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The Rhodes Less Traveled

By Abbey Becker

Photo by Murugi Thande

Photo by Murugi Thande

When she was a freshman, Hanaleah Hoberman, BA psychology ’13, would read about stellar students who were accomplishing seemingly insurmountable feats. “I’d compare myself to the kids in the articles and feel like I wasn’t doing enough,” she says. “It always seems like someone is doing more.” 

In 2013, however, Hoberman joined that pool of stellar students when she was named a Rhodes Scholarship finalist. “I actually didn’t consider doing the Rhodes initially,” she says. “I was interested in doing a Fulbright in Mexico on the power of oral traditions to heal cultural trauma among indigenous peoples in Oaxaca. But I had only been studying abroad in Chile a month, and my Spanish wasn’t good enough yet to pass the language requirement.”

When her merit awards adviser suggested that she might be a good candidate for a U.K. scholarship, such as a Marshall or a Rhodes, she began to rethink her options. “I knew 100 percent that graduate school was in my future,” says Hoberman. “I decided to look into the awards as a vehicle to get there.”

The more she learned about Rhodes through research and conversations with former scholars, the more confident she became that the award might be a good fit. “They put a big emphasis on service and community, and I’d really emphasized those things in my time at AU,” she says, referring to her efforts to help found a labor rights student organization and organize workers at AU to improve the labor situation. 

The oldest of international fellowships and among the most respected, the Rhodes provides full tuition to a degree program at Oxford University. Past winners include former president Bill Clinton, political correspondent George Stephanopoulos, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, and astronomer Edwin Hubble. 

Each year, 32 Americans are selected through a process whereby the 50 states and Washington, D.C., are grouped into 16 districts. Members of each district committee conduct interviews and select the strongest candidates, no more than two, who will represent the state or states within that district as Rhodes Scholars at Oxford. The winners are announced at the close of the interviews; no alternates are selected. 

There is no limit as to how many students a university may nominate, but AU typically keeps its list small. Hoberman was one of only a handful of nominees. “The merit awards office puts so much energy into the people they choose,” she says, “and they want to give [the students] as much support as possible.” 

Rhodes applicants must submit a personal essay. Hoberman, whose minor was creative writing, focused on her gap year between high school and college, when she taught English at a school in a Bedouin desert community in Israel. “I wrote about how that experience shaped the way I think and about psychology and intervention, particularly regarding empowerment- based community intervention and activism as a means for preventing mental illness.” 

After learning that she had been selected as a finalist, Hoberman flew to Texas, her home state, for her district interview— and a luncheon. When the interviews were finished, the names of two winners were announced. Hoberman’s was not among them. 

She was disappointed but not discouraged. “At the end of the day, I gained so much from the experience,” she says. “The merit awards office set up mock interviews, so I got to know a lot of amazing professors outside of my field.” 

She even found the application process to be valuable. It gave her an excuse to do a lot of reading, she says, and exposed her to issues normally off her radar, such as the special relationship between the U.K. and the United States. 

And it got her thinking about her plans for graduate school. “Before I applied for the Rhodes, I was thinking I wanted to go for my doctorate in clinical community psychology,” she says. “Now, I’m also considering a master’s in public health with a mental health focus. I’m seeing that there are more opportunities than I thought.”