Scholarship conundrum

If you won a $20,000 scholarship, how much money would you expect to receive? For Concordia diploma student Shannon Smith Houle, it was a question she had never contemplated before winning the 2002 Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) Graduate Science Writer Scholarship. Unfortunately, Smith Houle will only be receiving half of the $20,000 award.

Every year the scholarship is awarded by the CIHR, a federal agency, to graduate students across the country who have prior degrees relating to human health and who are taking additional courses in the fields of journalism or communications. According to the criteria on the CIHR web site, the scholarship aims to “increase the number of Canadian science writers engaged in communicating the findings and implications of health research.”

After having completed the required forms and submitting a portfolio of relevant work, Smith Houle was notified in August that she was one of the recipients of this year’s prestigious scholarship. “I was very excited but they said there would be a bit of a wait because of all the paperwork,” explained Smith Houle.

In November when she finally received the paperwork, she noticed irregularities and mistakes with some of the dates listed. She contacted the person in charge of administering the graduate scholarships at Concordia and was shocked to learn that she would not be receiving the total amount she had won.

“She said that the payments were made out monthly and because I finished school in April, that I would loose the second half of the scholarship,” she said. The story did not sit well with Smith Houle. She decided to contact the CIHR personally to sort out any misunderstanding.

The problem, she was told, was the fact that her graduate program in journalism started in June unlike many programs whose start date is in September. She was told by the CIHR that although she was completing a full diploma program, she was not eligible to receive the payments retroactively for the time she had already spent in school nor was she allowed to receive any payments once she had completed the graduate program.

Smith Houle maintains that the dates she would be in school were very clearly indicated on her application form but that nobody notified her of the conflict the dates posed.

When the Concordian contacted the department of the CIHR responsible for administering Smith Houle’s scholarship, they could offer no explanation into how these dates had been overlooked. The person responsible for Smith Houle’s file, Annik Pilon, said that since she had only recently started working for the CIHR she was unaware of the particulars her case. The CIHR scholarship supervisor Allison Jackson did not return the Concordian’s phone calls.

Nobody at the CIHR office in Ottawa would comment on why Smith Houle was not going to be receiving all the money she was eligible for by their standards, just over $13,000. This amounts to two-thirds of that total award value, which she is eligible for after having attended school for two-thirds of the scholarship’s required time.

“Even by their math I should be getting two-thirds because they start paying out in September and it has been eight months,” explained Smith Houle. “But that is not what I am getting, I am only getting half.”

For now, Smith Houle’s only option to gain access to her full award money is to register for a full course load of summer classes. It is not an option that she is intent on using, except as a last resort.

“I had budgeted that money,” said Smith Houle, “I was counting on having it.”


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