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Joel Dobben: Former Jones Scholar gives back as ambassador for Emory

When admission counselor Joel Dobben meets with prospective students to describe the depth and breadth of a liberal arts education at Emory, he speaks from deep experience.

On his way to graduating summa cum laude in 2012 with a bachelor of arts degree in English, he competed on Emory's award-winning men's swimming team and produced a senior thesis that tackled the complexities of desire in Victorian literary characters. Dobben’s leadership, academic excellence, and interest in Renaissance poetry led to his selection as one of four seniors to receive the signature Robert T. Jones Jr. Scholarship.

The Bobby Jones Scholarship is one of Emory’s most prestigious honors, bestowed on students who exemplify Jones’ characteristics of leadership, integrity, and friendship. As a Jones Scholar, Dobben was funded for a year of study at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he earned a master's degree in Shakespeare and Renaissance literary culture, with a distinction in the dissertation element. 

In his story, prospective students can see that type of opportunities for them at Emory. Dobben also engages in reunions and efforts to raise awareness and affinity to the program. He also is an annual donor to the Robert T. Jones Scholars Program, to ensure that future students carry the Jones name and prestige.

“Philanthropy makes students think things are possible that they otherwise wouldn’t think are,” Dobben says. “My year at St. Andrews made me more expansive and open to more experiences. I learned to love the idea of the unknown and the joy of having options and figuring out where a path will take you.”

A great incoming class and the next Jones Scholars

The experience in Scotland made Dobben better prepared to help recruit the stellar Class of 2020 to Emory College.

These incoming students, as a whole, value academic excellence. Beyond improved test scores—average SATs were up 15 points over last year, marking the highest ever for Emory College of Arts and Sciences —Dobben and fellow admission officers also saw students who exemplified a sense of academic engagement, preparation, talent, and scholarship potential.

Recently, as Dobben recruited top prospects to Emory’s Class of 2020, the university announced the next class of Bobby Jones Scholars: Emory College seniors Laila Atalla, Adam Goldstein, Hannah Rose Blakeley, and Lucky Khambouneheuang. 

This scholarship was established in 1976 and recognizes individuals who will be excellent representatives of Emory at St. Andrews. Jones (1902-1971) was an internationally renowned golfer and an Emory University School of Law alumnus known as an extraordinary man of rare loyalty, compassion and integrity.

Each Bobby Jones Scholar receives full tuition, room, board, and a travel stipend for their year of study. In addition, four St. Andrews students are chosen to spend a year at Emory. Jones Scholars are selected based on their established records of leadership, academic excellence, and interests that can be pursued through the offerings at St. Andrews.

A new corps of Emory ambassadors

As a Jones Scholar, Dobben considered himself an ambassador for Emory to St. Andrews. In his current job at Emory, he manages Emory's student ambassadors—about 270 current students who serve as volunteer tour guides and hosts for thousands of prospective students.

It's a critical role, Dobben says—a chance for prospective students to learn about Emory through a peer lens and peek into life on the campus and in the classroom. During one week in late March alone, students guided tours for some 3,000 visitors.

"Our ambassadors are able to talk about their personal experiences, telling their own stories and conveying information about student life here, from their favorite classes and opportunities for research to extracurricular activities—it totally runs the gamut," he says.

"For visitors, it offers an authentic experience," Dobben adds. "Everyone in the office is committed to that goal, but to get that personal voice and perspective, you need to engage with current undergraduates so new students can project themselves into that role."

Sharing the Emory experience 

In addition, Dobben works in the field, traveling six to eight weeks out of the year talking to students in San Diego and northern California, where students are showing a growing interest in Emory. He also provides an initial read on about 1,000 student applications from the region.

"I try to build relationships there, meeting with high school counselors, giving presentations about Emory, and talking about the academic culture here, our values, and the admission process," he says.

His work takes him back to his own college selection process. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Dobben was homeschooled through the 8th grade. "My mom was a CPA who thought she could do a better job," he explains.

He arrived at Emory in 2008 "impressed by the breadth of opportunity in the sciences and students engaged in the humanities," Dobben says. "It really felt like a liberal arts community, even though it was also a nationally ranked research university."

"And it was a friendly campus," he recalls. "I could tell people enjoyed being here."

As an English major, "the faculty here were both very approachable and fostered in me a real passion for literature and the values of the liberal arts education," he adds.

"I still feel the physical classroom is this magical place where people from all different backgrounds and perspectives can talk, which is so wonderful. A big part of the work of the admission office starts with our faculty."

Welcomed home to Emory

Those who worked with Dobben as a student at Emory are happy to see him bring his talents back to campus.

"The Bobby Jones awards only go to students who successfully engage with the community at Emory, as well as succeed academically," says English professor Sheila Cavanagh, who came to know him through her work directing the summer British Studies Program in Oxford, United Kingdom. “Joel was a wonderful choice, and it is a delight to have him back on campus.”

The Jones Scholarship changed Dobben in other profound ways. He became less perfectionistic and more emotionally intelligent as well as a better listener and friend able to empower others.

In Scotland, he joined international classmates from many socioeconomic classes in deep, spontaneous conversations about independence, politics, culture, literature, film, and more.  The dialogue shifted his perspective to a more global one.

“That’s been really crucial to the work in admissions,” he says. “The versatility that you get from being with different people and constituencies came from my experience as a Jones Scholar. It was a continuation of the really wonderful education that I got from Emory.”

Now he is taking what Emory invested in him and sharing it with others. By promoting the benefits of an Emory education as an admission officer, Dobben is working to help improve lives and eventually the wider community.

"I feel as if I am really living a life of service," he says. "The people here, be it friends or faculty, have done so much for me. This is a way of giving back, and that feels really satisfying."

To support the Robert T. Jones Scholars Program, contact Robin Harpak at 404.712.9341  

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