The Rhodes and
Finding a photocopier in Chiapas, Mexico
I have great success not winning scholarships, so my experience with the Rhodes and Marshall application may not be the model you want to follow. In the end I had a wonderful time because of the support and intellectual challenges given to me by Ken Brashier, and the unique experience of spending time with exemplary students whose lives were inspirational to me. I suppose the only thing missing was the scholarship for graduate study (in Economics and Political Science, with a focus on Economics of Developing Countries) but from where I sit right now, I’m okay without it.
After graduating in May, I took off on a month-long road trip and a vacation from any thought about the Rhodes and Marshall. When I returned to Portland I made dates with myself to sit down and write my personal statement, but the situation of being in between school and work, Portland and Chiapas, left me feeling increasingly insecure about writing down my ‘statement’ with any degree of certainty. I believe that anytime a personal statement is written it is a draft, no matter how many times it gets rewritten. (Am I a political science student with an interest in photography or a photographer with an interest in political science? And why is photography so important to me? And does photography ever really affect anyone? And what is important to me anyway? These questions that came up in the process of writing my personal statement were not answered and moved beyond—I’m still thinking about them.) The personal statement is hard to write, but enlist the help of a few well chosen editors and be prepared to draft your text over and over and over again.
After however many trips to Ken Brashier’s office,
cups of coffee from the fancy new Paradox (closest to Ken’s office) and
reams and reams of drafts, I almost had it finished. I found the statement of
academic interest the most difficult, simply because I have never been sure that one particular course of student fit me perfectly. I handed in another
draft to Ken and then in August I was on a plane to my new job in Chiapas,
Flash forward to Chiapas,
I flew back to the
The state interviews
A fabulous group of students was selected for interviews at the state level, and I was surprised to find that none appeared to be the overbearing, brown-nosing candidate that I had read about on this very website. Our dinner was pleasant, and—at least at my table—no one dominated the conversation or tried to intimidate another candidate. I was relieved to have one of the first interviews the next morning (I’m one of those people who likes early mornings.) I felt improbably successful at my state interview, which included questions like:
So, how was Chiapas? What do you miss most about it? (Luckily, I knew about Chiapas, the economic problems facing its residents, the dialogue surrounding the attributes and the shortcomings of the Zapatistas, the dynamic between Chol, Tzotil, and Tzetal speakers, and, of course, about my own experience.)
If you were Colin Powell in the current Bush administration, what would you do?
Why Reed? (Ah, the recurring “Why Reed” question. If you don’t have an answer for this question by now, then you need to formulate one. I find that my answer changes ever day, but I always have one.)
What do you regret most about your undergraduate career?
Tell us about your thesis.
If we gave you $100.00 right now, what would you do with it? (I think about the way I answered this question, and realize that my answer, while not particularly noble, nor particularly creative, was honest. At the time, I said that I’d buy a bunch of sandwiches (really, I said ‘a bunch of sandwiches’ in front of this distinguished committee) and drive around Oregon with my friends who I hadn’t seen since my departure for Chiapas. I had missed them, and wanted to talk to all of them; that’s truly how I felt at that moment and I’m glad I didn’t make something up to feel virtuous. Sandwiches.)
I spent the bulk of the day playing board games with the other candidates, enjoying their company, and giving them tours around Reed. It was remarkable how nice the other students were. When the committee came into our room after their deliberation, it felt as if a party was being broken up. Three of us were directed over to a table with some documents to read and sign, and the rest left the Gray Center. I went home and made plane reservations for San Francisco.
The regional interviews
The regional interviews brought together a formidable
group of students and judges who amazed me with their intelligence, their
achievement, and their strength of beliefs. I can’t think of another time
in my life where I felt so overwhelmed by a group of strangers. The students
were truly superlative, and I felt lucky to be in their company. Over the two
days we spent together I heard passionate discussions of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the new Eminem album, and extraordinary stories of
what these students were doing with their lives. Who put me in this group?
I’ve never been a long-distance runner, double majoring in pre-med and
international relations, nor have I started a non-profit with Microsoft to
supply low-income schools with the technologies they need. I have not studied
So, what would the impact of massive immigration be on the mean, median, and average income of American citizens? (I dodged this a little as I wracked my brain for a recollection of my intro econ notes. I asked about what kind of immigration I was meant to consider, and then gave some answers for the case of an influx of skilled versus unskilled laborers, and discussed the sectors of the labor economy that might be affected the most in each case. This dragged out for a while. Until I got another volley of econ-related questions. I finally admitted that there were answers I didn’t know, and perhaps this was why I was interested in studying economics at Oxford. Because I still have a lot to learn. Frivolous answer, but my answer nonetheless.)
I see that you took a class called ‘History and Theory of the Museum’ your sophomore year. How would you characterize the exhibitionary context of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles? (Dumb luck that I knew anything about this topic, but my best friend worked at the MJT, and had invited its inventor to Reed for RAW the year before, plus I had read the book about it in my Museum class. I credit Laura Hendrickson with my eloquent answer to this question, my only eloquent answer during the entire interview.)
I have devoted the bulk of my academic career to studying the works of Fredrick Jackson Turner, whose text was the cornerstone of your thesis. What does Turner say about regionalism? (Well, if there’s one thing you know, it’s your thesis.)
Pick your favorite political philosopher, and argue for a
law granting a minimum income to all
Should we provide instruction at public schools in Spanish for non-citizens?
Should we discriminate against the homeless by earmarking their welfare payments for particular goods and services? (This started off a string of mind-boggling normative questions, which were particularly hard to answer but even more difficult to avoid.)
Should we pay reparations for descendants of slaves? (This was the single question I did not want to get, mostly because I have only vague ideas about the answer. I said something about being able to understand both sides of the argument but not having a clear answer myself, and then directed them to one of my fellow candidates, who was writing his thesis on the very same topic.)
What are ‘rights’? What are ‘responsibilities’?
Do you have anything to add? (No, but I should have.)
At this point I was exhausted, but at the same time I felt comfortably done. It was the most difficult interview of my life so far, but I didn’t leave feeling destroyed and ridiculous. I felt as if I had done my best and that my best wasn’t quite good enough, but that was okay. When I got back to the waiting room, we shared stories about difficult questions, and I got the sense that everyone had felt challenged and pushed to their limit. We went out for Thai food, drank some coffee, talked with one another and then, sooner than expected, the judges invited us back to the interview room and called out four names. Hugs were exchanged all around, and those of us who hadn’t won walked to the elevators and then out the doors. I wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t won, but at the same time I felt a little, inevitable, pang of disappointment in myself. I listened to some Spanish music on the radio in my hotel room, took off my dress shoes and put on my jeans. I thought about the wonderful people I had met, and then, in the morning, after brunch with an old friend, I got on a plane and flew back to Portland.
Overall, the experience was valuable to me. It is true that I don’t have a particularly brilliant track record of winning the scholarships I apply for. Nevertheless, the experience of meeting a group of my peers so outstanding that the element of competition faded away and the impulse to conversation prevailed was extremely rewarding. Working with professors I admire to perfect my application was also a benefit of the process. Losing was fine too, and winning would have been great, but you can’t do either if you don’t apply in the first place.
I believe that the right Reed student has a strong chance to win a Rhodes or a Marshall, and encourage anyone with interest to pursue the chance, and not to compromise themselves in the process. If your answer to a question involves sandwiches, and your heart says ‘I want sandwiches’, then better to talk about sandwiches than to make up something you think will make you sound Rhodes-worthy. The four students from my region who won were undoubtedly deserving, and won in large part because, from what I saw, they were just being themselves: smart, genuine, inspired students. Putting yourself in a room of students like those is worth the time and tedious effort of the applications. That was my experience.
Christ Church, Oxford