US Rhodes Scholars chosen virtually for the first time

Education | Stephen Groves 24 Nov 2020

For the first time, the US Rhodes Scholars were elected virtually this year as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe - though that didn't extinguish enthusiasm among the 32 students who won scholarships to Oxford University.

The winners included 22 students of color.

Shera Avi-Yonah, a 22-year-old Harvard University student, said she found out about her win while sitting in her parent's basement in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

"A wave of gratitude washed over me,'' she said, adding that she ran upstairs to tell her parents. "I'm going to have a very happy Thanksgiving.''

The winners were chosen from a pool of more than 2,300 applicants - of which 953 were endorsed by 288 different colleges and universities to study at Oxford University in England.

Avi-Yonah is planning to study history at Oxford, comparing the libel laws of the United States and United Kingdom. She is a reporter at the Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper, and has been the subject of several lawsuits for various stories - prompting her interest in press freedom. She hopes to become a journalist after she finishes her studies.

Sixteen committees from the Rhodes Trust invited the strongest applicants to interview virtually. The committees then made their selection of two students from each district.

The group of scholarship recipients includes a student from Southern Connecticut State University and a student from the University of California, Santa Cruz - the first time either university has been represented.

Hattie Seten, a senior at South Dakota State University, was the first Rhodes Scholar from her university in 68 years. She said she wasn't sure "if I would fit what a Rhodes Scholar looks like" and felt some apprehension about applying from a public university in a mostly rural area.

But she focused her application on what she called a strong moral sense of character and highlighted the leadership she had taken on campus, including navigating the coronavirus pandemic. When the selection committee named her one of the scholarship recipients on a Zoom meeting, she said: "I was so surprised, I started crying. I would have never expected something like this.''

Asma Rahimyar, a 20-year-old senior at Southern Connecticut State University, is the first-ever Rhodes winner from that institution. The daughter of parents who emigrated from Afghanistan, Rahimyar was raised in Trumbull, Connecticut and grew up listening to her parents' stories of war-torn Kabul. She hopes to earn two master's degrees, one in forced migration and refugee studies and one in global governance and diplomacy, with an eye toward a career in international human rights law.

She said she was still marveling at having won the scholarship. "It's all still very new and very surreal.''

Scholarship winners expressed incredulity at hearing they would be Rhodes Scholars - a distinction that has launched the careers of famous politicians, academics, scientists and journalists.

"I'm still in shock,'' said Brian Reyes, 21, of the Bronx. "It's nice to actually see my name on the Rhodes website and have it confirmed that it's real."

The history major at Yale University is the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. He is a student counselor who has been living on campus and taking his classes online. He is planning on a two-year degree program in comparative social policy and a career in the government or the nonprofit sector.

Associated Press

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