Sure, I’d polished my résumé, made the right grades, and kept up with current events. But did I deserve one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world if I wanted it for all the wrong reasons?
The morning of my Rhodes scholarship interview, I threw up in my hotel room. I slung my tie over my shoulder, kneeled onto the marble, and realized I had lied every time I told someone I was ready for this weekend. I was kind of ready. I had kept up with world events, attended my school’s mock interviews, written out mock answers, talked with mentors, and practiced a good, firm handshake. But there I was, washing out my mouth with Houston tap water, mainly because there was one interview question no amount of effort could prepare me for. The judges were going to ask why I wanted to be a Rhodes scholar, and the answer that was true wasn’t the answer that they would want to hear.
But it was already 9:15, and the competition started with breakfast. Fifteen minutes later, the District VIII finalists for the 2016 Rhodes scholarship found ourselves waiting in the muffin line. We were competing for at least two years’ worth of all-expenses-paid graduate study at Oxford University—and also for what felt like the lifetime achievement award for 22-year-olds. Our application process had begun with crafting a two-page résumé, gathering five to eight letters of recommendation, and writing an essay on who we were and what we were going to do for the world. After colleges had nominated their candidates and the Rhodes judges had read through a few hundred applications, each of the sixteen U.S. districts had named sixteen finalists. For us Texas/Oklahoma finalists, that meant getting to Houston, Ubering to the federal courthouse downtown, and offering ourselves up for inspection by six members of a selection committee at an interview, an extravagant “social gathering,” and a breakfast.
So I collected my muffins and walked to my seat. At my table sat four finalists and two judges. We talked Crimea and campus protest, but then it was time to introduce ourselves. One by one, each contestant stood up and hid his/her trembling body with straight posture and a beaming smile. Simple stuff: name, college, planned course of study. The six judges were appraising a diverse crew of finalists—among them, a Navy SEAL, a Yale-trained theologian, and a Texas Tech triple major. That said, almost two thirds of the finalists were male, too many were from Houston (at least for my Dallas taste), and most were vaguely athletic-looking.
Federal judge Keith Ellison stood up to speak. He had a good ol’ boy’s hickory-voiced swagger and a former Rhodes scholar’s abstract art collection, and he told us that tomorrow morning the judges would line us up and announce two winners. He quoted an English poet on the subject of failure, and he offered some advance consolation: “You just might meet your future spouse this weekend; it’s happened before.”
We opened envelopes and read the interview lineup. They always say that you can lose the Rhodes during the social rounds, but you gotta win it in the interview. For thirty minutes, the six judges ask you grave-digging questions on current events, ethics, and whatever else they want, and they’ll hand you as many shovels as you need. I was scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
The time between breakfast and lunch passed quickly. The finalists who weren’t interviewing sat in the courthouse lobby, swapping stories. We vented about our “finalist weekend” fear, and that felt good. But then a contestant would walk out of the interview room traumatized by some question on Syrian arms deals, and the fear would come right back. I tried to get a read on whether the other finalists wanted to be Rhodes scholars for the same reason I did, but I ran out of time. It was getting close to 1:30.
Judge Ellison’s assistant led me into his chambers. An antique crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, a big globe sat in the corner, and the judges folded their hands on a mahogany conference table. Everybody was in one of those “masters of the universe” oxblood leather chairs. I sat down at the head and grinned.
They started soft, asking me about my internet radio show that plays seventies country and new Southern rap. I’m always down to talk Waylon and Young Thug, but after forty seconds of smiling back and forth, they cut me off. New question: “Do you believe in free will?”
Onward and upward. In addition to Judge Ellison, the panel had a CalTech jet propulsion researcher, a groundbreaking chemical engineer, a Stanford English professor, an MD with a Ph.D. in Victorian literature, and an oil executive (with degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Cambridge) who retired in her thirties to become a full-time philanthropist. All but one was a former Rhodes scholar. Their game was to ask a complex question, demand a concise response, and then challenge the answer’s logical, practical, or ethical flaws. If you tried to meander or juke for a second, someone would cut you off with “You’re not answering the question.”
They had read my transcript, memorized chunks of my statement, and even researched books I was supposed to have read in classes. They asked me if I felt morally complicit in going to college in a gentrified part of New York City, if I’d publish a story revealing that a major family-values Republican was having a homosexual affair, if one could be religious without believing in miracles. They asked over a dozen other questions, each judge culling them from a folder of notes with my name on it. They were thoughtful and aggressive, and I actually felt fine. I stumbled to get to a point or two, but answers were getting nods and jokes were getting laughs.
Then they asked me why I wanted to be a Rhodes scholar. I quoted the scholarship’s mission statement (“Fighting the world’s fight”) and tied it to my proposed course of study (ethical philosophy). In short, I danced around the truth; I didn’t tell them the thing that really motivated me. As always, my dancing led to stumbling.
A judge noted that if my life goal, as I’d stated earlier, was to play guitar and write for Texas Monthly, I didn’t need a master’s degree from Oxford. I couldn’t disagree, but I tried. Judge Ellison mercifully put an end to my stuttering by announcing that there was time for one more question. The Victorian literature Ph.D. asked for my favorite Victorian novelist, and the only name in my head was Jane Austen. They let me go on about it for a minute—I made something up about bourgeois social critique or free indirect speech or something—until the Stanford English professor kindly said what everyone else knew: “Aren’t you in the wrong century? Jane Austen was a Georgian writer.” I told them I didn’t like Charles Dickens and thanked them for their time.
I reported back to the circle of finalists, and we spent the next ten minutes Wikipedia-ing Wuthering Heights. This weird pressure-cooker weekend made for some beautiful conversations. We geeked out. We traded favorite philosophers, debated geopolitics, compared that weekend to various reality dating shows, and laughed—laughed to exhale the edge, laughed because it felt good, laughed after we realized that the weekend wasn’t a competition but a lesson in group survival.
It was a good thing, too, because we were going to need one another at the evening’s social gathering. It was getting dark, and the finalists all piled into cars. We headed across town to dine, drink, and perform for the judges. The philanthropist had generously offered to host. We strung our way through Houston, toward River Oaks, up a long driveway to a shimmering glass house. An assistant in Persol eyeglasses stretched out his hand and led us into the most luxurious physical space I’ve ever inhabited. The horizontal lines, flowing light, and smooth reflection pool all reminded me of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, except this place had a slightly more expensive art collection. I asked the philanthropist about her curatorial choices, and she said, “I just buy pieces I like, that’s all. Although I do suppose that that Matisse is important, and so is that Pollock, and so are those Picassos.”
The finalists were too nervous to drink wine, but we still had a good time. The judges loosened up, the servers laid out seafood and red meat, and we talked for hours. I got a lot of Victorian literature suggestions. We still had to perform for the judges, though. At one point we had to say which work of fiction we’d like to base a road trip on. After dessert, each of us was asked to stand up and compliment another finalist. After all the hours and all those talks, that part was genuine.
We headed back to our hotel rooms to attempt sleep. The next morning the judges would do callback interviews if needed, and after deliberation they’d announce the two winners. I knew I wasn’t going to sleep much, not because I was nervous but because I got into bed feeling like a fraud. When the judges had asked why I wanted to be a Rhodes scholar, I told them it was to fight the world’s fight. I guess “I’m a trophy hunter and this is a big, shiny trophy” wouldn’t have sounded sufficient. I may have wanted to fight for the good of the world, but as the judges had more or less pointed out earlier, you didn’t need an Oxford fellowship to do that. Really, I was fighting to make the world think good of me. I wanted to be a Rhodes scholar because I wanted the prestige, the existential affirmation, and the social media capital. I wanted a team of experts to aim its searchlights at me, look into what it saw, and declare I was worthy of the club. The semester before, I was studying in South Africa, joining protests to tear down a statue of Cecil Rhodes. Now I was jockeying for his scholarship.
Hours later, we were back in the courthouse lobby. We knew the judges didn’t need any callbacks; they had been alone in chambers for about two hours. They were picking winners. By then we had a bank of inside jokes, so time kept moving. But we stopped laughing when the judges started processioning down the blue carpet. They lined up, and we remained seated. They were going to unveil the winners with all the contestants right next to one another, Miss America–style.
“This year’s District VIII Rhodes scholars are . . .”
I didn’t win, but you probably could have guessed that. What kind of schmuck would write a two-thousand-word think piece on winning the Rhodes scholarship? When it comes to fellowship weekends, history isn’t written by the victors. But losing taught me something worth writing about: that the Rhodes isn’t intended to be a Twenty-two Years of Lifetime Achievement Award. It may be a glowing ring, but the winners should be people who apply with motives other than “I want people to know me as a Rhodes scholar.” There’s a better, simpler reason to want the Rhodes: two free years at Oxford. It’s a scholarship, and it invests in remarkable people who would do the most for the world with an Oxford degree. In Texas, in 2016, two of those people were Laura Roberts and Thomas Carroll.
The judges asked Laura and Tom to stay for photos, and the rest of us left. All fourteen non-winners found ourselves alone together in the elevator. We had been strangers, then competitors, then mutual survivors, and now we were friends crammed into a small space in a Houston courthouse. We walked out, sighed, hugged again, started a group text, and headed outside toward the rest of our lives. Because I’m a walking cliché, I headed to the hotel bar. Eventually, I’ll have to learn that no panel, no club, no trophy can validate your worth or make you happy. It’s a tough lesson, but, who knows, maybe some Victorian novel has something to teach me about it.
Dallas writer Max Marshall is currently a Princeton in Asia Journalism Fellow in Vietnam.