Campus News

Giving Wildcats That Winning Edge: Q&A With Pat Whitlow of UK’s Nationally Competitive Awards Office

headshot photo of Pat Whitlow
photo of Emily Sallee and Pat Whitlow at the UK Office of Nationally Competitive Awards entrance

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 18, 2021) The Rhodes, Truman, Marshall, Gates Cambridge, Astronaut, Goldwater and Fulbright scholarships and awards comprise an elite class of honors bestowed on the nation’s brightest scholars — and Wildcats have won them all during the last decade.

Winning such prestigious scholarships, awards and fellowships is not easy by any means. The honors take not only top-notch work in the classroom and research, but also require flawless applications, extraordinary essays and captivating interviews. Ensuring UK scholars put their best foot forward throughout the arduous process is Pat Whitlow, director of UK’s Office of Nationally Competitive Awards (NCA), Assistant Director Emily Sallee and their network of faculty and research mentors across campus. 

From offering tips, resources and advice to providing emotional support, NCA delivers everything an applicant might need during what can be a very stressful time. “The NCA Office helped me apply to multiple scholarships, all focused on funding graduate school abroad. In particular, Dr. Whitlow greatly assisted me throughout the application process by providing application feedback and interview support," graduating senior Clarissa Somers said. "I have hosted a couple high stakes interviews within the office, and Dr. Whitlow’s friendly, familiar presence was very comforting. She was right there, always with a smile and snacks, willing to do anything to help her students succeed. I have had multiple days when a quick response from Dr. Whitlow helped me solve an emerging issue and avoid extra stress.”

And it is that advice and preparation with NCA that has UK student scholars singing Whitlow’s praises.

“NCA completely changed the outlook and aspirations I had for my life,” said 2020 graduate and Google software engineer Kyra Seevers. “As a DAAD RISE scholar in 2019, I researched and traveled in Munich, Germany, all expenses paid. Having never been to Germany or even learned a word of the German language, the generosity and opportunity of this nationally competitive award broadened my horizons in ways I never thought possible! Immersed in a new culture and working to create cutting-edge accessible technology, I grew personally, professionally and academically. Then, as a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship in 2020, Nationally Competitive Awards allowed me to meet a group of like-minded peers from across the country. This network of incredible individuals continues to inspire me to give back to my community. Too often, students count themselves out from big opportunities!”

Like Seevers, Esias Bedingar, a 2018 UK graduate who will pursue a doctorate in population health systems at Harvard, expressed similar sentiments. "I remember when I was a senior at UK, the Rhodes Trust had started a new scholarship for international students (global). Due to the competitiveness of the process, I did not want to apply, but Dr. Pat found a way to convince me and told me that I was more than capable. Thanks to her advice and guidance, I was able to reach the final round of the process. Although I did not win, it's the belief and complete trust that Dr. Pat had in me that mattered to me. She reassured me by saying that my loss did not define me. Not only did she boost my confidence, but she has taught me not to fear anything. Now, whenever I want to do something extremely competitive, but do not believe in myself, I think of Dr. Pat’s words. Because of this specific experience, Dr. Pat has changed the course of my life and I am extremely thankful to have met her. She is truly an angel sent from heaven, and has impacted so many students’ lives on and beyond campus."

Seevers added, “I would highly recommend to any UK student interested in pursuing similar opportunities to reach out and get involved with the Nationally Competitive Awards Office. There are so many opportunities for growth and exploration just waiting for students like you!”

To get a better understanding of the office and the work it does for undergraduate and graduate students as well as recent alumni, UKNow recently sat down with Whitlow.


UKNow: Tell us a bit about the mission and services you provide at the UK Office of Nationally Competitive Awards.

Whitlow: The NCA office advertises and administers competitive awards that require a nomination from the university. Those include the Truman, Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, Fulbright, Goldwater, Astronaut, Churchill, English Speaking Union award, Udall, Boren Fellowship (for graduates) and Scholarship (undergraduates), as well as for campus honorary societies that I advise such as the Phi Kappa Phi Fellowship and the Alpha Lambda Delta Trow award.

But as time allows, I work with students on their applications for any external award that helps them fulfill their academic and career goals. These include awards for graduate study leading to federal service (Pickering and Rangel), the Critical Language Scholarship, NSF (National Sciend Foundation) summer research awards and many opportunities to teach English abroad such as the Teaching English in Japan opportunity, Princeton in Asia fellowship and others. I couldn’t possibly list the many opportunities here. Emily Sallee joined the office in 2019, and she has expanded advising capacity for awards and also maintains our outreach and recruitment activities on social media.

UKNow: What made you interested in directing NCA?

Whitlow: While working in The Graduate School, I served on the campus Fulbright review committee for several years as I was interested in encouraging more graduate students to apply for external opportunities. When this role was expanded to full time, it allowed me the change of positions. I’ve loved having the chance to work with undergraduates, graduates and alumni who are interested in competitive awards.

UKNow: When should UK students start looking at the resources your office offers?

Whitlow: It is a good idea to get acquainted early in the academic career, if possible, because that gives students more time to think about how an award would fit into their plans and allows time for preparation. Also, many awards have deadlines long before the final decision is made, so it is important to know well in advance if you wish to submit an application.

We have a listing of award opportunities on the webpage for the office and also a page with video resources — recordings of past info sessions with award recipients. We regularly offer opportunities for students to get acquainted with the purpose of an award, the specifics of the application process and when possible, to meet current UK students and alumni who have received these awards. We are looking forward to Fellowships Week April 12-19, where we will have sessions on Marshall, Churchill, Truman, Pickering and Fulbright.

UKNow: What would you say to the student who doesn't think they reach the qualifications of the larger international and national awards? Are there other resources your office can offer?

Whitlow: There are many opportunities and some do require a very high GPA, but others are more flexible and focus on other strength areas, such as research or service. All competitive awards are interested in the future potential of the applicants. Many opportunities are open to all academic disciplines, but there are also STEM-specific and language-based awards.

I encourage all students to at least investigate the options. Our goal is to help students better articulate why they are good candidates for awards.

We (Whitlow and Sallee) both have served as reviewers for national award finalists and have insight into the elements that create a strong application. We are also members of the National Association of Fellowship Advisors and receive the latest information from prestigious award funders, such as foundations and the U.S. and other governments.

UKNow: What is your favorite part about working with students visiting the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards?

Whitlow: They teach me so much! I first heard about Bitcoin from a student, they’ve recommended books for me to read, they’ve helped me understand so many issues from the perspective of a different generation, I’ve seen the world through their travels, they’ve given me recipes to make my own probiotic foods, they’ve brought me refrigerator magnets from around the world.

Just about every day brings some new bit of knowledge or fun or connection. It’s very satisfying to be a part of a student’s career while they are at UK, and I’m so delighted to keep up with so many as they move on to their post-UK lives.

UKNow: If you had one piece of advice for students in relation to scholarships and other award opportunities, what would it be?

Whitlow: My advice is to seek more information from the NCA office, to talk to faculty mentors and to be willing to take the risk of applying for one of these major awards. Not every application results in an award, but all students who apply are successful because they learn how to better explain their academic interests and achievements and to improve their writing and communication skills throughout the process. This results in a stronger application for the next opportunity, which may be an award application or a graduate program or a job.


Pat Whitlow has served as the director of the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards since October 2011. At UK, she also serves as faculty and advisor for the Chellgren Student Fellows program, president of the university chapter of Phi Kappa Phi and chapter advisor for Alpha Lambda Delta. Whitlow began her employment at UK in 1994 as the associate director of Residence Life. She completed her doctorate in sociology at UK in 2002 and began work as the assistant dean of The UK Graduate School in 2003. In 2019, Whitlow was named the Outstanding Staff Member for the division of Student and Academic Life, and she was awarded the inaugural UK Global Impact Award for Distinguished Staff Achievements in Education in 2020.

As a fellowships advisor, Whitlow has served nationally on review panels for the Gilman Study Abroad Scholarship, the Critical Language Scholarship, the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange and the American Association of University Women Fellowships. Recently, she was asked to serve on the advisory board for CLIME: Consortium for Language and International Major’s Experiences. Whitlow has also served as a board member for the Lexington Children’s Theatre and a longtime court appointed special advocate for children in foster care who have active cases in Fayette County Family Court.

To learn more about UK Office of Nationally Competitive Awards, visit their website at or visit their office in person at 219 Funkhouser Building.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.