Berkeley to Oxford: the Rhodes not often taken
Berkeley’s newest Rhodes Scholar — the campus’s first in more than a decade — thinks there should be a steady stream of winners from Cal. Faculty, he says, can help make that happen
| 19 February 2003
Ankur Luthra, Berkeley's most recent Rhodes Scholar, is also the campus's first in 14 years. Though Berkeley had Rhodes winners in both 1989 and 1988, prior to that there had been none since 1964. Luthra thinks it’s great that he won, but less admirable that “an elite institution” like Berkeley makes such a poor showing in the Rhodes competition year after year.
The senior, a double major in business administration and electrical engineering and computer sciences, radiates personal confidence — a characteristic that, he’s convinced, worked to his advantage during the long, gruelling selection process for the Rhodes. That confidence extends to his conviction that not only should more Berkeley students be applying for the Oxford education the Rhodes supports, but the institution should be more active in identifying potential selectees and guiding them through the process.
That neither of these things are happening to the extent he’d recommend, Luthra says, is easily accounted for. Berkeley undergrads, he believes, tend to “psych themselves out” about their chances of winning a prize that they see as awarded more often to their private-college counterparts than to public-university students. Yet as a group, he insists, his peers are far more accomplished than they give themselves credit for — with nothing to fear from competition with the Ivy League types who are selected for the Rhodes on what sometimes seems a revolving-door basis. (Harvard, for example, placed 5 students among the 32 selected nationwide this year; last year it placed 6.)
The second discouraging factor, according to Luthra, is that Berkeley faculty aren’t doing as much as they could to encourage qualified students to apply.
The fact that Berkeley has sent precisely three students to Oxford in just under 30 years, with long intervals between each winner, has a self-fulfilling aspect to it, Luthra believes. “There’s a slippery slope of self-confidence,” he says, “that you encounter when someone hasn’t won from here in two years, then three, then thirteen. I was talking to some juniors who I thought would make great candidates, and they believed no one from Berkeley had ever won! “
A daunting process
Though one or more Berkeley students advances to the state-level round in the selection process each year, it’s admittedly rarer for one to move on to the district level (the U.S. is divided into eight such multi-state districts), let alone be among the 32 national winners.
The selection process is daunting simply to describe; to follow it all the way through to selection consumes applicants for the better part of a year. Would-be Rhodes Scholars submit an application to the campus Scholarship Connection Office, which relays them to a subcommittee of the faculty-run External Scholarships Committee. That subcommittee considers the applications of students who wish to contend not only for the Rhodes but for two other prestigious scholarships, the Marshall and the Mitchell, that likewise send U.S. students to British and Irish universities for a year or more of graduate study. Some number of these Rhodes applicants advance to an interview with the subcommittee, which then endorses a still smaller number of them as state-level applicants from Berkeley.
Though the campus’s role in selection of candidates for the Rhodes ends there, the subcommittee quickly shifts gears to help counsel and guide the endorsed applicants as they head toward the next stages of the process — the state and district selection committees. Members of the subcommittee typically have personal experience with the British educational system, and are in many cases former Rhodes Scholars as well, so their guidance is both well-informed and pointed — consisting in part of mock interviews with very tough questions, much like those the candidates will encounter at the state and regional levels. They also help students with such mundane but essential drills as fine-tuning personal essays, statements of purpose, and the like.
But while subcommittee members are deeply involved in the process of identifying and aiding the most motivated candidates, other faculty, Lukra believes, aren’t taking the key initial step in the process: encouraging qualified candidates to apply in the first place.
“The level of faculty awareness about the scholarship itself is tremendous, obviously,” Luthra says, “but it’s at the next level — where a faculty member decides to actually nominate a student or two, or to approach qualified students and tell them about the scholarship — that the steps aren’t being taken. They have a huge role to play, probably the biggest role in the process — since so many students will never hear about the Rhodes in the first place if a faculty member doesn’t tell them about it and encourage them to apply.”
Getting to know students as individuals
There’s more to faculty involvement in Rhodes candidacies than that, of course — including the writing of letters of recommendation , which to be effective must show a more detailed familiarity with a student’s academic skills than is acquired at the podium in a 600-seat lecture hall. But it’s a vitalpart of the process, and one that, according to Alicia Hayes, program coordinator of the Scholarship Connection Office, contributes more than Luthra acknowledges to the reluctance of Berkeley students to follow through on their impulse to apply for a Rhodes or other prestigious scholarship.
“I don’t think that our students here at Berkeley believe there’s a bias against public universities,” she says. “Their fears stem instead from the requirement of getting recommendation letters from faculty members. I see that frequently; I think it’s the most challenging aspect of applying for these kinds of scholarships at a big campus like this.”
One faculty member with extensive experience in the Rhodes application process agrees with Hayes. Steven Botterill, associate professor of Italian Studies, chaired the Rhodes/Mitchell/Marshall subcommittee this past year. “At Ivy League colleges, with their smaller student bodies and more intimate faculty/student ratios,” he observes, “the process of grooming potential Rhodes Scholars begins early on in a student’s undergraduate career. By the time students at Berkeley make closer contact with faculty, it’s often their junior year – and that’s a bit late to be building the kind of close intellectual relationship with a faculty member that supports the recommendation the Rhodes committees want to see. We’ve seen it year after year here: With the best will in the world, Berkeley faculty don’t get to know students as individuals when they’re teaching large lower-division courses with 700 or 800 students.”
Botterill believes further that the Rhodes, for all its assumed prestige, ought not to be considered the ne plus ultra of scholarships. “At Berkeley we’re used to being the best at everything,” he says, ”and we quite rightly have a pretty high opinion of ourselves … you know, ‘Ho hum, another Nobel Prize.’ Winning the Rhodes isn’t going to change the national perception of Berkeley the way it does for a less prestigious institution.” He also believes that an excessive focus on the Rhodes helps keep other prestigious scholarships undeservedly obscure — citing in particular the Mitchell (which funds a year of research or study at any university in the Irish Republic or Northern Ireland) and the Marshall (which funds two or three years of study at more than 100 universities in the United Kingdom).
“What I would like to see,” he says, “is faculty encouraging more and more students in their applications for all these scholarships — the Rhodes, certainly, but the others as well: the Marshall, the Mitchell, the Gates-Cambridge, and so on, several of which we’ve had a much more consistent record of success with in the past decade. While our committee receives many good applications each year, we know as faculty that there are a whole lot of other qualified students out there who aren’t applying. We have to rely on such publicity as we can do” — Alicia Hayes’s office sends a mass mailing to the Academic Senate each year requesting faculty help in recruiting scholarship applicants – “and on the initiative of faculty and of students themselves.”
Botterill urges faculty to contact the Scholarship Connection Office to become more involved in the process – not only to learn about the opportunities for Rhodes and other scholarships open to qualified undergraduates, but to volunteer for seats on the various scholarship subcommittees. “It’s a way to help select people with a good chance of winning,” he points out, “and who will bring credit to the institution when they do.”