In the eyes of most, senior Don Goodson has it all.
Respected by his professors and revered by his classmates, Goodson is preparing to depart GW after a highly successful college career that has included internships at the Department of Homeland Security and the American Embassy in Paris. Goodson has been awarded numerous scholarships, has been on the Dean’s List of Scholars since freshman year and was granted GW’s Citation for Outstanding Academic Achievement.
Even so, his credentials, like those of most, failed to meet the seemingly insurmountable test of the Rhodes Scholarships committee.
“It is really tough. In order to become a Rhodes Scholar you have to jump through quite a few hoops,” said Goodson, who was a finalist for the scholarship.
Despite the world-renowned reputation, many students at GW remain confused as to the true nature of the mysterious scholarship. Over the years, many have grown skeptical, if not blatantly suspicious, of the program and its taxing selection process.
“You always hear people mentioning it, but it’s one of those things you feel stupid asking about,” said sophomore Karen Hussein.
The Rhodes Scholarships are the oldest international fellowship program in the English-speaking world; once selected, applicants are sent to Oxford University in England to study the promotion of international understanding and peace.
The more than 900 candidates undergo three levels of review: the university level, state committee level and district committee level. Ultimately, the selection process yields 32 individuals to represent the United States in Oxford for a duration of one or two years.
The American scholars then join a larger group of 90 individuals chosen from throughout the world.
“Many people don’t realize that it is actually a global scholarship with scholars coming from all over the English-speaking world, including countries ranging from Canada to Zimbabwe,” Goodson said.
Rhodes Scholars, as established in the will of Cecil J. Rhodes, must be individuals who possess prestigious scholastic achievement, success in athletics, dedication and vigor, fellowship as demonstrated by service to the community and leadership.
This protocol, however, is not categorical. Susan Karamanian, a former Rhodes Scholar who has also served on the Rhodes Texas selection committee, said, “The typical Rhodes Scholar is hard to define. If anything, the scholars are diverse.”
Many believe the selection process is difficult and ambiguous, despite the distinct criteria. “The selection process is complicated because the qualities being sought are hard to judge,” said Charles Karelis, a GW philosophy professor who twice served on the final selection committees for New York and the surrounding states.
Francis DuVinage, deputy director of honors and fellowships at GW, expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “There is always some uncertainty about how you get from 900 really high-powered, well-qualified applicants to 32 winners. I think there’s just a certain uncertainty.”
Regardless of the skepticism, Karelis insisted the selection process is fair and open. The judges’ names are public, he said, as well as the selection criteria and procedures.
“(The selection process) is completely transparent, and many of its recipients have written detailed accounts of their experience,” he insisted.
Although most current assessments regard the Rhodes selection process as nondiscriminatory, Goodson offered interesting insight into a program that began with very different objectives.
“Rhodes intended his vast fortune to be used to educate future leaders of the Anglo-Saxon world. In other words, white males. Rhodes was the quintessential Victorian imperialist and I doubt he could ever have imagined that his money would be used to educate women, blacks and other minorities,” he said.
Since its original draft, however, the will of Cecil Rhodes has undergone a modern interpretation so that it accommodates society’s greater understanding of equality in gender and race and reflects an impartial perspective.
The Rhodes Scholarships brochure, published by the Office of the American Secretary of The Rhodes Trust, reads, “(Cecil Rhodes) specifically directed that no candidate for a Scholarship should be qualified or disqualified on account of race or religious opinions.”
At its outset, however, this may not have been completely accurate, Goodson said.
The nature of the Rhodes Scholarships remains of interest today particularly because prominent Rhodes Scholars include former President Bill Clinton (1968) and former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark (1966).
Although it is true that several members of the Clinton administration were Rhodes Scholars, both DuVinage and Karamanian said that this is most likely due to the close bonds formed between the scholars during the selection process and their time at Oxford, rather than to a secret society.
DuVinage, who has had personal contact with many Rhodes Scholars, said, “I’ve never had the sense that they’ve been doing anything particularly unusual – the Rhodes program is not comparable to the kinds of secret societies we hear about at Ivy League universities that do all sorts of strange things in basements.”
Rhodes Scholar Karamanian said, “We don’t have any secret meetings, or at least I am not aware of them.”
Regardless of reputation, the scholarship remains a desirable option for students throughout the nation. Over the years, several students at GW have made it as far as the final interview rounds, which Karamanian considers a success in itself. She notes that being selected ultimately depends on a number of factors that must coalesce simultaneously.
Though the process is difficult, GW students should not give up hope, Karamanian added.
“Each year it seems that a school that has never had a Rhodes Scholar has one selected,” she said. “In my judgment it’s just a matter of time before a GW student is selected.”