The Rhodes and
Noah: "Events in my life that seemed haphazardly scattered across the page were now sewn together neatly."
(Regional finalist for Rhodes, 1998)
Though it is difficult for me to think back to my senior year at Reed, already so far removed in place, thought, and time, that final year (wedged between what I would otherwise assume would have been the two most significant years of my adult life-a year abroad in Egypt and my first year of graduate school) had a uniquely profound effect on the course of my life. Perhaps the most significant variable in this altogether hectic year was my nomination, application, and subsequent failure in the Rhodes, Marshall and Fullbright scholarship competitions. It was these three processes (which I now group as one, when thinking back on last year), out of everything that occurred that year, that shaped where I am today.
I want to begin by exploring the rewards I gained from being involved in the scholarship process. Though the benefits are only part of the story, it will be helpful to begin by discussing them, for it is only in relation to what I gained that one may gauge the importance of what I lost. Then I will turn to a few details
Understanding the plot of your own narrative
The most significant lesson that the scholarship process taught me was how to visualize and communicate my goals. Being that Reed gives one a serenely impractical education, absorbing the student in the life of the mind, it is often difficult to move beyond the ivory bubble and begin to think about how the abstract tools with which Reed has endowed you can be applied to the "real" world. The scholarship process forced me to question and examine every aspect my life, sculpting it into a coherent narrative whose climax cohered in the Noah of today, and whose goals could best be realized (or at least this is what I tried to convince the respective scholarship judges) if I were to succeed in my scholarship dreams. Events in my life that seemed haphazardly scattered across the page were now sewn together neatly. I began to understand why I became involved in the projects that I did, and like any careful reader, I began to interpret the subtleties and recognize the foreshadowing. By understanding the plot of my own narrative, I was more clearly able (and still am) to direct my subsequent moves. I don’t claim to have gained any sort of epiphany about what I wanted from life out of the scholarship process. Instead, the greatest reward was that I was given the critical tools by which I could examine my life and my goals, tools which I use now everyday. Also, the scholarship process taught me how to communicate these goals to a diverse audience. This, too, has been immensely helpful. When it came time to write my graduate school admissions essays, I did so with my eyes nearly shut, as I was so comfortable putting my aspirations into words.
Be prepared for life after the scholarship process
Yet, there was much negative about my experience as well. I have a tendency to get involved in academic projects over my head, with an "all or nothing" attitude. I had the idea that if I worked hard enough to "perfect" my applications, interview style, etc, there was no way I could lose. Well, I lost, and I was left with few options. What I should have done next was to finish my thesis and worry about next year over the summer, but I had become so obsessive about my next step due to the scholarship process that I jumped into the obvious path–graduate school. Exhausted, I put together two applications to graduate school in a couple of days. Ironically, I was so worn-out that all the critical tools that I had gained from the scholarship process fell to the wayside, and I jumped into graduate school with little thought. The support system for scholarship applicants at Reed is fantastic (from Jo Cannon’s tireless assistance with all the details of the process, to every member of the committees’ assistance with getting each student prepared, from the career center’s cosmetic surgery on the sometimes rugged Reed character, to Ken Brashier’s selfless mentoring), but it does lack one crucial thing. There is no safety net for students if and when they fail. The committee does need to understand that the student who has spent the first half of his/her senior year focusing so heavily on the scholarship process has not had the time to think critically about "what do I do if I don’t win." Though I was a perfectly willing subject, the committee (indeed the nature of the scholarship process) asked of me an amazing investment of time. The committee owes it to students who have spent so much time in service of the Reed community (as scholarships certainly are mutually beneficial to the student’s career’s and Reed’s reputation) to give them some sort of individualized attention following the process in order to help them move forward from their defeat.
Some details -- on current events and cocktails
I felt very prepared for the Rhodes competition. The mock interviews and the time I spent writing out answers to potential questions were central to the success that I did have. Though the questions that the Rhodes judges asked were not necessarily on the topics I would have liked to discuss, it was often not difficult to latch on to an otherwise disparate strand of their question and tie the conversation back to something in which you were interested. A word of advice for future candidates would be to be ready with clear and well thought out answers about a variety of topics that interest you (both about that which is connected to your goals and about current events). Another preparation technique that I did which was helpful was keeping well read in contemporary media. I read the NY Times, the Economist, The Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, the Oregonian (useful for the state round) in the weeks preceding my interview. I tried to read articles in which I was not necessarily interested as well as those that I would normally read. This process was very helpful as many of the questions I was asked at the states and the finals were on current events.
The section of the Rhodes process where I had the most success (and which won me the state nomination, as my interview was completely terrible) was the dinner. The dinner gives the student a chance to lead the conversation, to push it in any direction he or she wishes. Further, the structure of the dinner itself, with the judges rotating among the tables, allows the student to impress each judge in turn. It is useful at this stage to engage the judges and not simply wait for them to ask you questions. Because of the informality of the setting it is also possible to challenge the judges about their own ideas (in a humble and measured manner, of course), a tactic which seemed to be successful for me as one judge asked me to repeat the argument I had presented to him at the dinner table at the beginning of my interview. I enjoyed the dinner and felt relaxed and confident--it was this mind set that ensured my success here.
As I mentioned above, my state interviews were terrible. Besides the initial
question concerning the ideas I expressed the night before, NOT ONE question
focused on anything included in my personal statement. The questions were all
over the place ("you lived in
The finals were a totally different story. The first section of the finals was the cocktail party, an event at which I felt very awkward. Instead of the comforting order of the dinner, here we were forced to make ourselves known to the judges in haphazard manner. People pushed themselves into conversations, appearing out of nowhere with seemingly random inquiry. I often stumbled over my words at this event, feeling much less comfortable out of the familiar sit-down format. Maybe this was due to the fact that I had become to used to ordered conversation in the many mock interviews to which I'd been subjected. The committee did have a mock cocktail party as well, but it was difficult for me to pick up useful strategies for maintaining composure and grace in that type of social situation.
My interview in the finals was very middle of the road--they asked me all the obvious questions, but I answered them with less flair than I would have liked. Maybe I was exhausted, or maybe too prepared...."
Christ Church, Oxford