. John’s English teacher Sheila Jones and history teacher Charlie Newhall.
“The idea was to envision how Coolidge might deliver the words on paper to move an actual audience. Mr. Newall and Mrs. Jones really helped me make it pop by working through the rhetoric with me and helping me decide where to place inflections and different tones to get myself ready. Having their input gave me some solace.”
Though he reckoned the essay portion would be his toughest challenge, Robson says he applied techniques he developed in AP English to synthesize his thesis in a digestible form. The teen wrote about how humility influenced President Coolidge’s approach to public policy and says he “felt like I wrote an essay I could be proud of.”
Of course, it’s hard to ignore the fact that he walked away from the weekend with a blank check for a fully funded post-secondary education.
“That has altered my perspective a lot,” says Robson. “My parents have always told me, whatever college I choose as truly the best fit, we would really try to make accommodations as a family and I would take out loans as well. Nothing was off the table, but expense would have been a major consideration, especially if I got merit scholarships somewhere else. It feels good to know I can seek the best holistic experience and follow my dreams without financial pros and cons as a factor. Now, I can make that decision solely based on where I’d like to matriculate.”
A Boy Scout since first grade, Robson is an aspiring Eagle Scout. He also enjoys performing in the Prep’s improv comedy troupe and playing basketball. Like President Coolidge, he is deeply invested in service to others, volunteering at a Boston crisis center hotline. In 2018, Robson was named a Holocaust Legacy Fellow, traveling to Germany and Poland to learn more about preserving memories of the Holocaust.
In 2017, Robson received the Brother Linus Scholarship, a full one-year merit scholarship awarded to a student, who, in his teachers’ eyes, is an outstanding individual who is a model of academic achievement and involvement in school activities. He works as a paid online consultant for Hexco Academic, serving as personal spelling coach, and also freelances as a math tutor in addition to working at his temple.
Robson and his fellow Coolidge Scholars will return to the Coolidge Historic Site at the end of this month for a week-long networking and mentorship retreat fetting the foundation’s 2019 class of scholarship winners. This year’s scholars will interact with industry leaders, stakeholders from the Coolidge Foundation and alumni winners of the scholarship in addition to performing manual labor on the Coolidge estate to honor the late president’s legacy of humility in service.