One wants to save the bees. Another desires restorative justice for at-risk high school students. These two and many other Washington State University alumni benefited from distinguished scholarships, such as Fulbrights, that gave them a global perspective.

The first distinguished scholarship at Washington State College, a Rhodes Scholarship, took Spokane native and future leader in the US Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce Shirl Hyde Blalock to the University of Oxford in 1907. Since his pioneering achievement, 345 Washington State students have been recognized as distinguished scholars.

While the Rhodes is hailed as the oldest international postgraduate award, additional prestigious and highly competitive scholarships have emerged⁠—such as the Fulbright, Goldwater, Udall, Marshall, Truman, Schwarzman, and Gilman⁠—to meet distinct US and global priorities. The Goldwater addresses the need for highly qualified professionals in STEM fields, the Fulbright expands perspectives through academic advancement and cross-cultural dialogue, and the Udall fosters education in Native American health care, tribal policy, and the environment.

WSU helps students apply for the awards through the Distinguished Scholarships Program. Since its establishment within the Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement in 2011, students have honed their applications with staff help. Program director April Seehafer (’93 English) works with applicants to understand their goals, the paths to accomplish them, and how those goals benefit the state, nation, and world.

The program has significantly elevated the number of WSU’s distinguished scholarships. After the first Fulbright recipient in 1949, one-third of all Fulbrights awarded at WSU have come since the Distinguished Scholarships Program began. There were five WSU Fulbright recipients in 2022, the largest number in a single year for the university.


KATE ZUMSTEG—2022 Fulbright

MELANIE KIRBY—2019 Fulbright–National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship

JULIAN J. REYES—2011 Fulbright


MATT JONES—2016 Fulbright

DAPHNE WEBER—2022 Fulbright-Hays Scholarship


Physics doctoral student Justin Niedermeyer (’16 Physics, Music, German) wants to understand how the universe functions. As an atomic or quantum physicist, he can also research quantum computation to solve important mathematical problems that conventional computing can’t solve very efficiently.

While a WSU undergraduate, Niedermeyer helped make electromagnetic coils that, along with laser beams, were used to trap and cool atoms to slow their movement so that their quantum mechanical properties could be observed.

Niedermeyer portraitJustin Niedermeyer (WSM staff illustration)

Many of the same tools were employed in his ultracold atomic physics project as a Fulbright U.S. Student scholar at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. There, he built the first version of a laser system that imaged ultracold lithium atoms in different quantum mechanical states.  The Fulbright experience boosted his research skills and allowed him to attend his first large research conference and network with others in his field.

Niedermeyer is pursuing a doctorate in physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He participated in molecular physics research doing spectroscopy at a joint institute of the university and the nearby National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), although he’s now focused on atomic physics.

“Many of the same skills and techniques I learned at WSU and while on my Fulbright—such as how to operate a laser and use it in research, how to write computer code to control experiments, or even just how to read a research paper—I use every day in my research at NIST,” says Niedermeyer. “I would not be successful without those experiences.”

He also made lifelong friends during his Fulbright.

“I sang in a choral ensemble in Germany and met a mathematical physicist there who grew up in Pullman. It turns out the physics world is small and the WSU community is huge!”

Niedermeyer considers the people he met in Germany to be the most valuable part of his Fulbright.

“You never know where all of your connections might lead you.”