The Rhodes and
Marshall Scholarships

Amanda L.


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, Mexico , with a hard copy and a copy on disk of my application, still a work in progress.

Flash forward to Chiapas, Mexico : I’m sitting on the bus, clutching my thirteen copies of my applications, painstakingly formatted and typeset using a whole lot of tape and whiteout. Lesson learned: it is not impossible to finish an application in a developing country, and it may even be preferable to do so. By the time my 8-hour bus ride to and from the major city was done, I didn’t really care one way or another whether I made it to the state interviews. I had been given the chance to practice my Spanish in one of the few shops with a copier, developed a relationship with the owner of the internet café, and been given time away from my job to just sit and watch the landscape out of the bus window. I felt disconnected from many of the steps of the process, and uncertain about whether or not I would ever hear from Dean Marvin Henberg from Linfield. Internet access was fairly reliable where I was living, but there was no clear timeline to the decisions. My ability to cope with living in a place where news moves slow was helped considerably by both Ken Brashier and Jo Cannon—they were wonderfully supportive as I’d call from a pay phone on the corner of the street, telling me that yes, they had received that letter of recommendation, and yes, my application would be sent off, and yes, it was raining in Portland, and I would find out soon enough. Finishing my applications thousands of miles away from Portland was in many ways less stressful than prior application processes; no one really knew what I was doing, and there was no way for my coworkers to identify with the prestige of these programs, so I didn’t engage in much of the “have you heard yet” conversations I was used to at Reed. I was the only one who cared about what I was doing, and as soon as my applications were in the mail, I almost forget about them.

I flew back to the U.S. when I learned about the Rhodes interviews (no Marshall interview for me) and had two practice interviews. The first was with Ken and Wally Englert and the second was with two Reed-affiliated lawyers downtown, who were tough and engaging, and ultimately became involved in an argument about whether I was better suited to a law degree or a degree in public policy. Listening to their discussion was particularly interesting to me. The process of applying for the Rhodes or Marshall puts you in contact with people you might not otherwise meet, and a huge benefit of practice interviews is being able to get feedback about your answers and your methods of approaching questions. The practice interviews were an important part of the process, not least because I realized I was still able to speak English at length, something I had not done in months. I felt more or less ready for the dinner party and interviews. Following the Derek Lyons formula of success, I took a great deal of satisfaction in ironing my skirts and shirts, and recommend that kind of ritual to anyone who finds it appealing.

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 economics in Cuba , nor have I memorized Joyce’s Ulysses, such that I could offer a reading of any chapter using the methodologies of any school of literary analysis. I was in awe of these students, and felt that if the committee decided to choose the four scholars by drawing names from a hat, that would have been fair. My interview was hard—much harder than my state interview.

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 U.S. citizens. (Whew. John Rawls, veil of ignorance, something something, next question.)

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

Christ Church, Oxford


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