The Road to the Rhodes

The Road to the Rhodes

Why Doesn't Columbia Win More Rhodes Scholarships?

Published on October 25, 2016

Updated: November 1, 2:08 a.m.

D

ear Student,

I am writing to invite you to consider applying for international fellowships for postgraduate study. Based on your record of high achievement, you have the possibility of applying for fellowship programs that can take you abroad to earn a degree.

It’s 10 a.m. in Vietnam and Max Marshall has just woken up. His voice is a little hoarse as he reads me this email, one he received during the spring of his junior year at Columbia. It’s the email that catalyzed his application for the Rhodes Scholarship, the famous fellowship that allows students to study at Oxford for free.

Marshall has glasses, brownish hair that flops over his forehead, a slow, drawling manner of speech, and a tendency to finish off sentences with “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” He exudes a languid intelligence. He doesn’t fit into my image of someone who would apply for the Rhodes Scholarship: a manically driven, type-A Super Student. Throughout our interview, he repeatedly uses the phrase “hoop jumper” to describe the typical Rhodes candidate, and in part, I think, to describe what he is not.

In fact, Marshall, who graduated just a few months ago as part of the Columbia College class of 2016, is more than just a mere Rhodes applicant. Last year, he made it to the final rounds of the Rhodes selection process. 

Right now, though, he’s in Hanoi—not Oxford.

Discerning the Rhodes

Ian Scheffler, who graduated Columbia College in 2012, was a Rhodes finalist in the fall of 2012. When I talk to him about the Rhodes, he brings up an old George Stephanopoulos quote: “The Rhodes is a passport to the Establishment. … And the romantic vision of Oxford life passed down from scholars perched in the corridors of power is that while you’re there, you get to read what you want, absorb the wisdom of brilliant tutors, argue into the night, and travel around the world. All this without a career penalty; it’s an idyll off the fast track.”

To this day, the Rhodes Scholarship is one of the most prestigious postgraduate fellowships a person can win.

“The Rhodes is a passport to the Establishment.”

—George Stephanopoulos, who graduated from Columbia College in 1982 and was a Rhodes winner, in memoire All Too Human

It is named for the infamous Cecil Rhodes, an enthusiastic British colonist now reviled by many as a symbol of white supremacy, and the subject of last year’s “Rhodes Must Fall” movement.

He set up the Rhodes Scholarship with the mission of grooming young men like he himself once was; in his will, he wrote that “the education of young Colonists at one of the Universities in the United Kingdom is of great advantage to them for giving breadth to their views … and for instilling into their minds the advantage to the Colonies as well as to the United Kingdom the retention of the unity of Europe.” He wanted to train a group of men to keep up the colonial project that was so dear to his heart.

Laid out in his will, too, are the criteria for choosing Rhodes scholars. To qualify, one must have “literary and scholastic attainments; energy to use one’s talents to the full; truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship; moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one’s fellow beings.”

These are vague terms that, today, can mean a lot of different things; Rhodes scholars have a variety of academic specialties, extracurricular interests, and personal achievements. What’s widely agreed upon, though, is that one must demonstrate some sort of public service bent to win—charity work is a common choice.

One applies for the Rhodes Scholarship in a specific district; students can choose either district where they live or the one in which they go to school. The U.S. is composed of 16 of these districts, and the committee selects two winners from each.

Besides Stephanopoulos (who won the Rhodes after graduating from Columbia in 1982), notable Rhodes scholars include Eric Garcetti, former President Bill Clinton, Nicholas Kristof, and Edwin Hubble (of the telescope). It’s the kind of club many want to be part of. And though not all winners go on to change the world, it’s widely understood that when you have a Rhodes under your belt, few doors are closed to you.

That’s why so many people want it, and why Columbia’s ongoing failure to win Rhodes Scholarships is baffling.

Columbia versus the Rhodes

It has become a well-established fact that very few Columbia students win Rhodes Scholarships.

From as early as 1990, the Columbia community has wondered why we “[lag] considerably behind students in peer institutions in winning prestigious post-graduate level fellowships.” A Spectator article from 2006 is headlined: “Rhodes Eludes Columbia: Students Fall Short for  Fourth Consecutive Year.”

The phenomenon received more attention the next year, when George Olive and Jason Bello, Columbia College seniors at the time, each won a Rhodes and broke a four-year losing streak for Columbia.

Then Columbia landed winners in both 2009 and 2010. And maybe people started to feel a little bit more sanguine about the possibility that we might start sending a normal number of people to Oxford. (And, of course, by “normal” I mean “comparable to other elite schools.”)

But another Rhodes drought ensued after 2010, one that only ended last December.

(Anna Alonso)

This inability to win the Rhodes might not seem like a huge deal. After all, this is a fellowship that is ultimately awarded to less than 1 percent of the people who apply for it. Perhaps expecting legions of Columbians to win the Rhodes Scholarship is like expecting them to get struck by lightning or win the lottery.

But when you start comparing the number of Columbia students who’ve won the Rhodes to the number of winners at Columbia’s peer schools, the marked lack of Rhodes scholars starts to seem a little strange.

(May Cheng)

Between 2011 and 2016, 32 Harvard, 24 Yale, 17 Princeton, and 9 Brown students won the Rhodes. In that same five-year span, how many Columbia students won the Rhodes? Just one.

Marshall is one of Columbia’s non-winners, making him a good representative of the average Columbia Rhodes applicant: intelligent, talented, driven, and ultimately unsuccessful.

First steps

Marshall was only one of many students who received an email from Columbia’s Office of Global Programs and Fellowships in the spring of their junior year. This office handles everything from studying abroad in Beijing to fellowships offered by the Library of Congress.

The office is staffed by 17 people, including Scott Carpenter, the associate dean of global education and fellowships, and Jodi Zaffino, the program coordinator for fellowships.

According to Carpenter, the office starts reaching out to students in their first year with an information session during the New Student Orientation Program that covers both study abroad and fellowship opportunities.

Scott Carpenter, the associate dean of global education and fellowships. (Gene Fedorenko for Spectator)

But targeted outreach only ramps up around junior year, when the office starts to send out emails much like the one Marshall read aloud to me. They’re first sent out to students with high GPAs. But the office also tries to individualize its outreach, seeking certain groups of students about certain fellowships. For example, the office has identified that students who study abroad make good candidates for the Fulbright grant. Columbia’s I.I. Rabi Scholars and Science Research Fellows programs are often good candidates for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship. Students studying environmental science are among the most interested in becoming Udall scholars.

Moreover, the office partners with faculty to identify promising undergraduates who might be strong candidates for prestigious postgraduate fellowships.

Carpenter cites the Core Curriculum as a real help here. “That’s a great advantage of everyone squeezing through the same door; [professors] get a chance to see them up close.”

When Marshall received his email, he was abroad in South Africa. He was unable to attend the on-campus information session that the office was holding, so instead he Skyped Carpenter directly. They discussed his options: whether or not he should apply for a fellowship at all, and if he chose to do so, which one he should gun for.

Marshall recalls this Skype call, which took place over a poor Wi-Fi connection that kept threatening to cut the conversation short, fondly. He seems impressed that Carpenter was willing to speak to him individually.

Over the tenuous internet connection, Carpenter explained to Marshall that to apply for the Rhodes, he would need between six and eight letters of recommendation and a personal essay all submitted by the end of August. After that, Carpenter would go over and help him refine his résumé. Committee rules prohibit the applicants from receiving help with other application materials, including their personal essay.

“In New York, everyone goes out the door at the end of class and heads to very different lives. They’re going off to Brooklyn or Connecticut or New Jersey every night, or they’re speaking across town. [But] living in a college town, you never really escape the campus bubble, for better or for worse, and so you have professors that are available more often.”

—Max Marshall, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016

Before saying more about Marshall, I want to note that it’s very tough to talk about a fellowship that you didn’t win without coming across as a bit of a sore loser. The internet is brimming with sour first-person accounts from almost-winners of the Rhodes, which seem to have made many candidates wary of how they tell their story.

Almost all of the people I speak to about this article are cautious. They seem to weigh their words very carefully to avoid sounding bitter or arrogant, or both. One person even insists that they not be identified in this article at all for fear that they might come across badly.

But Marshall manages adeptly to avoid sounding sore. His reflections on his Rhodes experience are gracious and generous. He talks about the brilliant people he got to meet while at his interview. He praises Carpenter’s assistance in the process.

“I’m actually glad I went through with the whole thing, as stressful and strange as it was,” he tells me.

This isn’t to say that applying was easy—far from it. One of the first steps of the process, finding six professors to ask for recommendations from, was one of the most challenging tasks for Marshall.

“To get a good letter of recommendation from a professor, you have to have a close relationship with a professor, and to have a close relationship with a professor, you need to have an institution where a lot of professors are going to make themselves available to undergraduates.”

Marshall sees this issue as specific to Columbia. His impression is that at schools elsewhere, it’s much more common for professors to interact with their students outside of class and develop more personal relationships with them.

“In New York, everyone goes out the door at the end of class and heads to very different lives,” he says. “They’re going off to Brooklyn or Connecticut or New Jersey every night, or they’re speaking across town. [But] living in a college town, you never really escape the campus bubble, for better or for worse, and so you have professors that are available more often.”

Marshall was ultimately able to find professors who knew him well, though it was a daunting task. He got recommendations from his philosophy and creative nonfiction professors, as well as from his Contemporary Civilization professor from sophomore year.

These recommendations, as well as the personal essay, were passed through an internal application system. Before the application is sent to the Rhodes committee, Columbia must nominate and approve potential candidates.

Most schools have this system. After the internal nomination process, the office dealing with postgraduate fellowships recommends the successful candidates to the Rhodes committee.

At Columbia, the office itself doesn’t exactly choose what candidates get passed on to the Rhodes. Instead, they pass on students’ applications—letters of recommendation, essay, and résumé—to a faculty committee that’s been briefed on what kind of application certain fellowships are looking for. Carpenter says the biggest goal is to choose students who will be called back for interviews. The committee members, according to Carpenter, must ask themselves, “Who would you like to hear more from when you’re reading the applications? Who matches up with the values and selection criteria? And who doesn’t?”

“I’m actually glad I went through with the whole thing, as stressful and strange as it was.”

—Max Marshall, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016 and Rhodes finalist

The balance between sending too few and too many applicants forward is certainly a factor, though Carpenter says, “We don’t want to screen out too many people, because they should take a chance for the next round.” In the end, between half and two-thirds of the internal applicants get passed on to the Rhodes committee.

After Columbia candidates are internally approved, the fellowships office writes a recommendation for the candidate that they send, along with the application itself, to the Rhodes committee. This recommendation is perhaps part of the reason that the school only passes on some of the applications it receives; in order for their recommendations to carry weight with the Rhodes committee, they have to be somewhat selective.

But when they do write that recommendation, they try to make it a comprehensive, individualized one. Marshall remembers Carpenter questioning him carefully to prepare for writing that recommendation. “[He] really did make an effort to get to know the people applying. He would sit down and ask you a lot of questions and take a lot of notes. I felt totally confident when it came to the school recommendation,” Marshall says.

Marshall made it through the internal application and was named a finalist in early November. That was the moment when the school’s involvement in the process really started to ramp up.

Before the actual interview, but after he was accepted as a finalist by the Rhodes committee, Marshall did two mock interviews with Carpenter, as well a mock panel interview, for which the office got together a group of faculty members, administrators, and a former Rhodes scholar. Marshall describes it as great preparation.

“They did an excellent job of simulating the intense ‘gotcha’ atmosphere of the Rhodes interview. I left feeling very prepared.”

Carpenter cites the mock interviews as not only an important part of the process but a personalized one, too, tailored to each finalist’s needs. “Some students are very fluent in person, some less so and really need to develop that. One student might need to meet a couple times a week all the way to the end. Other students might be really ready for a mock interview right away,” he says.

At Yale, even before candidates are nominated by the office and long before they become finalists, applicants start mock interviewing. Jonathan Esty, a senior at Yale, is currently going through the Rhodes application process there. His internal application process began much as Columbia’s does; he submitted his recommendations, essay, and résumé to the Yale fellowships office. Then he was called for an interview at the school.

Esty remembers walking into a room with four panelists who asked him questions much like those the actual Rhodes panel poses. “They asked me about my thesis, the classes I’d taken, my grades,” he says. He was accepted as a Yale applicant; now he’s just waiting to hear if he’ll become a finalist. When Spectator reached out to obtain details about the Rhodes process, the Yale fellowships office declined to comment.

This system—including a panel interview in the internal application process—makes a lot of sense. The final Rhodes interview, which takes place with about 16 finalists in each district, is incredibly important; candidates say that’s where you win or lose the fellowship. As Carpenter notes, the faculty panel pays special attention to how students seem like they’d fare in an interview. Selecting candidates to pass along to the Rhodes committee based not just on their recommendations and essay but also on their ability to interview well with a panel of judges seems like a good way to make sure the best candidates get the chance to become finalists.

This isn’t to say Columbia doesn’t pay close attention to its candidates, though. In fact, the personal care paid to finalists’ mock interviews is important to note, since the fellowships office is often the first to receive blame for Columbia’s disappointing Rhodes performance. A Spectator article from last fall points out common complaints about the office, mentioning that the office is understaffed, or that staff turnover means that students don’t get the kind of individualized, unified attention they need to succeed.

But the people I speak to are largely complimentary of the office. They cite the staff as invested and available, ready to step in when help is needed and step back when applicants want some space.

Despite his affection for the fellowships office, however, Marshall remembers something feeling off the first time he met with Carpenter after learning he was a finalist. “I went in there excited to see who else was a finalist so we could all meet up.” He recalls then learning there was only one other person.

“Two finalists. A lot of other schools have more than two winners every year, and we had two finalists.”

This strange reality seems to suggest that the reason Columbia students have such trouble winning Rhodes Scholarships might not be that they’re less qualified candidates, but that there just aren’t very many Columbia students who apply.

Despite the dearth of other finalists, Marshall went into these final stages feeling as thoroughly prepared as he could be.

Breaking the losing streak

Of course, in this story of Columbia not winning, it’s important to note that Columbia recently broke its losing streak.

Last winter, Luca Springer won the Rhodes Scholarship. His situation as an applicant was slightly outside the norm—he was a senior in the School of General Studies, enrolled in the dual-degree program with Sciences Po. He’s also half-German and half-Austrian, and he applied with the German Rhodes committee.

When I interview Springer, the first thing I notice is that he looks like a Rhodes scholar. I think it’s his suspenders that give me that impression—that, and this look of intensity and joy he gets when he talks about the other students in the program.

Luca Springer, GS '16, won the Rhodes Scholarship last year and is now studying in Oxford. (Bronwen Chan for Spectator)

He’s only been at Oxford a few weeks when I speak to him, but he is very obviously thrilled to be there. “I’ve never met such a density of absolutely incredible human beings. I learn on a daily basis about things that I’ve never even thought about, just by hanging out with them, over dinner.”

Springer’s path to Oxford was a little bit different, both because of his international application and because he was a student in GS. The process for identifying potential scholarship applicants works slightly differently in GS than in Columbia College.

Springer remembers that, in his first semester at Columbia, he had a  one-on-one conversation with Glenn Novarr, assistant dean of academic affairs at GS, about fellowships. “Glenn asked me what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t quite sure yet. So he told me to go back home, think about what I wanted to do, and come back to him. We then identified this match with Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarship and then really effectively started working on it,” he says.

Because GS is so small—almost half the size of Columbia College—it’s much easier to identify students who seem like they’d make good candidates for fellowships like the Rhodes. When Spectator talked to GS Dean Peter Awn about Springer and his Rhodes victory last year, Awn explained that the size of the school meant that “we have the ability to really target up and coming students and really try to get them as early as possible to start considering fellowship opportunities.”

The final stretch

The final steps toward the Rhodes Scholarship take place during one pressure cooker weekend, when finalists convene somewhere in the district from which they’ve applied.

Marshall applied to the Rhodes from District 8, which covers Texas and Oklahoma. In late November, he flew home to Texas. The morning after he arrived, all the District 8 finalists—16 in total—convened in the Houston courthouse for a 9 a.m. breakfast buffet of French pastries.

There were four or five finalists and two judges per table. “All of a sudden you’re having breakfast and you’re competing for the Rhodes Scholarship at the same time,” Marshall describes. “While you’re trying to eat a parfait, you’re also trying to say something cogent about Syrian arms deals.”

After the breakfast had wrapped up, the judges handed out a list detailing the order in which the interviews would take place.

The head judge stood up before them and gave a speech about failure. He reminded the finalists that though leaving empty-handed was sure to sting, the fellowship wasn’t any guarantee of worth or success—an important reminder of the fact that becoming a finalist is in itself an accomplishment.

“While you’re trying to eat a parfait, you’re also trying to say something cogent about Syrian arms deals.”

—Max Marshall, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016 and was a Rhodes finalist

Then the interviews began.

One by one, finalists disappeared down a hallway to interview with the panel, while the other 15 waited. Marshall notes that a certain spirit of camaraderie sprung up between the finalists.

“We weren’t so much competing with each other as much as we all were 16 scared 22-year-olds trying to survive together.”

The social elements of the weekend—a brunch and a cocktail party—were, to his mind, effective. By the end, the candidates were, to some extent, friends. “I expected a bunch of phony, competitive, hoop-jumpers,” Marshall says, “but actually, the weekend had its fair share of human moments.”

Even the judges, he says, seemed like real, kind people—except, of course, during the interview.

“Their job is to do whatever they can to throw you off your game. No matter how good your answer is, they will do whatever they can to find the logical flaws, to find negative ethical ramifications, to—if you have started to dig yourself into a hole—see how deep that hole will go,” he explains. “They’re all playing bad cop.”

The interview started off easy, with a question about Marshall’s WBAR show that played 1970s country music and Southern rap. But soon, they were asking him tougher questions.

“Do you believe in free will?”

“Must a nonfiction piece be totally truthful?”

For Marshall, a philosophy major and writer, these questions were wholly appropriate. The judges were clearly familiar with his application; they asked him questions about the books he’d read in the classes he’d taken, as well as questions about his personal essay and field of study.

The questions were intense not just because of their topics, but also because the judges expected a confident, unambiguous answer to each. They asked Marshall how he felt about the relationship between Columbia and gentrification. “Obviously, most Columbia students are opposed to gentrification. But if I really started harping on it, I’d feel like a phony, because obviously I benefit from it,” he said to them.

He finished the interview feeling unsure of his performance—a common reaction. The interviews are supposed to be tough; Marshall says that everyone he knows who interviewed for the Rhodes walked out thinking they’d blown it.

Afterwards, the finalists attended a cocktail party in what testimonials taken from the Columbia fellowships website call “the most luxurious physical space I’ve ever inhabited”—a house with a butler and a valet, where they were served wine and steak while surrounded by original Matisses, Pollocks, and Picassos.

Another testimonial adds, “At the end of the night, we all had to stand up and say something amazing we learned about another one of the finalists. Everyone was incredibly genuine, actually.”

There were a few finalists who were interviewed the next day. During a few hours of deliberations, the finalists talked about everything from their majors to their relationships to their experiences of loss. Then, “They lined us up Miss America-style and announced the winner,” Marshall says. There was some happy screaming from the two winners, and gracious smiles from the rest of the finalists.

The winners stayed behind to fill out paperwork, and the rest of the finalists left the courthouse, taking the elevator together down to the ground floor. Marshall says he still keeps in touch with some of the other finalists—they’ve all got a group chat. He says it’s impressive to see what the rest of them are doing after college.

The road in retrospect

It’s difficult even for the people who think about this most–applicants and people from the fellowships office–to come up with an explanation for Columbia’s lack of Rhodes success. Spectator has been writing articles about this phenomenon since the ’90s, and everyone I spoke to in my reporting says something along the lines of, “I’m curious what you find out.” They’ve all been asking the same questions themselves and have yet to come up with a satisfying, conclusive answer. That said, they all have theories of their own.

“The very fact that Harvard and Yale have won so many has created this reputation that they are the places that win.”

—Ian Scheffler, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016 and was a Rhodes finalist

Springer recalls the Rhodes process as being both very personal—he’d meet with his advisor for conversations about his individual goals and the best ways to achieve them—and also independent. He only came into contact with the Office of Global Programs and Fellowships, Carpenter’s office, after becoming a finalist. At this point, he went through the same mock interview training that other finalists, like Marshall, did.

And the way Springer tells it, his experience doesn’t seem like it was radically different from anybody else’s. The only difference is that he won.

He also parries every suggestion I make for why Columbia does so poorly in Rhodes Scholarships with his personal experience. An issue with the fellowships office? No, they struck an amazing balance with him. A lack of connection with professors and a difficulty getting recommendations? No, he was only at Columbia two years and he found three professors who knew him well with ease. (The other three were solicited from his professors at Sciences Po.)

The thing Springer does point out is that Columbia’s historical lack of success means that the infrastructure available to guide candidates, finalists in particular, through the process is weaker; there just aren’t many past winners to leave advice for the students trying to follow in their footsteps.

This is something he’s become more aware of in his conversations with fellow Rhodes winners at Oxford. He mentions Yale, specifically, as a school that seems to have developed a strong preparatory system.

“There is this rich resource of past experience they have access to. That’s what we’re trying to establish now, and hopefully we will, starting with this year; I volunteer to Skype with everyone and have written some document that might be of help.”

Springer has an interestingly optimistic view of Columbia’s future with the Rhodes. He seems to believe that his 2015 win means the start of a streak. Awn, too, was hopeful. He doesn’t expect immediate results, noting that the effects of Springer’s win might not become apparent for a few years, but he still thinks good things are come.

“We’ve only really been trying to engage GS students in the fellowship process for the last three or four years, and it takes several years to really get people into the pipeline. It’s wonderful to see it work out, it really is,” Awn says.

But Carpenter, who’s likely the most Rhodes-knowledgeable person on campus, isn’t so sure that Springer’s win assures future glory for Columbia. “I think we would’ve seen [an uptick in applications] already in this cycle,” he says, adding, somewhat glumly, “I’d like to say yes, but not really, no.”

Springer hopes his new expertise will help applicants ace the final interview. But perhaps the real problem arises long before they’ve reached that point.

“Two finalists. A lot of other schools have more than two winners every year, and we had two finalists.”

—Max Marshall, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016 and was a Rhodes finalist

Ian Scheffler speculates that Columbia’s culture is not conducive to producing the kind of prestige-driven academics who apply to the Rhodes.

“In terms of friends I had, we were much more concerned with achieving our own goals than with any kind of arbitrary external marker of success,” he says, explaining, “I lived in Writers House, and we were more or less setting our own benchmarks.”

Moreover, Scheffler says, you don’t come to Columbia because you want to win the Rhodes. Columbia’s performance, relative to other equally elite schools, has never been impressive. Since the scholarship’s inception in 1902, 354 Harvard students have won, in contrast to only 27 Columbians. This is a problem that’s rooted not in any specific fellowships office staff or strategy; it’s part of Columbia’s history.

Columbia’s never been the school to go to if you want a Rhodes Scholarship—and Scheffler didn’t mind.

He chose to come to Columbia in part because of its literary history—a school that’d been home to the Beat Generation poets felt like the right place for him. But had the Rhodes been his goal in his senior year of high school, maybe he would have been drawn to a different school. “The very fact that Harvard and Yale have won so many has created this reputation that they are the places that win,” he explains.

Both Marshall and Springer felt the same; neither of them came to Columbia with the intention of applying for the Rhodes. Marshall also posits that maybe Columbia students just don’t see the Rhodes as something that they need to win to be successful. At Columbia, “There isn’t this one single campus hierarchy,” he says, “whereas I feel like at certain Ivies, getting the Rhodes is seen as the great big trophy that means, like, you won Harvard. At Columbia, I don’t think it holds the social cachet.”

This lack of emphasis on the Rhodes, for Marshall, stems from the fact that Columbia students have diverse definitions of success. Being in New York, too, means that achieving publicly recognized success outside of academia is perhaps easier. Marshall cites Jonah Reider as a classmate who was lauded for a decidedly un-Rhodesian achievement. If running a restaurant out of your dorm room wins you public acclaim and the respect of your peers, why go all the way to Oxford?

And maybe the Rhodes and all that it stands for is simply runs counter to Columbia’s culture. Its WikiCU entry reads: “The scholarship’s original aim, to produce a hyper-elite of WASP superheroes to rule the British Empire, doesn’t quite jive with Columbia’s diverse, international student body, nor its postcolonial scholarship.”

“There isn’t this one single campus hierarchy, whereas I feel like at certain Ivies, getting the Rhodes is seen as the great big trophy that means, like, you won Harvard. At Columbia, I don’t think it holds the social cachet.”

—Max Marshall, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016 and was a Rhodes finalist

Sure, the description is tongue in cheek, but it’s also somewhat true. On an activist campus like Columbia’s, winning a fellowship named for the poster boy for colonialism isn’t at the top of everyone’s list.

Looking forward

As for what you end up doing when you don’t win the Rhodes, it’s not all bad. Scheffler remembers that his goal was to publish a novel five years after he graduated college. It’s been only four years, and his book came out last week. He’s done exactly what he hoped he would.

It’s comforting to hear him say that––it assuages a worry that I developed only as I was writing this piece: that the Rhodes was symbolic of a series of doors already closed to me.

Maybe the question to ask isn’t why more Columbia students don’t win the Rhodes. Maybe, rather, we should ask whether winning more Rhodes Scholarships would add anything to Columbia.

None of the finalists seemed to value Columbia any less for having missed out on the Rhodes. None of my friends, for whom the Rhodes isn’t even a goal, seem to feel there’s anything missing from their futures.

We’ll see this December if some uptick in Rhodes winners is in store for Columbia. But if there isn’t, we may be able to rest easy in knowing that maybe it doesn’t really matter at all.

When I ask Marshall what he’s doing in Vietnam, he explains that he’s on a program called Princeton in Asia, a fellowship that Carpenter recommended to him. He’s living in Hanoi writing for the Vietnam News. 

“It’s very chill, very cool. Totally different from the Rhodes in every sense of the word,” he says. “I’m loving it.”

Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.

Correction: A previous version of this article contained a graphic that listed winners who had applied from districts in the United States. The graphic has been updated to reflect all undergraduate winners from the United States and abroad. The Eye regrets the error. 
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