Clemson University Honors College

Frank A. Burtner award winner goes above and beyond for students


Every Clemson University student who wins a major fellowship or award, such as a Fulbright, Goldwater or even the Rhodes, has worked with – and learned from – Robyn Curtis.

Curtis, the director of the Office of Major Fellowships on campus, is this year’s recipient of the University’s Frank A. Burtner Award for Excellence in Advising. The award recognizes a faculty or staff member who excels in developing students in the areas of leadership, devotion to duty and service while serving as an adviser to students or student organizations (academic or non-academic).

I am honored to have even been nominated for the Burtner award by my colleagues and students. I feel incredibly lucky to have a job that allows me to do such meaningful work with absolutely amazing students and it just means the world to have my efforts recognized in this way.

Robyn curtis, clemson university office of major fellowships DIRECTOR

Curtis arrived at Clemson in 2018 to open the Office of Major Fellowships as its first full-time fellowships adviser. The office serves the entire University student population, including recent alumni, guiding and preparing them to compete for highly prestigious scholarships and fellowships.

Curtis said her career is a “happy accident” that started when she was recruited to a fellowship adviser position at the University of Southern Mississippi.

2022 Frank A. Burtner award recipient Robyn Curtis posing with her award and Stephen Wainscott, former director of the Clemson University Honors College.
Clemson University Office of Major Fellowships Director Robyn Curtis posing with Stephen Wainscott, faculty emeritus and former director of the Honors College, at the Spring 2022 employee awards ceremony.

“Until then, I had no idea that there were universities who had staff devoted to assisting students in scholarship competitions,” said Curtis. “Fourteen years later and I cannot imagine a more fulfilling career path. It truly is the job I never knew I always wanted!”

As the number of students served continues to grow, Curtis’s office has expanded to include an assistant director, a graduate assistant adviser and an administrative assistant.

In the four years since the office’s inception, Clemson students have won almost every major national award or fellowship. Her office’s accomplishments include a Rhodes Scholar, a Gates Cambridge Scholar (and 2 additional finalists), a POINT Scholar, a Knight Hennessy Scholar, 2 Truman Scholars (and 4 additional finalists), 11 Goldwater Scholars, 14 Fulbright Scholars (and 7 alternates), and 87 Gilman Scholars, among many other major fellowships and awards.

Curtis is also an active member of the National Association of Fellowships Advisors, with a focus on the growth of the profession and the services it provides to students. From 2013-2017 she was a member of the executive board and from 2017-2021 she served consecutive terms as Secretary (one of four elected officer positions). Through these roles she served on nearly every conference and workshop committee. While chairing the Best Practices committee she led the development of a structure for offering ad hoc advising for students at campuses without a fellowship adviser (expected to launch this summer), among other achievements.

This year alone, she is co-chairing a Truman advisor mentoring program, chair of a pro bono advising and awards subcommittee for the organization’s Best Practices committee and is the lead organizer for the 2022 New Advisor Workshop.

William Lasser, Executive Director of the Clemson University Honors College, says that Curtis’s success is due to her focus on the student’s personal and professional growth, instead of the scholarship or fellowship they are hoping to win.

Robyn works closely with students over time, finding out what interests them most and then guiding them towards opportunities and activities that help them build knowledge and experience in those areas. As a result, the students she advises are more competitive for major awards and fellowships, but they are also stronger academics and professionals.

William Lasser, Executive Director of the Clemson University Honors College

Daniel Custer, a mechanical engineering alumnus who is now pursuing his Ph.D. at Stanford University, worked with Curtis on five major fellowship applications.

Although he didn’t win his first round of applications, Custer used that experience to work with Curtis to strengthen his application the following year.

Those efforts paid off. Last year, he received a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation, an award he says was in large part due to Curtis’s help, encouragement and counsel.

Robyn went above and beyond to provide kind, timely, and honest feedback to best prepare me to succeed. It was clear that helping students have the best opportunities for funding and graduate education is a priority in her life.

clemson university alumnus daniel custer

Custer met with Curtis several times to assess his qualifications and strengths to determine which fellowship programs he could be most competitive in.

Clemson University alumnus Daniel Custer on Stanford Law School campus.
Daniel Custer said that his work with Curtis on fellowship applications was formative.

Then they worked on building his resume, by figuring out what projects and experiences were most likely to make him a well-rounded candidate for those fellowship opportunities.

Curtis also gave Custer valuable advice to build his application, helping him craft effective essays and a compelling resume. She worked with him to identify opportunities to strengthen his research, work and community experience, even after he graduated in spring 2020.

Custer said that winning a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation expanded his graduate school options, giving him increased flexibility and autonomy when choosing which lab to join and what projects he wanted to be involved with at Stanford. Custer is currently working with Dr. Fritz Prinz’s Nanoscale Prototyping Laboratory to develop advanced energy storage technologies.

He recommends students and alumni interested in pursuing fellowships reach out to the Office of Major Fellowships, as the benefits go far beyond a win.

“Working on these fellowships was a formative experience that honed my communication skills and developed a self-confidence that has benefitted me greatly outside of just the fellowship process,” said Custer. “Also, the OMF will be realistic, seeking your success. Robyn helped me select fellowships that I was well-suited for and then always matched my effort to produce a high-quality final application.”

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