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Becoming a Rhodes Scholar

The second time was the charm for Andrew Lanham ’10.  The English and philosophy double major was turned down in his first try for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship in 2009.  But this year, Lanham, who was an accomplished athlete at Haverford as well as a top scholar, took the prize.  Lanham, 23, will be one of 32 American undergraduate students studying at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship beginning in fall 2011.  A native of Wooster, Ohio, he plans to study American literature.

Philip A. Bean, Dean of Academic Affairs and Associate Dean of the College, says he first met Andrew during his freshman year and watched him find his voice and develop into an original thinker in the humanities and a person of character over the years.  “Many of us guided and encouraged and informally served as sounding boards at different times, but in the end, Andrew relied on his own inner resources to craft the candidacy and, more importantly, to justify it in an interview and thus to win the Rhodes.  It's a marvelous thing to see how a relatively quiet but clearly very thoughtful freshman transformed into such a self-actuated and compelling individual capable of impressing people who are not at all easily impressed,” says Bean.

As one of the best-known – and, to many, the most widely respected –  of undergraduate fellowships, the Rhodes is a household name.  But what does it take to become a Rhodes Scholar, both in terms of personal accomplishments and the process that conceivably begins with a pool of some 1.8 million college seniors and ends with just 32 winners?

Pivotal Experiences

To look at Lanham’s Haverford experience is to look at someone who made the most of his opportunities across every dimension.  As a member of Haverford’s cross-country team, Andrew won the MacIntosh Award (conferred on the most accomplished student-athlete in the freshman class), served as captain of the cross-country team, and won the Ambler Award (conferred on the leading scholar-athletes in a graduating class) as well as an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship.  He also earned top graduation prizes conferred by Haverford's English and Philosophy Departments, was one of only three students in his class to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior, and one of two members of the class of 2010 who graduated summa cum laude.  In addition, Andrew served as co-chair of Honor Council and as a teaching assistant in the Philosophy Department.

An internship with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council in 2009 proved to be a pivotal experience for Lanham.  During the 2009 internship, coordinated through Haverford’s John B. Hurford '60 Humanities Center, Lanham worked to save funding for libraries following state budget cuts, among other projects.

“The Hurford Humanities Center is a great way to put humanities students in touch with how the humanities function in our society today,” Lanham says.  “It really opened my eyes to how professors in English and Philosophy get in contact with the public.”

Currently, Lanham is a resident assistant, tutor in math and science, and mentor to underprivileged minority students from New York City who are attending Lower Merion High School under the auspices of the nonprofit program A Better Chance.

Lanham’s hands-on experience with the students has been invaluable to his growth as a humanist, notes Laura McGrane, an Assistant Professor of English and a Rhodes scholar herself.  “Many of my undergraduates spend summers and academic years working abroad in international cultural contexts, and I support their endeavors wholeheartedly.  To my mind, however, Andrew is mining crucial questions about the American educational system with its race and class inequities in this educational work so close to home,” says McGrane.  In addition to his work with ABC, Lanham is McGrane’s research assistant for her book manuscript “Oracular Politics in English Print and Popular Culture.”

Cheering Lanham On

Asked who have been his main inspirations and influences at Haverford, Lanham pauses for a long moment before saying, “Too many people to list.”

Haverford professors “are incredibly well-rounded in their approach to teaching,” Lanham explains.  “They bring all aspects of human culture into teaching.”  Humanities professors in particular, “create very good critical thinkers capable of thinking about anything,” he adds. While Lanham’s modesty is well known, it is not difficult to get his professors and advisors to sing his praises.  Christina Zwarg, an Associate Professor of English and Lanham’s English thesis director, confesses she often saved Lanham’s essays as one of the last to read “so I could enjoy myself at the end of a long session of reading papers.”

“He’s just one of the most accomplished students I’ve ever taught,” says Zwarg.  “He’s an all-around great student.” She notes that Lanham’s senior thesis, “Shakespeare Contra Nietzsche; or How to Playwrite with a Hammer,” involved “a brilliant engagement with questions working across the disciplines of philosophy and literary history.”

Andrew’s literary and scholarly attainments as a double major in English and philosophy are really extraordinary. It is not just that his grades are stellar but rather what earns him these grades that marks his true distinction,” notes his philosophy mentor, Professor Kathleen Wright, who recalls his oral presentation on James Joyce's Ulysses and Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.

In addition, Wright says that Lanham's non-self-assertive style -- a "team" leadership -- worked to encourage dialogue between students of diverse majors taking classes in philosophy. “Andrew shows us how learning from one's peers really works in the classroom in the humanities,” she says.

Lanham’s Rhodes win is part of a remarkable year of accomplishment for Haverford students and alumni.  Five Haverford students won Fulbrights, two won Watsons and another was named a Churchill Scholar, the second in three years.

Dean Bean notes that Lanham is one of only four Rhodes Scholarship winners from a liberal arts college and one of only two recipients to work in the humanities.  (Haverford’s last Rhodes Scholar, Daniel Mark Bloomfield, received the honor in 1982.)

“An array of factors helped Andrew become the exemplary individual he has become, but I think it is crucial to recognize that had he not already been the thoughtful, kind, and serious-minded individual he was already as a freshman, our best efforts would not have led to this very happy juncture,” notes Bean.  He anticipates that Lanham will bring his work in the humanities to the classroom and the broader community.

The Road to a Rhodes Scholarship

British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes created the Rhodes Scholarship in 1902, which today covers all university fees as well as travel costs to and from Oxford, and provides a stipend for day-to-day expenses for up to three years of study.  Approximately 80 students from around the world received the award this year.

Rhodes Scholars are selected according to four criteria (www.rhodesscholar.org):

•    Literary and scholastic attainments.

•    Energy to use one’s talents 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.

•    Moral force of character and instincts to lead and to take an interest in one’s fellow beings.

McGrane points out that while Lanham’s athletic prowess was certainly a plus, students who excel in other areas, such as dance or theater, should not be discouraged from applying for a Rhodes Scholarship. The process of preparing an application can take at least a year, if not more, according to McGrane.  Students are required to write an essay; Lanham wrote his on how literature shapes the way people interact in the world.  Applicants must also be endorsed by their academic institution.  At Haverford, a committee interviews all Rhodes aspirants to decide whether the college will officially endorse the applicant.

“The nominating committee was especially impressed by the purposefulness and refinement of Andrew’s proposal to foster the ties between fiction and “real life” experiences or in his words, “to enact fiction’s real-world relevance,” wrote Bethel Saler, an associate professor of history and the chair of the honors and fellowships committee at Haverford, in her nominating letter for Lanham. “In other words, he is dedicated to the entwinement of literary studies and public service.”

Applicants must also gather six to eight letters of recommendation from faculty, internship supervisors, and others, McGrane says.  At Haverford, Lanham also went through several rounds of mock interviews set up by his advisors. Finally, candidates meet with the Rhodes Scholarship committee of six to eight members, first informally at a reception and then for a formal interview.  The committee interviews the candidates for 20 to 30 minutes and then reaches its decision the same day.

Just going through the application process is worth the journey of self-discovery, says Lanham.  “The odds of getting any of these scholarships is immensely low, but there is great value in applying,” Lanham says.  “By the end, you are expressing who you are.”

Lanham says one of the aspects of the program that he is looking forward to most is meeting Rhodes Scholars from around the world who will also be attending Oxford.  And, if winning the honor isn’t exciting enough, the trip to England will be Lanham’s first time traveling outside the United States.

-Samantha Drake

Prof. Anita Isaacs (Political Science) and students cross Founders Green after class.

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