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Rhodes scholarships continue to elude Tufts students for sixth year

Published: Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 14:08

A free ride for an advanced degree at the prestigious Oxford University is a hard opportunity to pass up - but also a highly difficult prize to capture for Tufts students.

The last time a Tufts undergraduate was awarded a Rhodes scholarship was in 1998 by Bryan Graham (LA '97), who went on to study development economics.

The Rhodes scholarship program sponsors U.S. students to complete a Masters or a second Bachelors degree at Oxford University in a two or three-year program. This year, only 32 U.S. scholars were chosen from a pool of 904 applicants - roughly a three percent acceptance.

"Generally speaking, successful applicants excel academically, have been outstanding in all facets of their undergraduate career and have had a major achievement during their undergraduate career," Tufts Coordinator of Scholarships and Enrichment Programs Kate Nash said.

According to the Rhodes Web site, scholars are selected according to four criteria laid out by the scholarship's founder, Cecil Rhodes. Winners must exhibit "literary and scholastic attainments; energy to use one's talent to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports; truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship; and moral force of character and instincts to lead and to take an interest in one's fellow beings."

The application process has three stages. First, students mail their application materials to their home states, where they are reviewed by local representatives. Then, three to 15 students are invited to a reception and interview for further evaluation.

Four students are then selected from eight nationwide regions for a total of 32 scholars.

Nash said the competition is "quite intense" because students need to be "exceptional on paper [and] outstanding in person."

Five Tufts seniors applied for the Rhodes this year, and two, Mary Smith and Christopher Kottke, advanced to the interview stage.

Smith said she applied for the scholarship because she wanted a graduate degree in political science and was unable to study abroad during her time at Tufts. "It was just a great possibility - funding for going to school and a great school - that was hard to pass up," she said.

Smith, who was interviewed in her home state of Idaho, said she was surprised by the scope of the questions the interviews asked, which included "everything from sign language to chemistry to terrorism," she said. "They kept you on your toes."

It was impossible prepare for many questions on philosophy, current events and recent books that sought to get "a true sense of the person" to see whether the scholarship opportunity was a good fit, Smith said.

Smith remains undecided about her postgraduate plans but has kept her experience in perspective. "Becoming [a scholar] is such a long shot anyway that getting anywhere you can in that process was quite amazing," she said.

Though Rhodes success remains elusive, Tufts students have traditionally done very well with another postgraduate award - the Fulbright scholarship. Last year, 11 out of 38 Tufts applicants - about 30 percent - were selected as Fulbright scholars.

According to Nash, the Fulbright program offered 1,106 grants to a pool of approximately 5,720 applicants last year, representing a 19 percent acceptance rate.

Nash said there is no typical Rhodes scholar - indeed, this year's winners come from a wide range of locations, universities and academic interests. Some winners came from high-profile institutions such as Harvard, the United States Military Academy, and the University of Chicago; but others hailed from less-well-known schools such as the University of Kansas.

This year's Rhodes scholars intend to study biochemistry, theology, linguistics, and medical anthropology, among other topics.

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