Any boxer’s first time inside the ring is intimidating. The knowledge that you are about to be punched in the face can either paralyze you with terror, or fill you with nervous energy. For Evan Walker, it was the latter. 

“I was just a busy bee all over the ring,” she remembers about her first fight, against a woman from the University of Connecticut. Walker’s coach even told her to slow down. “I lost that fight,” Walker says. “I was so nervous, I got caught up in trying to be first at everything, and so I got smoked.” 

That was Walker’s freshman year at West Point. The loss haunted her, she says. Though boxing is an individual sport, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d let down her teammates, whom she refers to as her brothers and sisters. So Walker kept fighting to make sure she wouldn’t feel that way again. 

She fought through a broken thumb to beat an opponent from the Air Force Academy. She fought against her love of cookies to make weight. In four years of boxing at the United States Military Academy, Walker would lose only one other match. 

It was all part of the “grit and resilience” she says she learned from fighting. Walker went on to become a two-time captain of West Point’s women’s boxing team, and last year she advanced to the national finals in individual competition. Outside the ring, that tenacity has helped make her a leader and a 2021 Rhodes Scholar–elect. She’s one of three Texans to earn the elite scholarship this year. Walker joins Jeremy Thomas, who grew up in Missouri City and attends Amherst College, and Kendall Jefferys, from Keller, who studies at Duke University. The internationally competitive award, whose past recipients include the likes of President Bill Clinton and journalist Rachel Maddow, covers the cost of a graduate degree at the University of Oxford. She plans to study comparative social policy, with a focus on racial and gender inequality in the workplace.

Texas Monthly spoke with the 21-year-old Rowlett native about boxing, her experience at West Point, and how she plans to spend her time at Oxford and beyond.

Texas Monthly: When did you begin boxing?

Evan Walker: I didn’t start boxing until I got to West Point. My three cousins who were at the academy were members of the team and they were like, ‘Hey, you want to hang out with us?’ So originally, I just joined to hang with my cousins as a family affair, almost. But I stayed because I learned so much more about self-defense. That team has been with me through everything at the academy. And when you aren’t in the ring, you’re pushing yourself so that you can help train that teammate who is going to have a fight. Boxing just teaches a lot about discipline and that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. You need to work hard for the people to your left and right.

TM: Was attending West Point always a goal?

EW: I originally wanted to go to Rice University. That was my dream school since sixth grade. West Point came on my radar when my cousins—who graduated classes of ’18, ’19, and ’20—went and said, ‘Hey, just give it a go.’ So I did a summer training there and I didn’t like it. I stopped applying. And then late my senior year, I went on a visit in January and thought, ‘I kind of like this.’ I started my application super late. Traditionally, everyone gets the congressional nomination and all that stuff. I didn’t get any of that. I applied in February and by the grace of God, I was accepted. I think with that divine intervention, it was meant for me to be at the academy.

TM: On that January visit, what made you change your mind about West Point?

EW: First, the people. That’s what a lot of cadets always say; the relationships you build here. There are difficulties here, rigorous training and academics. Having that level of shared struggle and camaraderie with other cadets—these are my lifelong friends. And second, the development. It’s something more than academics. With the military, the discipline and leadership experiences I’ve had, I think I’ve developed into the best version of myself. I found myself in that way and am more confident and developed into the leader that I am now.

TM: What is your rank at West Point?

EW: I’m a cadet. That’s the step before commissioning as a second lieutenant in the Army. We have different leadership positions within the academy. This year, as a senior, I’m a cadet regimental commander, or a cadet captain. I’m responsible for 1,100 other cadets and the decision-making and the operational things that go along with our regiment. There’s four regiments within the core of cadets, and I’m the commander of one of them.

TM: These are impressive leadership positions. Have you always seen yourself as a leader?

EW: Not in the formal sense. I think everyone can be an informal leader, and that was me when I was younger. A structure of West Point is that when you start, your only responsibility is yourself. Just making sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. And then each year you have more opportunities to grow and lead other people. So, I wouldn’t say I was always a leader and had this leadership philosophy and mindset. That comes over the years with experience, and lessons learned, and failures, and things that worked observing other people and how they lead—taking notes on that—and finding mentors. 

TM: As a Black woman in a position of leadership in the United States Military Academy, do you see yourself as having a special responsibility? 

EW: Definitely paving the way for others. It’s about encouraging other Black women at the academy, or minorities, and empowering them so they can do what I’ve done too. I think you’re more likely to put yourself out there when you see people who look like you. When I was a freshman, I remember the first female Black first captain [to lead the student body], Simone Askew. I saw her and I was like, ‘Woah, that’s so cool. Yeah, she might be the first after 217 years, but now I know that’s actually possible.’ It showed that it was okay [for me] to be a leader at the academy. And I hope with the different leadership positions I’ve held here and leaving with the Rhodes Scholarship, I can empower minorities and women so that they can be in these spaces too and do well.

TM: What was it like to learn you’d won the Rhodes Scholarship?

EW: I was lost for words. I was so surprised. Usually I would have gone to Texas [for interviews], but because of COVID, we did everything via Zoom. The committee called us into the virtual room and they said, ‘Y’all aren’t going to remember anything we say, so we’ll just go ahead and do it real quick.’ I literally just stopped. There’s no way. This is not happening. And all the finalists congratulated us then logged off. And just Kendall [Jefferys] and I were left with the committee. The whole time, I’m like, surely they’re going to tell me to log off, that I didn’t win. It was so unreal, even now, talking to former scholars and hearing their experiences and the tips they have for me throughout this process, it’s amazing. It’s crazy.

TM: What’s next for you?

EW: Short term, I’ll go to the University of Oxford for two years and complete a master’s. Then I’ll come back to the U.S. and do my officer basic course. As of right now, I just see myself going back and being a military intelligence officer for however long I love it. Given this opportunity to go to graduate school right out of West Point, whenever I’m done with my time in the Army, I’ll have something to support me on wherever life takes me next. I would like to eventually work for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I want to make sure that things are more equitable in the workplace. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.