Education

University of Iowa Rhodes scholar exemplifies diversity surge

'It simply reflects the fact that - as has always been the case - America is a country of immigrants'

University of Iowa senior Austin Hughes, 21, of Arlington, Texas, has been selected as a Rhodes Scholar and will attend Oxford University beginning in October 2019. Photographed in the English-Philosophy Building in Iowa City on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
University of Iowa senior Austin Hughes, 21, of Arlington, Texas, has been selected as a Rhodes Scholar and will attend Oxford University beginning in October 2019. Photographed in the English-Philosophy Building in Iowa City on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — The man behind the prestigious Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University has a controversial legacy involving blood diamonds, racist ideology and white supremacy — making the newest crop of American recipients particularly noteworthy.

It’s the most diverse class of scholars in program history, with 21 women and 18 minorities — including three African-Americans, such as University of Iowa senior Austin Hughes, 21, from Arlington, Texas.

“The fact that the Rhodes Trust made these decisions, it bodes well,” said Hughes, who became the University of Iowa’s 21st Rhodes scholar last month. “We all have to think about how to live together.”

Nearly half the 32 American recipients who will receive about $70,000 a year to study at Oxford in England beginning in October 2019 are immigrants or first-generation students — which also describes Hughes, as he’s the first in his family to finish college.

The group chosen from 880 applicants representing 281 U.S. colleges and universities includes refugees and children of parents from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Ethiopia, for example. One is the first to receive the scholarship as an undocumented immigrant protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“We are shaking the foundations of our understanding about (Cecil) Rhodes and the Rhodes scholarship in America, and what its legacy will be,” Hughes said.

Last year’s American class of Rhodes scholars delivered the most African-American recipients since the scholarship’s founding in 1902 — with 10. But Elliot Gerson, American secretary for the Rhodes Trust, told The Gazette the increased diversity has not been intentional.

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“We obviously, like many institutions, celebrate diversity. But we do not ask for diversity in any way,” Gerson said. “We have no guidelines, quotas, suggestions, innuendoes whatsoever, other than to choose the best people in each region.”

Out of more than 100 Rhodes scholarships distributed annually, the United States awards 32 — picking two recipients in each of 16 districts. Selection committees interview finalists at locations across the country on the same weekend, announcing winners the night of their final interviews — making it impossible to coordinate diversity.

Rather, Gerson said, selectors stick to criteria laid out in Cecil Rhodes’ will, including scholastic attainment; energy to use one’s talents to the full; moral force of character; sympathy for and protection of the weak; and leadership qualities.

Still, the increase in diversity delivers a message, Gerson said.

“It simply reflects the fact that — as has always been the case — America is a country of immigrants,” Gerson said. “That is something we should celebrate and be thankful for.”

‘Comfortable with discomfort’

When Hughes applied to the UI four years ago, he didn’t foresee England as a stop along his academic journey. In fact, Iowa seemed quite the leap from Texas — as he’d never visited the state until arriving for his freshman year.

But the logic behind Hughes’ decision to become a Hawkeye makes Oxford an unsurprising detour — even though it will be his first foray outside the country.

“Early on in high school ... I learned that if I wanted to really grow as a person, that I had to get comfortable with discomfort,” he said. “I just felt like Iowa would have more opportunities for me to experience new things and new people.”

In his aspirations to become a poet Hughes enrolled as an English major and later added creative writing and Japanese language and literature. He incorporated numerous extra-curriculars — joining the South Asian dance team, co-leading the English Society and mentoring peers through the Iowa Edge program, for select minority and first-generation students.

He found connection as a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Tau Delta and reported feeling like Iowa was more similar to his home in Arlington than he expected — and slightly more diverse.

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“I was struck by how many people of color were here,” he said. “I didn’t have any expectations for who or what would be here. But there were a lot, and that was a pleasant surprise.”

One of Hughes’ English professors — Blaine Greteman, a Rhodes scholar himself — first planted the scholarship seed in Hughes during his sophomore year.

“He shoulder tapped me and said, ‘Hey, I think you should keep this opportunity on your radar,’ ” Hughes said. “I put it in my back pocket as something I could do.”

The more he read, the more he agreed the Rhodes route was a good fit for his post-undergrad plan to study pre-modern Japanese literature and how Japanese culture was represented in English literature during the same period.

“That’s when I really started taking the process seriously,” he said.

The Rhodes application felt deeply personal, as it asks applicants to ponder their role toward the greater good.

“I was doing a lot of thinking about how I wound up being interested in English and poetry,” Hughes said. “It was very vulnerable to have to say, ‘Hello Rhodes Trust. I am a poet and that should matter to you.”

After submitting his application over the summer, Hughes said he was “pleasantly surprised to even become a finalist.” UI senior Melissa Lauer joined him on the short list.

The night of their final interview, Hughes said, he was “100 percent surprised” to be chosen.

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“With the level of finalists, it could have been anyone in that room,” he said.

‘No contradiction at all’

Being in the mix of recipients with such diversity is a “strange feeling,” Hughes said, noting its juxtaposition with the scholarship’s founder — a British imperialist who was prime minister of Cape Colony, today’s South Africa, and founder of the diamond-mining company De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd.

Many regard Rhodes as an architect of apartheid whose writings consisted of white supremacist ideology. Most of his fortune went toward the scholarships at Oxford, which he established in his will would go to young men from the colonies and from the United States and Germany.

But many ethnicities from many countries have become Rhodes scholars over the years — including dozens of women, who first were allowed as recipients in 1977. And, despite Rhodes’ character complexities, American Secretary Gerson said he doesn’t find today’s diverse recipient pool incongruous with the scholarship’s roots.

“The Rhodes Trust has never celebrated Cecil Rhodes the man, or Cecil Rhodes’ career, but it’s celebrated his vision in his bequest and will to create a network of extraordinarily talented people dedicated to the world’s fight,” Gerson said. “So, in that sense, it’s no contradiction at all.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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