The Rhodes and
Marshall Scholarships

Pema M.


Pema: "Am I the right fit for this intense process?"

Not quite knowing how to start, Iíll go with the most definite thing Iíve learned from this process: Ken is absolutely right about the importance of developing a narrative. Who you are, where youíre going, the resonances between your personal, intellectual, and ethical life, all of that stuff. Itís not just that I think I got the Rhodes because of the way my application materials and interview painted a portrait Ė although I think that was singularly important. Itís that the process of narrating and presenting myself, although often grueling, ended up giving me both clarity and confidence. Having my own sense of how my application materials worked together, and a handle on the story I was telling, made it so much easier to revise my personal statement and ultimately to be comfortable during the interview process. When I first walked into the room containing my fellow finalists, and had the inevitable ďwho am I and what am I doing among all these amazing and accomplished people who wildly outclass me,Ē it was steadying to be able to step back and say, actually, I know who I am and why Iím here, and Iím not required to be somebody different.

But Iím getting ahead of myself. First, Iíd like to offer some ďam I the right fit for this intense processĒ commiseration, and encourage people to go for it anyway. I would never have considered applying to the Rhodes were it not for the sustained and calm encouragement of the Religion faculty. And I actually didnít consider it until it was almost too late! At my graduation, Kristin Scheible told me that I should apply for the Rhodes, and I was very flattered, and thought to myself, what, thatís for people with leadership qualities and the ability to not be total nerds all the time, Iím applying for PhD programs in the fall and donít have time. So I put it entirely out of my head, and went to China through the Critical Language Scholarship, and didnít think about anything other than Chinese for the next two months. And then it was the beginning of August, and as I got on the plane to come home and started thinking in English again, I went, hey, Iíve always been interested in Oxford, and maybe Kristin was onto something.

I did a lot of reading for the next week: mostly the Rhodes website and what Kenís put together here, getting a lay of the land as far as the application timeline and the requirements. I also did some browsing of Oxfordís website, and stumbled upon the Buddhist Studies mastersí program, which is the course Iím now headed for (so much for a doctorate right away). The more that I thought about doing a mastersí, and a mastersí so well suited to my academic goals, and the more I read about Oxford specifically, the more excited I got. Itís certainly not necessary that Oxford be your first choice school, or that you be passionately interested in a specific program, before applying for the Rhodes. Lots of people arenít even sure after they get the scholarship! But, personally, I was motivated through this process by the knowledge that an MPhil in Buddhist Studies at Oxford was what I wanted to do. It worked in terms of developing narrative, it worked to inspire me, and while this is purely an impression, when I told the panel that I would be applying to Oxford regardless of whether I got the Rhodes, there was a lot of approving murmurs and sage nods.

Anyway, after that initial week of opening a lot of browser tabs, I realized what I had missed: namely, that there was an internal institutional deadline, and that it was in two weeks, and that I had to send pleading and apologetic emails to all of my potential recommenders. You only need three (rather informal) letters for Reedís internal deadline, all from faculty, but they ask for a list of all five to eight people you intend to solicit letters from if youíre nominated. I also had neither a personal statement draft nor a list of activities. So my first advice is, well, donít do this, donít pull an all-nighter and run into the Center for Life Beyond Reed fifteen minutes before the deadline to hand in your paperwork, itís stressful and if you plan even slightly ahead you donít have to do it. I bring up the process of requesting letters of recommendation mostly to say that itís wonderful if you can give each letter writer some strategic ideas about how they can compliment the other letters: my non-academic recommenders in particular all covered very different aspects of my life and lent breadth to what was otherwise a pretty academic portrait.

The interview for the internal nomination was very short, and not scary at all. After that, I used the month of September mostly to think. The list of activities I threw together in those first two weeks was, after much editing, eventually what I submitted. The personal statement that got me the internal nomination was totally thrown out, and I mused and planned and wrote a new one that I like much better.

Ken, both in person and in these online materials, and Michelle Johnson, are such good sources of general personal statement advice that I wonít repeat them here. From personal experience, it was a substantial advantage that Iíd already graduated and had some free time: I dawdled around in coffee shops in Seattle in the week leading up to the October Rhodes deadline, and didnít feel rushed. However, if youíre still in school, itís more than possible, and Iíd also encourage you to not beat yourself up about how many drafts youíve written or how many hours a day youíre devoting to this process. Think deeply about who you are, how you fit the Rhodes criteria, and how Oxford is a logical chapter in your life. If youíre anything like me, a good draft wonít emerge until youíve really done that, and when a plan comes clear, the writing will be fun rather than laborious. Also, if youíre at all intimidated by the ďnever get anyoneís adviceĒ rule: I was actually super excited to read that Rhodes personal statements are no longer gauntlets of prestigious editing. There can be something very freeing and potentially genuine about writing only for strangers, and considering what youíve written privately.

One more personal anecdote about my suffering and doubt, in the hope that itís encouraging: after Iíd gotten the internal nomination and was feeling pretty good about myself, I made the mistake of reading the little descriptions of last yearís Rhodes scholars on the website, and immediately had a breakdown on the phone to my mother about how I was an unworthy plebian whoíd never done anything in my life, who were these people, how did the youngest ever UN delegate have time to be a concert violinist, it was impossible that I would make it through this process. Well, Iím a Rhodes Scholar now, so obviously things are less straightforward than they might appear. But on a serious note: a lot of this is about class and circumstances. I grew up very poor in a rural area, I play no instruments, have no institutionally notable artistic talents, and avoided all organized sports throughout my adolescence on the grounds that Iím transgender and feared death. Reed is hardly notable for either athletics or for showering us with fancy-sounding awards. When you read the little biographies of Rhodes scholars, it can feel like unless youíve been a senatorís intern and edited the Harvard Crimson, youíre chopped liver. This is not true! Iím not going to lie to and say itís not nice to have lots of institutional validation of your status as an interesting and well-rounded person, but if you donít, and particularly if you have life circumstances that mean you couldnít reasonably have become one of these people while also studying and maintaining your mental health, this process is still very rewarding and success is still possible. Ken and Michelle will have much better and more detailed advice about this, but basically, itís a lot about how you present what you have done, and learning to reveal courage, devotion to duty, protection of the weak, fighting the worlds fight, etc., in what may be unlikely places. Although I didnít address my familyís socioeconomic status in my personal statement, it came up in at least one reference letter, and I think there is some utility in reminding your Rhodes committee, nonthreateningly, that the most straightforward badges of achievement and leadership are often gifts of circumstance. Again, Ken has lots of very good advice about this, and there are ways to frame things in your application materials that will get you a lot closer to sounding like one of these superhuman people than you would believe possible.

After submitting my materials on October 10th, I had several weeks of waiting, followed by the extremely exciting news around the 28th of October that I was a finalist. I did two practice interviews in the week before the real deal, and two certainly felt like the right amount: I was familiar enough with the format to be comfortable and to feel more confident, but things didnít get repetitive. About interviews: this advice may not work for anyone but me, but I had a great time with every interview by considering that I was attending a Reed conference, which I was leading, and whose topic was my application materials. What I mean by this is that thereís a lovely mixture of precision, formality, enthusiasm, and honesty that Iíve experienced in my favorite conferences. Itís not a chat between friends (and, as Michelle Johnson can attest, I have an alarming habit of bunching up in my chair and not making eye contact that, while it works in an exhausted group of Reedies, does not work in an interview). But I think thereís a certain aura of sincerity and inquiry that hangs about Reed Collegeís reputation. You can make up for not being a pile of awards by thinking out loud in your most articulate conference register. Any way you can think of to be natural, and to give your interviewers a sense of how you think, is helpful. This is only one way of thinking about interviews! But it make me relaxed, and as we walked out at the end I got complimented on my interview manner by one of the panelists at my finalist interview, so I did something right.

Finally, after all of that rambling, my experience with the whole finalist weekend thing. Probably this information is available more succinctly elsewhere, and you already know, but it wasnít totally clear to me until the very end, so: as a finalist in the Oregon-Washington-Idaho-Montana region, I went up to Seattle for the weekend prior to Thanksgiving. There was a luncheon on Friday to get things started, and then interviews went from after the luncheon until 3pm the next day, whereupon all 16 finalists were required to hang out together in a room of the law office where this was all conducted, until the panelists finished deliberating. People are sometimes called in during this time for second interviews: theyíre very brief, and none actually happened in my group. We were recommended a hotel that was very near the law office: it was horrifyingly expensive and made me feel very scruffy and intimidated, but Reed very generously reimbursed me, and ultimately I thought it was nice to be well accommodated and within walking distance.

I took the train up from Portland and got there the night before the luncheon: this was really nice, as I got a good nightís sleep and then spent Friday morning in a coffee shop, trying to get myself in a relaxed and personable frame of mind. While Ken and others recommend reading the Economist or the New York Times or something, I didnít: I think this one varies by personal taste. Actually, what I did instead was re-read the Oresteia, which always makes me incredibly excited about meaning and poetry and the nature of suffering, but my advice would be to do whatever pushes your unbearable enthusiasm buttons. Also, wallowing a little bit in an area of intellectual confidence prior to the luncheon made me feel better.

As every account has reiterated, the luncheon was much more fun than I expected. Iíd worried about my clothes for weeks beforehand, but just a blazer and a collared shirt turned out to be fine, and I forgot about what I was wearing or how I might be perceived almost immediately. The finalists and panelists milled about chatting for a little bit beforehand: I donít think itís necessary to worry about the social dynamics, about who youíre talking to, or about what. Everyone was extremely nice, and while we had some very quiet and reserved finalists, there was never anyone who wasnít being pulled into conversation by someone else. During lunch, there was some copious discussion of sports (everyone but me and one other finalist had some sort of athletic experience and interest). I nodded along and asked a few polite questions. There was also some discussion of water rights and environmental issues, since one of the finalists at my table was interested in environmental education. The panelists during each course made an effort to ask everyone at least one personal question, and it all actually felt very natural and balanced. One panelist also had us go around the table and talk about a totally unexpected direction we ended up going in during our first semester of college: I talked about taking Zen meditation as someone from another Buddhist tradition (possibly this was a vain attempt to bring up the genuine physical rigor of a lot of Buddhist practice, but who knows, it might have helped me out).

My two moments of Reed-conference-enthusiasm during the luncheon were, firstly, when the topic of Cecil Rhodes and Rhodes Must Fall came up. The finalists were asked our opinion: there was a lot of hemming and hawing from a couple of people about the shades of gray in his legacy, and I ended up saying that he was a white supremacist, that his colonialism was the foundation of his legacy, policy, and investment in scholarship, and that we didnít have to deny that in the name of nuance. Make of my stridency what you will, but definitely at least read a bit about the guy, itís horrifying/fascinating, and I think itís worthwhile to develop some opinion on the nature and legacy of the scholarship youíre applying for. My second moment was when one of the panelists turned to me and said he was a Reed alum: we ended up having a very fun conversation about his graduating class (of 1969, when the college was falling apart and the graduation rate was 25%), and trying to explain Renn Fayre to the rest of the table.

After lunch, the interviews started right away. Theyíd established our order by drawing our names out of a hat, but there was actually a lot of room for flexibility. I started out with a 9am interview on Saturday morning, and ended up trading with a lovely woman who had a 1:30pm slot: she was a morning person, I wasnít, we were both much better off for switching. There were a number of trades, and itís really a mark of how supportive and non-competitive the environment was. Everyone seemed to genuinely want everyone else to have their best shot.

We all hung around chatting for a while after lunch, and then dispersed. I had a very relaxed evening, did my coffee shop routine again the next day, and showed up at the law office around noon. Mostly, that was because in my experience I need some warming up to be able to speak well and candidly: I absolutely didnít want to walk into the interview not having had an interaction with a person that day. But, thatís personal preference! As other people have reported, it was a friendly and interesting group of people to be in, and as at this point I was sure I wouldnít be selected, I found myself considering that it had been totally worth it to have this experience, and that Iíd be proud of whoever won. If this sounds ridiculously humble, I have to say, itís a humbling experience to be in a room with a bunch of Rhodes finalists. Whenever anyone came back in from an interview, we all clapped.

Then, at 1:30, my time came: I was third to last, and at that point about half of the finalists had been hanging around for some time (everyone was required to be there after interviews finished at 3). So, my interview questions:

From my experience, plus the testimony of the other finalists, they may ask you questions that are only about your personal statement, only about some element of your life, predominantly focus on current events, or really go for some personal stuff. It depends on factors about your application materials that are hard to foresee. My sense was that they wanted to find out if I was just a stuffy intellectual, or if my vision of academic work mattered outside the academy.

After things were over, startlingly fast, one of the panelists ushered me out and complimented me on my comportment (I think he said that I had ďnothing to worry aboutĒ but I was so worried that I barely registered it). I spent the next five hours thinking of all the things I didnít say or had said badly: I think thatís an inevitable reaction to the high speed of a 25 minute interview with such high stakes. All the finalists played Mafia together, and then degenerated into increasing nervous leg-wiggling and discussion of our interviews.

I did have one interesting exchange during the period of rising tension: we were all talking about what we wanted to do at Oxford, and it became pretty obvious that, apart from myself and perhaps three other people, no one was intensely attached to their Oxford course in particular, or saw Oxford as a necessary part of their future, but was considering it as one of a number of options. I donít want to downplay either how qualified everyone was or how much they wanted the Rhodes, but I do think my intensity about my course specifically carried weight in the decision making process.

At 6:30, after three and a half hours, all the panelists came in. Weíd all been jumping out of our seats every time someone walked down the hall, so it was a relief for it to be finally over. I remember thinking to myself that the two people I thought were of course going to win really deserved it, and that I was happy to have done something like this and felt as confident and comfortable as I did, and that I was looking forward to trying to get into Oxford normally. Then they said my name. I think I screamed a little bit, and I confess I only blurrily remember the next half hour: the second winner and I were whirled from one panelist to another for congratulations and paperwork. A lot of the other finalists hugged us or shook our hands, very kindly, but they all took off pretty soon after that. One of the panelists pulled me aside and said that I was the ďstand-out choice,Ē which floored me then and still floors me now. They gave us some packets, I sorted out some difficulty with getting Reed to send in my transcript, and they bid us farewell. It was pretty abrupt actually! Then I started calling people: I have to say, the greatest pleasure of this process has been getting to tell the religion faculty that Iím a Rhodes Scholar.

One final thing: if you are selected, there might be a little bit of press attention! I wasnít expecting this at all: if youíre from a state that doesnít produce a lot of Rhodes Scholars, or have some other distinguishing feature, youíll get emails and calls from reporters. I was on OPB for all of 60 seconds! Anyway, just a warning note. The euphoria of success carried me through it with a minimum of terror.


Christ Church, Oxford

Christ Church, Oxford


Click here to go back

Back to Past Reed Candidates Speak

Back to Reed

Back to Rhodes & Marshall index