For Charlie Tyson, learning that he was a Rhodes Scholarship recipient was “a bit like getting punched in the face – except 10,000 times more pleasant.”
In November of 2013, the 2014 U.Va. graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences stood next to 11 other Rhodes finalists inside an academic building at George Washington University. He had spent two days amongst the other regional finalists, mingling at dinner parties, completing final rounds of interviews and meeting with the selection committee. Rhodes applicants can choose whether to apply in their hometown region or their university region; Tyson, a North Carolina native, had chosen his hometown area, which held the finals at GW.
In revealing their final decisions, the judges placed the 12 finalists in a room together and then announced the two winners. No phone call or email a few days later, notifying the finalists in the privacy of their homes – this was a public proclamation.
The names were read in alphabetical order and the other winner from Tyson’s district was announced first.
“I remember a pause – it couldn’t have been more than a second or two – between his name and mine,” Tyson recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow! Good for him! I wonder who the other winner will be?’ And then I remember feeling dazed when I heard my own name.”
That surprised, overcome feeling is a commonality amongst the Oxford recipient-UVa alumni interviewed for this piece. Tyson and UVa classmate Evan Behrle are only the two most recent in a long line of UVa graduates who received Rhodes scholarships.
As difficult as it may be to win a Rhodes scholarship – only 32 Rhodes Scholars are chosen nationwide each year – a remarkable number of UVa graduates have accomplished the feat. Since the first American Rhodes Scholar stepped foot on Oxford’s campus in 1904, 50 U.Va. alumni have won the prestigious award, second only to the U.S. Military Academy among public U.S. institutions. Of those 50, at least 44 are alumni of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, including one current faculty member: English professor Jahan Ramazani (1981 Rhodes).
That total can be a bit misleading, though, as Tyson and several other scholars pointed out. Many of those recipients were awarded a Rhodes prior to 1950, when the selection process and pool of candidates was quite different.
“What’s great about U.Va. is that we have excellent students,” says Andrus Ashoo, Associate Director at the Center for Undergraduate Excellence. “We provide resources for students to push themselves and take some risks with their development, but the students are the ones who work hard in and out of the classroom, who collaborate with our faculty to produce knowledge, who serve and lead others not just on Grounds, but also in their greater communities.
“That is part of what the Rhodes Trust is seeking.”
OPENING A NEW WORLD
From forming peer groups that lasted far beyond the plane ride home to traveling throughout Europe and Africa with classmates, U.Va. Rhodes alumni such as Brad Braxton and Larry Sabato – and current students Tyson and Behrle – say that the Rhodes experience was and is an unforgettable chapter in their lives.
Six months before he heard his name called, Tyson had begun the Rhodes application process, thanks to the inspiration of two U.Va. peers. When he arrived at U.Va. in 2010, Tyson knew he wanted to major in Political and Social Thought. During his first semester, Laura Nelson, a fellow Political and Social Thought major, won a Rhodes. Then, during his third year, his close friend Hillary Hurd won a Marshall scholarship.
“Seeing people I knew receive these scholarships helped me summon the courage to apply,” Tyson said. “The Rhodes and Marshall seem ‘unwinnable,’ so having friends who’d gone through the process made a huge difference.”
Former Rhodes scholar and U.Va. alum Brad Braxton points to his relationships with faculty as a driving force behind his Rhodes application. Braxton arrived in Charlottesville in 1987 as an aspiring minister and now serves as the Ford Foundation’s Program Officer for Religion in the Public Sphere, reviewing and recommending grant awards to faith-based organizations in the US engaging in social justice work.
“I had a calling on my life, as I expressed it to my professors, to serve a faith community,” says Braxton, who also serves as the Ford Foundation’s thought leader on religion. “And the University and the faculty mentors in particular in Religious Studies and Classics were committed to mentoring me as a total person. They saw both of these loves: my calling to serve a faith community and my calling to be a scholar. The mentoring that I received from them didn’t compel me to choose between these two identities.”
Once overseas, while the University prepared them, students found the Oxford experience to be quite different. “There will never be another time in my life when I have the kind of singularity of focus intellectually as I did at Oxford,” says Braxton, who received a Masters in Theology there. “At U.Va., while academics were a priority, I also explored leadership opportunities through extracurricular activities. As a graduate student at Oxford, nearly everything revolved around the master of philosophy in theology. I slept, breathed and ate the New Testament, in Greek, for two years.”
2013 Rhodes recipient Evan Behrle, a honors politics major at U.Va. who’s pursuing a master’s of philosophy in comparative social policy at Oxford, was amazed at how, on his third night at Oxford, he walked into the garden behind his dorm and introduced himself to the first person he saw, a fellow first-year student (or “fresher” as they are called abroad); “then, maybe four minutes later, he was explaining the literal basis of quantum computing,” Behrle says. “It was ludicrous and wonderful.”
Behrle also appreciates the little details, like the fact that his dorm room is older than his country and that the little dog that hangs out in his college’s boat house—where the crew boats are kept—wears a Donegal wool sweater when it’s cold because, well, it’s England.
And the “ludicrous” brilliance of the minds around him continues to impress Behrle. “Right before flying to England, I was talking with another Rhodes Scholar in my class about the area of the brain on which he had done research as an undergrad,” Behrle says. “It wasn't until about halfway through the conversation that I realized he had discovered that part of the brain.”
Tyson, who is pursuing two one-year master’s programs, in Victorian literature and the history of science, pointed out that both schools “boast quirky traditions and stunning architecture.” Some of the quirky Oxford traditions highlighted by Tyson include wearing academic gowns to dinner and the frequent inclusion of Latin phrases in ceremonies; his favorite quirky UVa tradition is streaking the Lawn.
As far as similarities, "at both places, the old and the new collide,” Tyson says. “Cutting-edge research and exemplary technology exist alongside (and inside) ancient buildings.”
Otherwise, Tyson has found the mentality toward students quite different abroad, perhaps as much a result of the country’s culture as the schools in particular.
“At Oxford, students are not treated as consumers,” Tyson says. “So there's a lot that's inconvenient – from the way the libraries are set up to the effort required to fill out a simple form or even ask a question. I miss – with some shame – the consumer-oriented, briskly managed American university. I especially miss UVa's library system. At the same time, not being treated as a consumer or as the center of attention is refreshing.”
"A CALL TO ACTION"
For U.Va. Center for Politics director Larry Sabato, who received a Rhodes scholarship in 1975 and completed his doctorate in less than two years at Oxford, Oxford opened the door to eye-opening experiences.
“I came from a family that didn’t have much extra money, and I’d never been out of the country. So this was a tremendous opportunity to see a good deal of the world,” Sabato says. “Many of us travelled together during the breaks between terms, through Europe and the Middle East. We went a lot of places that I wouldn’t have gotten to, except for a later stage of my career, if at all. Back then we thought nothing of spending a month or two on the road, going to historic sites, seeing a bit of the countryside … I’m enormously grateful to the University and to [former UVa President] Edgar Shannon [who encouraged Sabato to apply] for that opportunity.”
Sabato is still in touch with several of his Rhodes classmates. One of them, Joel Goldstein, is a law professor at Saint Louis University and a regular contributor to Sabato’s Crystal Ball website. Sabato has remained friends with U.S. Federal Court of Appeals judge Scott Matheson Jr., whose father, Scott Sr. ran for governor of Utah while Sabato and Matheson Jr. were at Oxford. Upon returning from Oxford, Sabato worked on Scott Sr.’s successful campaign. Another Oxford friend, Russ Feingold, is a former Wisconsin senator whom Sabato says may run again in 2016.
Once abroad, Braxton forged new social circles and refined the skill of argumentation. Calling themselves ‘The Brothers,’ Braxton formed a group with the five other African-American scholars in his Oxford class. The group met weekly, taking the topic of someone’s study/tutorial and debating it from their various disciplines: law, politics, religion, economics, etc. The next year, they added the African-American women from their class.
“Those meetings strengthened us intellectually and culturally,” Braxton says. “Oxford is a wonderful place; however, it can be especially isolating at times for people of color. My sense of racial isolation prompted deep reflection that enriched my scholarship and heightened my sense of social and political responsibility. During my Oxford years, I made my first pilgrimage to Africa to learn more about my heritage.”
Braxton and UVa’s Sabato have gone on to successful, diverse, enriching careers, traveling and speaking around the nation. Behrle and Tyson hope for similarly impactful career paths, in the worlds of urban revitalization and college professorship, respectively. Wherever they end up, they realize the importance of what they have been anointed with in carrying on the tradition of UVa alumni-turned-Rhodes Scholars.
“[Once you hear that you’ve been selected], you are conflicted from the start,” Behrle, whose regional final was held at Haverford College, says. “You are elated, stunned, profoundly relieved; but you are also sad for your fellow finalists, immediately aware of how hair-splitting a decision it must have been, and cognizant of a special responsibility you have just inherited. You were chosen to do something, and whether or not you deserved it – and certainly most of us did not feel like we did – you now basically have to do justice to the fact that they picked you, and not the person to your right.”
“The Rhodes scholarships are so mythologized in American culture that it's difficult to reconcile yourself – with full awareness of your flaws and deficiencies – with the archetype of a ‘Rhodes Scholar,’” Tyson says. “But it's also inspiring and empowering. The scholarship is a life-transforming gift, but it's also a call to action: a challenge to work as hard as you can for the rest of your life, to stop at nothing until you've done what you can to repair the world, to make people happy, to help create a society that's more beautiful, more compassionate, and more just.”