University Scholars Program

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The University Scholars Program (USP) is an interdisciplinary, intergenerational community of scholars at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. The program supports creative exploration of the various interactions between different fields, paradigms, and methods of analysis.


The University Scholars Program was created in 1998 by the Office of the Vice Provost of Interdisciplinary Studies with a gift of $20 million from Duke University Trustee Emerita Melinda French Gates and her husband Bill Gates, through the William H. Gates Foundation, now called the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Melinda French Gates graduated from Duke University with a double major in computer science and economics in 1986 and an MBA from Duke's Fuqua School of Business in 1987. The University Scholars Program at Duke was the first major philanthropic endeavor by the Gates' through the William H. Gates Foundation, prior to the establishment of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The University Scholars Program is the first scholarship program of its kind in the United States. The program offers scholarship support to undergraduate, graduate and professional school students with a focus on interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge. The focus on interdisciplinarity derives in part from Melinda French Gates' own interdisciplinary melding of the fields of computer science, economics, and business, as does its emphasis on inter-generational collaboration and mentoring, given her experience as an undergraduate and professional school student at Duke University.

Significant financial need is one of the primary criteria for consideration by the USP, along with academic excellence and socioeconomic diversity. The USP's combination of financial need, inter-generational scholarship support, and commitment to funding educational opportunities to students from diverse backgrounds provided the preliminary framework for some of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's subsequent philanthropic endeavors, notably the Gates Millennium Scholars, established in 1999 with a $1 billion grant.

The University Scholars Program works closely with the Duke Office of Undergraduate Students and Fellows and is one of several merit scholarships available to matriculating Duke students. It is the only merit scholarship program at Duke that includes a graduate and professional school community along with an undergraduate constituency.


Undergraduate University Scholars are given a grant to cover tuition, room, board, and fees associated with Duke for four years of undergraduate study. Every year, approximately 30 Duke applicants are identified for consideration by the University Scholars Program based their family’s financial need and on their ability to explore new academic horizons. There is no direct application process to the University Scholars Program. Rather, Duke's Office of Undergraduate Admissions forwards those outstanding applicants applying for financial aid to the Office of Undergraduate Scholars and Fellows, who determines suitability for consideration by the USP. A reading committee including the Director of the University Scholars Program along with Duke faculty and advisors evaluates each application in detail. The applicants come to Duke for a finalist weekend in the spring of their high school senior year, during which they stay with current University Scholars, explore Duke, attend classes, and conduct an interview with a panel of faculty, graduate students, professional school students, and undergraduate students associated with the USP. According to the USP website, scholars “represent a range of personal and intellectual backgrounds and share an excitement for original research, collaborative thinking, and innovative scholarship.”

Undergraduate scholars are also given the opportunity to use up to 7000 dollars for a summer enrichment program. Valid enrichment programs help the scholar grow intellectually and help the scholar prepare for a career, graduate school, or a senior thesis. The funding must be used for costs associated with travel, program fees, and living expenses.

Graduate University Scholars receive tuition support for the first year of graduate school. They are selected from the top applicants to individual graduate programs at Duke University by departmental Directors of Graduate Studies who nominate and rank graduate applicants for several merit scholarship available to graduate student. These graduate merit scholarships include Duke's J.B. Duke Scholarship, the Dean's Graduate Award Fellowship, and/or the W.H. Gardner Society of Engineering Fellowship. The Graduate School reviews the nominations and provides details to the Director of the University Scholars Program. The USP Director selects graduate students based on a clear interdisciplinary agenda for graduate study along with experience or potential for mentoring undergraduate students. Graduate students participate in the University Scholars Program throughout their tenure at Duke. They are eligible to apply for additional funding to support travel and participation in interdisciplinary conferences as well as a Graduate Mentor Award for outstanding commitment and mentoring within the University Scholars Program.

Professional School University Scholars also receive tuition support for the first year of professional school study. Professional school University Scholars are chosen by each of Duke's seven professional schools: The Divinity School, the Fuqua School of Business, the Nicholas School of the Environment, the School of Law, the School of Medicine, the School of Nursing, and the Sanford School of Public Policy. Many professional school University Scholars pursue joint degrees with other professional schools at Duke or within the Graduate School. They similarly demonstrate significant financial need, academic merit, and socioeconomic diversity. Like graduate students in the University Scholars Program, professional school students also participate in the USP throughout their time at Duke. They are also eligible to apply for interdisciplinary conference travel funding and the USP Graduate Mentor Award.


The University Scholars have a variety of activities to help develop a community of friendliness and intellectual discussion. Each fall, all USP scholars (sometimes called “Unis”) take a 2-day weekend retreat to discuss the principles of the program and the goals for the year. Throughout the semester, the USP hosts numerous seminars led by USP scholars or faculty members. Additionally, informal “coffees” are arranged to facilitate discussion of non-academic issues of interest, ranging from organic farming in Europe to senior theses.

Each spring, the USP holds a daylong symposium that explores a specific topic from the perspective of a variety of disciplines. This typically involves a keynote speaker followed by panels of University Scholars who discuss a certain aspect of the topic from the perspective of their respective disciplines.

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