Paying for school is a perennial pain in the ass. Although students have thousands of scholarship options, from the niche to the general, the massive to the tiny, competition is fierce. But if you happen to be a fan of the Star Trek franchise—a "trekker" as many acolytes of the shows and films preferred to be called, not "trekkie"—your quest for cash might not be so hopeless. Starfleet International (SFI), founded in 1974 and arguably the world's largest trekker society, offers several yearly scholarships for fans, meaning all the hours you've clocked with Captain Kirk over the years could finally pay off.
Awarded every summer since 1990, SFI scholarships currently pay out $1,000 per winner. The organization offers five separate scholarships (in the arts; business, education, or language studies; engineering, medicine, or veterinarian medicine; or, as a catch-all-award, one for miscellaneous fields) for students enrolled in accredited higher education programs around the world. The applications are reviewed and voted upon by a committee of SFI members and short and general. They only ask one brief question about your involvement in the trekker community and make no requests that your scholarship be tied to Star Trek. Trekker community involvement, according to the fund's current manager and 20-plus-year trekker Tammy Wilcox, is mostly used as a tiebreaker between applicants. Their only stringent requirement is that applicants should have been members of SFI for at least a year before applying.A thousand bucks may not seem like a lot of money when compared to a full-ride scholarship or the overall cost of a year at a private American college—$32,405 as of this academic year. For comparison, there are other, better-paying weird scholarships out there, such as a $1,500 stipend from the Kitsap Quilters awarded to Washington-based students working on fabric science or a $3,000 scholarship for students of "grocery sciences" offered by the Asparagus Club. There's even an almost unseemly $10,000 scholarship doled out by the Ayn Rand Institute to those who extol their love for The Fountainhead in an essay.
But the SFI's annual $5,000 endowment is fairly significant for a fan association, especially when you consider it in terms of the tens of thousands the group has allocated in awards over the past quarter century. It's also open to more fields of study than other niche scholarships. Not to mention, it dwarfs the payout of most other general-purpose funds available to the vast majority of students."I'm a graduate student and it's a lot harder to find funding than it is for an undergraduate," says Michael Denman, an environmental geographer at Texas A&M University and this year's SFI misc. field scholarship winner. "If you want to go to a conference, publish a paper, everything costs money, so most of us are constantly on the lookout for anything we can find. The SFI scholarship is actually a lot better than the majority of the scholarships my peers go out for. A lot of people were going for scholarships in the $500 range and they were writing a lot more."With just over 4,500 SFI members registered worldwide, the scholarships are not just incredibly general and broad; they're also pretty easy to get. Cappex.com, a site dedicated to connecting students with scholarships, gave the SFI award a "two People" rating, which means it doesn't "have as many applicants as most." It also can make a significant financial difference in a student's life. For Denman, it will allow him to present his thesis to the Association of American Geographers this summer in San Francisco. For Wilcox, who won an award a few years before she became involved with the scholarship's administration, it allowed her to buy books that she couldn't afford. And for Wilcox's daughter, who won an SFI award just over a decade ago, it paid for her entire first year of community college.
The 25-year survival of the scholarship is exceptional, especially when you consider that other broad Star Trek-inspired scholarships have gone belly-up. For about a decade, the Klingon Language Institute, an organization founded in 1992 and dedicated (half-cheekily, half-seriously) to building up the lexicon, speaking base, and translated library of the show's famous invented language, offered a $500 scholarship to any student in the field of linguistics. According to KLI Webmaster Chris Lipscomb (tlhlngan pong, or Klingon name: Qurgh), the scholarship was funded via membership fees and only awarded a few times. For the last decade, though, due to a lack of willpower, funding, and interest dedicated to maintaining the program, despite the existence of a fairly large and dedicated Klingon-speaking community, the KLI scholarship has lapsed out of existence.Initially, the SFI scholarship was able to sustain itself thanks to the proactive involvement of the stars of the shows. In 1990, when the awards were first issued, Wilcox explains that many of them donated photographs or other memorabilia to be auctioned off to fund eponymous awards relevant to their personal interests. But eventually some of the stars died and others abandoned the project."Fandom has changed over the years," explains Wilcox. "Stars like that aren't as personally involved anymore. People are afraid that somebody from the fan club's going to come and shoot them or something like that.. So a lot of [star support] fell off."
Rather than let the award lapse, Wilcox's predecessors started calling for donations from members, hosting regular fundraising events, and offering SFI devotees the option of kicking in a few bucks with their dues. And somehow the sheer goodwill of the community, rather than the largess of a specialist association or some grand donor, has managed to sustain the fund for ages; they have yet to encounter a problem stocking it.Engagement with the scholarships is sporadic at best. Some years the applications come in thick and heavy; other years they don't get applications in every category. This year, they received applicants in just three of five categories. But they don't take this as a signal that applicants feel weird about being associated with a trekker award. Denman for one couldn't wait to tell everyone he knew about his scholarship and claims that no one really cast any shade on him for pursuing or flaunting it."I got a few surprised looks for my cohort," he says. "My advisor got a little pink in the face and smiled real big when I told him why I needed a letter. But if you bring in $1,000—it looks good when people are bringing in resources to the department… Maybe had I not won, it would have been something they made fun of me for."Nor does the organization take haphazard application numbers as a sign that there's low interest in the award. Their pool is small and, Wilcox points out, fandom is cyclical. Most of the original fans of the franchise are no longer in school and younger fans are just getting towards college age. So they expect turbulent numbers, but it means they can build up a nest egg for the future.
In fact, despite its sporadic engagement, the scholarships are actually the lifeblood of the SFI as an organization. A community-building club known more for trivia courses, conferences, and other esoterica, the organization actually depends on the scholarship as part of its justification for its not-for-profit status. It's also an extremely motivating program for those in the trekker community, even if they don't go out for it themselves. Although already bound together by their interests, the power of philanthropy can make an endeavor seem more worthwhile and less self-serving for givers and more beneficial and less tangential to life for receivers."You find yourself looking for hobbies as you get older," says Denman. "I was always a trekker. My parents raised me up on the movies. Finding a group for that [hobby] was great, but then finding that they had scholarships was amazing."The SFI community's commitment to this award, despite its lack of Star Trek specificity, speaks to the unique fandom it embodies. Often viewed as bizarre from the outside, trekkers comprise a community for those who need one. It's kind of sweet to know that if you share your love of targs and tribbles, your fellow Star Trek fanatics will have your back."People are always appreciative of [the awards]," says Wilcox. She pauses briefly then adds: "But everybody [running the scholarship] still wishes that they could do even more."Follow Mark on Twitter.