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Rhodes Scholarships: Some years are "the odd ones out"
STANFORD -- With five Marshall Scholars this year, Stanford University must be doing something right. Indeed - except for Harvard, which also had five Marshalls - no other school came even close in the prestigious competition.
So why were there no Rhodes Scholars from Stanford this year?
David Alexander, president emeritus of Pomona College and American secretary of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, said the Stanford community really shouldn't be too concerned.
"Extrapolating conclusions on the basis of one year alone is risky," Alexander, himself a former Rhodes Scholar, said.
Bechtel International Center Director John Pearson, who guides Stanford students through the Rhodes and Marshall application process, agreed.
"It may just be that this was our odd year out," Pearson said. "Had we not done so extremely well in the Marshalls, I would be worried."
Still, Pearson said, "it does bring into question the sort of philosophy that has guided the Stanford process over the years - this being that the role of the [Rhodes/Marshall] panel and the I- Center is not to provide applicants for the awards, but [to provide] advice to applicants."
In recent years, Pearson and his staff at the International Center have made a more concentrated effort to publicize the scholarships and assist students with the application process, in much the same way that house fellowship committees help students at Harvard University.
However, unlike Harvard (which boasted five Rhodes winners this year) Stanford does not seek out and cultivate potential Rhodes Scholars early in their undergraduate years.
Instead, each spring Pearson sends letters to all faculty asking them to nominate seniors for the fall competition. After students submit their applications, nearly all are interviewed by the Stanford Rhodes/Marshall committee, a group made up of faculty, staff and students who have had experience in British higher education.
The committee then writes a letter of recommendation for each applicant, reflecting the applicant's relative strength in the Stanford pool. Students who are granted state and regional interviews get additional coaching from individual committee members.
In recent years, Stanford has done very well in encouraging qualified students to apply. This year, a record 50 Stanford students went after Rhodes, Marshalls or both, nearly twice as many as were applying in the mid-1980s, Pearson said.
However, because of Stanford's relatively late fall starting date, the application procedure here is rushed in comparison with other schools.
"Our campus deadline for Rhodes/Marshall applications is at the end of the first week of classes, we hold on-campus interviews the week after that, and the national deadline for submitting completed applications is around Oct. 18," Pearson noted.
"We try to do a lot of publicity in the spring, but every year we still have a number of excellent candidates who apply very late in the process. We really miss an opportunity to work with them."
Pearson also is concerned that Stanford students are not getting enough interview coaching in the crucial Thanksgiving week window between state and regional interviews.
"Almost 50 percent of our Rhodes applicants go on to state interviews each year, but something is happening after that. They're not proceeding in the process," Pearson said.
"This fall, former Marshall Scholars at Stanford, especially Susan Reinhold of the Humanities and Sciences development office, spent a great deal of time with students who received Marshall regional interviews. We need to develop something along this line with Rhodes interviewees and work with them earlier," he said.
Stanford graduate student Jonathan Feng, a Harvard Marshall Scholar now serving on Stanford's Rhodes/Marshall committee, believes that the unique structure of the Rhodes competition also puts Californians at a disadvantage compared their Eastern counterparts.
While the Marshall interviews are conducted on a regional basis, he said, "Rhodes applicants can apply either through their home state or through the state of their university. There are obviously a number of states with large populations in the Northeast, and most Harvard students have the choice of applying outside of Massachusetts.
"This gives Harvard an advantage over Stanford, because a greater number of Harvard candidates can advance to the Rhodes regional competition."
Other important differences between Stanford and Harvard also may account for the disparity, Feng added.
"My personal opinion is that the greatest problem that Stanford faces is the relative separation of graduate students and undergraduates," Feng said. "It has always amazed me that Stanford spends a great deal of institutional and faculty time and resources to attract an extraordinary group of graduate students . . . only to lock them away in labs and libraries.
"Graduate and professional school students are by far the biggest untapped resource for Marshall and Rhodes applicants," he said. "In my case, they provided far greater insights than application forms or outdated university catalogs, and also more helpful advice than faculty members. In general, they also increase the awareness of undergrads about the opportunities available in the United Kingdom."
Finally, it may be that Stanford students are somehow better suited to the Marshall than the Rhodes.
Established in 1953 as an expression of British gratitude for the Marshall Plan, Marshall Scholarships enable students to study free for two years at any British university. Traditionally, they have favored practical, career-oriented applicants with strong intellectual backgrounds who also are involved with public service.
Rhodes scholarships provide funding for two years at Oxford University. Winners usually have sweeping ideas about how they want to contribute to humanity - to fight "the world's fight," in the words of British colonial pioneer Cecil Rhodes - in addition to being academically gifted and physically vigorous.
"The mythology is that the Marshalls are more intellectual and the Rhodes are more well rounded, but the Stanford results are counterindicative," said history Professor Peter Stansky, chairman of the Rhodes/Marshall committee. "You'd think Stanford students would do better in the Rhodes - they're supposed to be terrifically well rounded."
Still, Stansky said he did notice more "policy wonks" in this year's Stanford pool - "students who were more interested in the mechanics of policy than in policy itself."
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