Power, Prestige and the World’s Most Famous Scholarship

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The Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest graduate fellowship in the world, and probably the most famous. But the prestigious and highly competitive scholarship, whose winners have gone on to become presidents, U.S. senators and Nobel Prize winners, is wrestling with its own history as it tries to attract a more diverse pool of applicants.

Because, it turns out, the origin story of the Rhodes Scholarship involves blood diamonds, colonization and racism.

We dive into the history of the Rhodes Scholarship and the world of competitive grad scholarships on the final episode in our Bootstraps podcast series about who gets what opportunities in education. And it’s a story full of surprises.

Pros and Cons of ‘Prestige’

For one thing, the founder of the Rhodes Scholarship, Cecil Rhodes, was a lackluster student during his own time at Oxford University, and he never graduated. And the founding financing for the award was left in his will, riches from the near-monopoly he created in the diamond trade.

These days, many colleges and universities run offices to coach students applying for the Rhodes—and other selective scholarships including the Fulbright and the Marshall Scholarship that all have similarly complex application processes. These campus centers are typically called something like the Office of Prestigious Scholarships.

But at least one of those offices has dropped the word “prestigious” from its name in recent years, out of concern that the whole framing was a turn-off to some students who felt they weren’t well-connected enough to even make an attempt at applying.

“It was really kind of an off-putting word that I think probably put more barriers up for students who might come and talk to me about scholarships than creating the welcoming and inclusive environment that I was striving for,” says LeAnn Adam, who runs the office at Oregon State University. Officials there settled on calling it the office of “National and Global Scholarships Advising.”

It’s not just about a name, though, Adam says.

“Our philosophy about this work is that it isn’t about winning scholarships,” she says. “It’s about the professional development that students have, the ability to gain transferable skills that they can build in the process of applying for these competitive scholarships—that is professional development.”

And she encourages students to wrestle with the origin story of the Rhodes Scholarship.

“I feel like as part of the racial reckoning that we are experiencing in this country and in the world, it’s important to confront that conversation,” she says. “In my view, having a conversation about the history of Cecil Rhodes is no different than confronting the history of Confederate statues on college campuses or names on buildings that represent people who no longer reflect our values.”

That’s not to say Adam discourages students from throwing their hat in the ring though. Instead, she communicates that winning the award “comes with a lot of responsibility, in that there is a responsibility to do good in the world. To provide some sort of restorative justice for the negative history that’s associated with Cecil Rhodes.”

For some universities, putting more energy into offices that coach students for elite scholarships is part of a mission to uplift students who have not historically won. That’s the case at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, where president Freeman Hrabowski III takes a personal interest in helping students on his minority-serving campus succeed.

He says he warns students that they might feel like they’ve entered a different world if they make it to the interview process of the Rhodes.

“I’m saying to my middle-class students, you must be very strong and not be intimidated by the power of wealth when you are competing against people from very, very privileged backgrounds,” Hrabowski says.

Digging For Diamonds

The elaborate selection process for the Rhodes may seem like an attempt to find diamonds in the rough. But one diamond expert we spoke with says that that metaphor may not be apt.

“Saying that someone is ‘a diamond in the rough’ implies that we know that with certain activities–whether [real or metaphorical polishing]—that person is gonna turn into something really amazing and valuable,” says Jenifer Bellefleur, owner of New Gild Jewelers in Minneapolis. “Whereas in real life [with diamonds] we can’t really know what’s inside them until we cut them. Many times, you have to bid on diamond rough that you don’t know whether it’s clean on the inside or not. You might pay a lot of money for it and find that you’ve got yourself some gray pebbles.” In the case of gemologists, the goal is to polish an area of a rough diamond to try to peer into the stone as much as possible.”

So then how is it possible to spot students with the right qualities for selective opportunities? Leaders of the Rhodes Scholarship have not shied away from how challenging their job is to create an equitable search process.

“Our mission is to make it possible for every student who has the academic and the other qualities—leadership potential and concern for others and, and commitment to truth—we want them to aspire and pursue this,” says Elizabeth Kiss, Warden of Rhodes House and leader of the scholarship program.

She pointed to a growing set of outreach efforts, including videos on the Rhodes Trust website walking applicants through the application process to help those who might be at a college that doesn’t have an office of prestigious scholarships, whatever they call it.

The Warden of Rhodes House did flinch a little, though, when told about the university that took the word “prestigious” out of its name. She said she does want to be welcoming, but it’s clear she also really does care about the prestige of the fellowship.

“I’ve always felt that there is something to be said for aspiring to do really competitive and hard things,” she tells EdSurge. “It takes a lot of work to apply for the Rhode Scholarship, and all of the other major global fellowships. You have to think hard, you have to ask people to write letters of recommendation. You have to write a personal statement, et cetera. “Universities are not always that good at kind of forcing students to try to connect the dots and put it all together and to think about ‘Who am I and what do I stand for?’”

Can an opportunity that’s so hard to win also be accessible? And how is the Rhodes Trust wrestling with the legacy of Cecil Rhodes?

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

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