Duke University Alumni Magazine


Photo: Chris Donaghue

With a faculty screening committee for every scholarship, Duke students are put through practice interviews, finalists are identified, and professors assigned to work at refining interview techniques and personal essays--all toward the holiest of academic grails.

ust over fifty years ago, British novelist and critic Aldous Huxley made a visit to North Carolina. He found it "a rolling country of vague, indeterminate contour.... It is a pleasant land, but unexciting; a land where one would never expect anything in particular to happen."

But something does happen: As one approaches Duke's campus, "the eye wanders in amazement over a whole city of grey stone." Huxley concluded, "I prefer the towers and quadrangles of Duke to many of the genuinely antique buildings of our university towns."

With a steady rainfall outside and architectural suggestions of English Gothic all around them, some fifty students convened on campus in April to speculate about England (and a couple of other places). They were gathered to learn about international scholarships. Among the speakers was John Tye '98, Duke's newest Rhodes Scholar. Tye described the application process as a chance "to think carefully about who you are and what your goals are." He talked about his preparation for the Rhodes process: contemplating the questions he would love to see the world answer during his lifetime, pondering how he might connect the "big issues" with his own experiences, thinking back to each college course he had taken and the themes it addressed. He mentioned soliciting eight letters of recommendation and going through two rounds of interviews--at the state and the district levels--that probed him on everything from his community service to his ideas on free will. He recalled enduring the agony of waiting in the same room with his fellow candidates for the ultimate verdict.

"It can be really stressful," Tye told his audience. "But actually it can be interesting and fun."

"We have a lot of pre-professional students who have planned out their lives from the time they arrived on campus through admission to medical school or law school," says Mary Nijhout, the associate dean of Trinity College responsible for pre-graduate study advising. But others arrive as freshmen enamored of the distant prospects of advanced study abroad. Sophomores and juniors learn about the university's record in international awards from a Nijhout letter. They're invited to read the winners' written impressions of an application process that, for programs like the Rhodes, involves not just multiple recommendations and rounds of interviews, but an unofficial testing opportunity--a cocktail reception with interviewers and fellow applicants. And they're urged to test their credentials--and develop the application habit--by vying for other awards, including Duke's own Faculty Scholar Award.

Duke has a faculty screening committee for every scholarship. (For the Rhodes, Duke can endorse no more than five candidates who elect to compete within the state of North Carolina.) The committees put students through practice interviews, identify finalists, and assign professors to work with the finalists to refine interview techniques and give advice on shaping their personal essays.

The record with the Rhodes and other awards reflects more than good guidance. Award winners are "intellectually aggressive," as Nijhout describes them. Students like Alison Meekhof '95, now a Marshall Scholar, seek out multiple mentors. Nijhout recalls that Meekhof "made the rounds of every faculty member she knew" to discuss an article she had read about women and mathematical ability. "That's an example of making interesting faculty connections, and a consistent quality among these students is that they are taking the initiative."

ony Blair may be famously trying to "rebrand" Britain as a nation that's made the great technological leap forward. And his government may be intent on reassessing funding formulas that, in the sphere of higher education, have been skewed to reward and propagate prestige. Still, Britain's brand-name universities, Oxford and Cambridge, are secure in their standing. In Cambridge, a tour guide makes a point with references to Watson and Crick and DNA, Rutherford and the electron, and Microsoft and a new European research base: It's a good place for science. It's also a good place for the academically motivated. According to the unofficial Cambridge University Graduate Union Handbook, "Many academics regard three years as an adequate period of time in which to complete a Ph.D." That's a considerably shorter time than the American standard.

But British students specialize from the time they enter university; their graduate degree program is much like the research-oriented American post-doc. In other ways, visiting Americans learn they're in a different environment, which may not always treat itself--or them--with earnest seriousness. The unofficial handbook observes: "All applicants from outside the English-speaking world must possess a fluent command of English before admission. Cambridge accepts that the United States of America is a part of the English-speaking world, but only just."

Cambridge has had plenty of time to develop its standing in science. As an official history notes, that history stretches back to 1209, when a band of scholars fled from riots in Oxford and established themselves in Cambridge. "The existence of the university in its midst was a real threat to the town, for thirteenth-century England was not a consumer society," according to the history. "The economy depended on people exchanging their own produce, and the town's growth may have been severely limited by the influx of a large number of scholars, who might spend much, but who produced nothing tangible."

Today's townspeople may hold to the view that scholars are still producing nothing tangible. But the university dominates Cambridge. Or more properly, the twenty-five colleges dominate Cambridge: While the university is the examining and degree-granting body, the colleges are largely self-administering.

Churchills at Cambridge: Ayer, above, says the search for female role models in mathematics can be frustrating

Elizabeth Ayer '96 graduated into one of those colleges as a Churchill Scholar. The Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States was established in 1959 by American friends and admirers of the statesman. The foundation's trustees set out to develop ties to a new science- and engineering-oriented college, established at Cambridge the previous year, that had been inspired by and named for Churchill. Through their annual scholarship program, ten Americans became Churchill College graduate students in engineering, mathematics, and the physical and natural sciences. Duke has had thirteen Churchill Scholars, beginning with Charles Ellington '73, who now teaches zoology at Cambridge.

Last year, Ayer completed the fourth year of a British undergraduate degree--the equivalent of an American master's program--in pure mathematics. A National Science Foundation fellowship is sustaining her graduate work beyond that.

Ayer's application for the Churchill accented her interest in Cambridge, which certainly helped her chances. Reflecting on an earlier England stint, she wrote, "I have not forgiven myself for not having gone punting," a reference to the student tradition of navigating the River Cam on rather unsteady boats. The statement detailed her love of mathematics, which she called her own vision of the "real world." As she put it, "Algebraic structures are the objects which are at once the most tangible and the most beautiful to me."

A mathematics and computer science major, Ayer was multiply distinguished at Duke. She held the congressional Goldwater Scholarship, a recognition of superior achievement in mathematics and natural science. As an A.B. Duke Scholar, she spent a Duke-supported summer in Oxford. Funded by the National Science Foundation, she had summer research internships at Cornell University, the Santa Fe Institute, and Rutgers. She sang as a soprano in the Chapel Choir, co-founded the Logic Club, contributed as a columnist to The Chronicle, and did an independent study course on mathematical modeling and evolution. She is credited with creating the Automated Computer Enrollment System's home page on the World Wide Web, an Internet site that makes Duke's course and scheduling information accessible worldwide.

For all of her math-mindedness, she once considered going into law; she turned down Yale Law School in committing herself to Cambridge. Mathematics, with its emphasis on "thinking analytically in the purest form," would be good preparation for the practice of legal argument, she says. For now, she's committed to doing a Ph.D. in mathematics at Cambridge. "I still don't know just where I will take mathematics, but for now I know that it is what I want to do."

"It's a funny thing about the system here," she says. "The examinations are incredibly stressful. They are the only evaluation the students receive in a year and quite a lot of stock is put in them. I think that because of the intense pressure, one of two things can happen. A student either becomes, through over-exposure, completely turned off to his subject or--and this happened in my case--realizes that the subject is still beautiful and enjoyable even through the intense strains of examination time."

One of her junior-year Chronicle columns was an appeal for "active learning." Duke is a university "bursting with untapped talent," she wrote, but the vigorous exchange of ideas often is subsumed by the grasping after academic rewards. For her British peers, "general education is finished at age sixteen," she observes. "Nevertheless, the average level of training in mathematics is about comparable to that of a strong Duke student, and the top-notch students are comparable at both places. At both places, there is a strong core of students who love what they are doing and have academic leanings. From my limited perspective, there seems to be a higher proportion of students here who have these tendencies. That said, many undergraduates do not seem to be here because of a particular love of their subjects. Just as the prevailing feeling at Duke might be summed up as 'I am here so that I can get a good job,' here in Cambridge, students have an equally non-compelling rationale: 'I am here because I happen to be good enough at my subject.' It is a very common sentiment to hear expressed."

Ayer enjoys the distinctive aspects of Cambridge life, like the constant rounds of formal dinner parties organized by students, and she is at least resigned to the Cambridge necessity of maneuvering a bicycle around town. She has been swimming for Churchill College in a couple of intercollegiate swim meets. "Taking up the lion's share of my non-academic time last term, though, was ballroom dancing," she reports. "I was among the eight couples participating in the varsity match against Oxford--which, I am very, very sorry to say, we did not win this year despite my best efforts. I should, perhaps, mention that I began ballroom dance with Duke's Social Dance course in the last term of my senior year, and I was hooked."

Tradition-bound Cambridge--even with a history of promoting scientific accomplishment --poses challenges for a woman mathematician, she says. Role models are not readily available. "There is exactly one female among about seventy faculty members, and I have never met her. I also don't know any current female Ph.D. students.

"I think that female undergraduates are hampered by low expectations generally placed on them. Over and over, I have heard this justified by more senior mathematicians who cite the rarity of a woman placing in the top ten on the examinations in any particular year. I have also often heard the argument that because women have an advantage in admissions--Cambridge does make attempts at affirmative action--more of the people of questionable ability, the people who were on the admissions borderline, are women. This, so I am told, lowers the average performance of women even below what it would normally be. In any case, women are certainly not particularly encouraged, let alone given the same level of encouragement as male students. The resulting low performance of women on the exams then reinforces the stereotypes."

But as a graduate student, with flexibility in attending lectures and arranging supervisions, Ayer says she hasn't felt held back. "I mostly deal with the people in my field and related fields, and within that context people know me well enough as a mathematician that my gender has not been an issue. My supervisor, I should add, is particularly encouraging and has had an unusually high number of successful female students."

Churchills at Cambridge: Schneck, above, stepped into a classroom culture where "students rarely ask questions"

Robert Schneck '97 followed Ayer to Cambridge as a Churchill Scholar--pointing out, in the course of his personal statement, that he would revel in studying "alongside the memories of Isaac Newton, Bertrand Russell, G.H. Hardy, and so many others." As a student at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, he participated in the USA Mathematics Olympiad and the USA International Physics Olympiad. While in high school, he had a summer internship developing software to help students learn scientific concepts. He was the one student in his class to be awarded Duke's North Carolina Mathematics Contest Scholarship, a four-year, full-tuition scholarship, and one of three students to receive the Duke Faculty Scholar Award. And, like Ayer, he held a National Science Foundation internship, which brought Schneck to Michigan Technological University, and also brought him, as he describes it, the confidence that he "could call myself a mathematician."

A mathematics major who completed a double-minor in philosophy and Chinese, he won a couple of mathematics department awards along with two first-place awards in the university's Chinese speech contest. He also earned distinction in various national and international math competitions. He was president of both the Duke Logic Club and the Duke University Mathematics Union, and for a semester headed SHARE, or "Student Housing for Academic and Residential Experimentation." A member of the Duke Symphony Orchestra, he extended his performance repertoire to the Chinese Folk Dance Club--an outgrowth of a study-abroad experience in China.

The first line of his statement for the Churchill is: "I have always wanted to become a mathematician"; he dates the interest to his having encountered a book in elementary school called How to Count Like a Martian. "At a very early age, I was already developing a deep, intellectual curiosity about how things work, how they arose, and what affects their use today," he wrote. "These were the seeds that have grown to become the motivation for my life path--the desire not only to understand systems, but to become a builder of systems." He said he believed he found his calling in the study of logic. "I remain excited by this intersection of mathematics, philosophy, computer science, and language. A paradise for a systems builder to play in."

For Schneck, this has been a year of reflection. It's also been a year of adjusting to a different pacing in the classroom: Cambridge has three terms of eight weeks, followed by month-long breaks, and a lot of material is crammed into each of those terms. There's no "marked" work except the exams at the end of the term. "Spending a year in England is a sexy thing to do," he says. "I've learned another way of looking at the educational process."

Some of the Cambridge process took quite a bit of getting used to. "It's strange to be in a system where teachers don't pause in their lectures to make sure students have followed them, and where students rarely ask questions. Students are taking notes on everything that's written down on the board; they work to figure it out later. It's a very different culture." That lack of student-teacher interaction is perhaps made up for, he says, by the supervision system, which pairs groups of two or three students with a tutor.

At the end of June, Schneck got his certificate of advanced study in mathematics, with a concentration in logic. During his Cambridge stint, he hasn't done any work in Chinese or philosophy. Having missed "the interdisciplinary setting," he's heading off for a doctorate at Berkeley, which has a program in mathematics and philosophy.

Rodriguez: sixty hours a week in a lab, along with the freedom to "determine the course of my projects"

A Schneck classmate, Chapin Rodriguez '97, is one of two Marshall Scholars among the current Cambridge crop of Duke graduates. The scholarship, founded in 1953 by the British Parliament to commemorate the Marshall Plan, goes to as many as forty graduate and undergraduate students in the United States. It supports two years of study in a degree program at any British university. Criteria for selection include "distinction of intellect and character as evidenced both by... scholastic achievements and by...other activities." Fourteen Duke students have won the Marshall; the first was Wallace Kaufman '61, who began his career as an assistant professor of English literature and went on to become a writer, conservationist, and international development consultant.

Rodriguez, a chemistry major, was editor of Vertices, the student science magazine, and helped to organize "Frontiers of Biotechnology," a two-day biotechnology and human values symposium held in 1994. He is pursuing a three-year Ph.D. program in structural biology at Cambridge, working at the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology. The research council is roughly the British equivalent of the National Institutes of Health; the laboratory is the birthplace of structural biology and has been the setting for some of the field's greatest advances, Rodriguez notes.

His first international academic experience --in fact, his first trip abroad--took him to Madrid, Spain, during his junior year. Living with other chemistry-oriented international students, he found himself "critical and admiring" of his own culture. During that year he volunteered in a residence for the mentally handicapped, discovering a passion for community service that he continued back at Duke. As an A.B. Duke Scholar, he had a summer stint in Oxford. Spain had stirred his interest in doing graduate work in Europe; Oxford, as it happened, directed him to Cambridge. He took advantage of free time to visit a Cambridge research center. "They gave me the red-carpet treatment," he recalls, including interviews with various researchers. He began a correspondence with one, who accepted him into his lab. That acceptance signaled his seriousness as a student, and the certainty of his goals, to the scholarship review committee.

"When I entered high school, I was singularly interested in languages and literature," he said in his Marshall Scholarship application essay. "I loved (and still love) studying languages, the logic and idiosyncrasies of their operation, the ways in which they reflect their corresponding cultures." It was serendipity that steeped him in science. As a high school junior, he was asked by two science teachers to help them prepare an enzyme lab activity to present at a national meeting. That hooked him--and earned him the role, still in high school, as a teaching assistant in biology and chemistry. As an undergraduate, he worked for two years in a biochemistry lab at the medical center, and then for one summer after he graduated.

For Rodriguez, Cambridge has provided a productive environment for his work in protein crystallography--"an incredibly cool field," as he describes it. But he says Cambridge life can be intense, and insular. "I spend at least sixty hours per week in the lab. Supervision styles do vary from individual to individual, but, in general, students are left to fend for themselves, and so we set our own schedules pretty much. It's up to me to handle the day-in, day-out stuff, to seek help when I need it, and to determine the course of my projects. It's quite a responsibility, but I frankly quite enjoy the freedom. It helps me to realize my limitations and seek the expertise of others on my own, not because they're leaning over my shoulder."

Working in a research center, he has no formal classes through his Ph.D. program. "In the end, I really don't think my lack of graduate classes will affect my planned career, just because in the final analysis, what matters is the research that you have done in your Ph.D. and what you have published," he says. "What I do wonder about is the length of the Ph.D. It's three years at Cambridge, versus the standard five to six in the States. What I want to avoid is going back to the States and not having certain opportunities just because people think I haven't spent enough time doing a formative Ph.D."

Rodriguez may stay on beyond his Ph.D. to increase his chances of "finishing with some good results in the [scientific] literature," he says. He's also thinking about post-doctoral work in a biomedical field, "something that will more directly benefit people." That thought, he says, "just comes from frustration at how slow and futile the research process--and especially protein crystallography--can be. So maybe, if I have a windfall of results, that will change."

Meekhof: a multiply-published chemist, she's found herself fascinated with "the art of problem-solving"

Alison Meekhof '95 is the senior member of the Cambridge contingent of Duke graduates, the other Marshall Scholarship winner, and the other chemistry major. Meekhof showed herself an intellectual adventurer in her personal essay for the Marshall: "Chemistry is a magical science. At the same time that its textbooks present hundreds of precise equations, lab work ceaselessly reconfirms its intrinsic element of mystery."

At Cambridge, she is studying biophysical chemistry. With one year left toward her Ph.D., she already has a job offer--with the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. It seems like an odd career start for a confirmed chemist. But she says business consulting appeals to her love of teaching and her fascination with "the art of problem-solving." And from living in England, she says she's become drawn to the idea of exploring global interconnections, not just scientific interconnections.

Meekhof was, like Elizabeth Ayer, a Goldwater Scholar and an A.B. Duke Scholar. During her freshman and sophomore years, she worked as a volunteer in a chemistry laboratory; her later laboratory efforts led to three papers published during her undergraduate years. She worked as a laboratory teaching assistant for "General Chemistry." Jokingly calling herself the "orgo doctor," she was an organic-chemistry tutor with the Duke peer tutoring program. Along with Rodriguez, she was one of the organizers of the "Frontiers in Biotechnology" symposium. She took a course in German, which eased her later dealings with a German adviser at Cambridge, and another on women and leadership, which sharpened her understanding of group dynamics in the academy.

Concerned about the advancement of women in science, she organized for the Round Table--a residential group devoted to community interaction--a series on the question "Is there a gender style to science?" As she noted in her Marshall application essay, "In my first four years of chemistry research, I shared benchtops with twenty-three men and only two women."

Meekhof spent her A.B. Duke Scholar summer studying twentieth-century British literature at Oxford. That time abroad helped draw her back to Britain. She says she appreciates many features of British living, especially in places like Cambridge that are surrounded by greenbelts. "From my house, it's a fifteen-minute walk to the city center; in twenty minutes, I'm in a field with cows." She also revels in the ceremonial side of Cambridge, mentioning a four-hour, seven-course Gonville and Caius College "fellowship dinner" for graduate students and their research supervisors. And she has been somewhat of a continental drifter, climbing Mount Aetna while attending a conference in Sicily, bicycling around Scandinavia, spending a couple of weeks in The Netherlands.

Perceiving a genuine sense of community among graduate students, Meekhof spends most of her social time with non-Americans. Some of those close ties are with her peers on the Caius rowing team, a six-day-a-week commitment of sunrise practices, aerobics workouts, and weight-lifting. She has competed in London's Head of the River race and rowed in the British national championships. "It's the closest thing you can get to a fraternity."

In her view, Cambridge may be too much of a fraternity--too inbred and self-perpetuating. "Cambridge is very friendly to its own: Undergraduates are not encouraged to go elsewhere for new perspectives, and a lot of people just sort of stick around," she says. "There's not a seven-year up-or-out tenure process here; there are many more gradual steps a young scholar can take. So a Cambridge Ph.D. earner may become a research fellow, something like a post-doc, which means looking to privileges like dining at High Table and walking on the not-to-be-walked-on grass. There are a lot of people who will ride the system, just coast along."

Meekhof helps manage a nuclear magnetic resonance center; the responsibility and the access are extraordinary, as is the chance to probe her interests, to prove her research nimbleness (her original Ph.D. project didn't work), to develop confidence as a communicator (she's presented her findings in a number of settings), and to make some international contacts, she says. Much of her Cambridge routine, though, has been self-guided: One research group won't interact much with another research group, and even the Ph.D. supervisor, who is dealing with forty or fifty students, can't easily keep tabs on a particular student.

"I respect the scientist I work for," she says, "but I can't look to him as a model of what my own experience would be like at an American university. He doesn't have to get grants, there's not pressure on him to publish, and he's not interested in the long-term development of me as a student or a scientist."

She notes, "I already have two papers submitted for publication and by the time I finish the degree, I should have five. That's a lot for a three-and-a-half-year degree." Those first two papers will appear in leading professional journals, Biochemistry and the Journal of Molecular Biology.

"At the same time, I really do believe that if I were interested in continuing in science, I should get a Ph.D. in the United States. What is a Ph.D.? If it's learning what it's like to be a scientist, I would have had a better experience in the United States."

ike his Cambridge counterpart, the Oxford tour guide is alternately witty and reverent in discussing the town-enveloping university. How else to treat a site, as described in a university guide, where since the twelfth century or so, "sublime minds have had brilliant ideas, producing concepts as varied as Methodism, the MG sports car, and marmalade"? Since the nineteenth century, more than half of Britain's prime ministers have come out of one of the thirty-five colleges of Oxford. But the current prime minister, Tony Blair, has "no rosy glow of nostalgia" for his Oxford days, reports the tour guide. That may be unfortunate for Oxford and Cambridge, whose cherished and expensive tutorial system is being scrutinized by the efficiency-minded government.

The guide doesn't share this aphorism; it comes by way of a British acquaintance. A Cambridge man walks down the road as if he owns it. An Oxford man walks down a road as if he doesn't care who owns it.

The oldest and best-known of the international fellowships, the Rhodes Scholarship program dates back to 1904; 1977 was the first selection year for women. The first of Duke's thirteen Rhodes Scholars was Charles Bagley '14, who was already on the Duke faculty when he was selected in 1917. Between 1993 and 1997, Duke ranked third among private universities in the number of Rhodes Scholars. Over that period, it has produced one or two each year. Thirty-two of the two-year grants are awarded to U.S. citizens annually for study in a degree program at Oxford. Among the criteria for selection are "quality of both character and intellect," "instincts to lead and to take an interest in one's contemporaries," and "physical vigor to enable a scholar to make an effective contribution to the world."

In its prospectus for graduate students, Oxford notes that the prime responsibility for oversight of graduate students lies with the relevant university faculty or department. That particular faculty or department appoints a supervisor for each graduate student, and arranges lectures and classes. Graduate students also have an association with one of Oxford's colleges--an association that is merely "pastoral in nature." The colleges concern themselves with housing and financial arrangements. Typically, they are at the center of students' social life, and the focus of their sports participation. The Oxford tradition of study puts particular emphasis on "individual endeavor and self-motivation," as the prospectus puts it. The awarding of research degrees, especially the doctorate, is based only on the thesis submitted and oral examination of the thesis; no assessment of other work contributes to the degree.

"At graduate level, students are expected to take the initiative in exploring a line of research, acquiring a necessary skill, or remedying an area of weakness," the prospectus says. "In all the university's graduate courses, students will often find the degree of detailed teaching less than they have experienced in undertaking undergraduate or graduate courses elsewhere."

Wenthe: selected for the Rhodes along with his wife, he demonstrated his singing prowess for the Rhodes interview

The senior Oxonian among the Duke graduates is Michael Wenthe '95. Fresh from Duke's Trinity College, Wenthe began at Oxford's Trinity College with his wife and fellow Rhodes Scholar, Rebecca Boggs. The two met as teenagers at Duke's summer Talent Identification Program. Through college--with Boggs a Harvard student during Wenthe's time at Duke --they continued a long-distance romance. Wenthe managed a one-semester stint to study Middle English literature and Anglo-Saxon at Harvard; to plunge into the second half of the year-long Harvard course, he had learned Old English grammar on his own. Both went for the Rhodes mindful of the staggering odds of a joint selection. "I was harboring this secret hope that this would happen," Boggs told an interviewer. "Well, I dared not hope," Wenthe said.

In high school, Wenthe had his first one-act play performed in a community festival of new plays. An A.B. Duke Scholar and a member of the SHARE living group, he was a literary and musical achiever at Duke: editor of the literary magazine The Archive; secretary of the undergraduate Publications Board; a singer with the male a capella group the Pitchforks; a main player in a Duke Drama production The Love of the Nightingale, and the "Adam" character in a fellow student's version of The Fall of Man; and the lead guitarist for the Snake Oil Salesmen, a four-piece band performing original compositions and traditional ballads in the Triangle area.

Musical musings, as Wenthe recalled in his post-selection reflections, dominated the scholarship committee interview that landed him a Georgia state finalist position: "The discussion was almost wholly focused on music, and when called upon to demonstrate my knowledge of Schubert's lied "Die Erlkonig," I obliged by singing the first verse (and then translating it at an interviewer's request). There's something stuntish about this, sure, but I happen to really like singing that song, so I had fun warbling out a little bit of it, and I think that the fun must have shown through." The regional interviews plunged Wenthe into what he calls an "identification" test--black holes, rational numbers, the writer Wole Soyinka, Dante, the Romantic poets. A Duke graduate on the committee asked him about his editorship of The Archive.

"Scholarship and art reflect and explore many of the same problems, issues, and curiosities of life," Wenthe wrote in his Rhodes statement. "As such, each is itself a valid examination of life, but the two together can perhaps teach more still." At Oxford, Wenthe has been secretary of the Early Music Society and sang bass in the group's own choir. He says he's a beneficiary not just of his musical passion but of a stereotype that his British peers apply to American students: "Americans are good organizers and can get things done."

Wenthe completed a two-year M.Phil. degree in medieval English literature a year ago, reading Chaucer, Dante, and Malory. His thesis was about fables in fifteenth-century British writing; he was "looking at the different ways fabular material was treated by some clerical writers (in sermons, e.g.) versus more 'literary' writers (in poems)." In June he wrapped up a one-year certificate program with a linguistic and literary focus in modern Hebrew and Yiddish.

Wenthe's Oxford story is, in some ways, that of someone who relied on his own powers at self-motivation--and who made larger adjustments to his planned curricular course--than he might have expected. Sampling Oxford for the first time as a graduate student, he discovered that the teaching didn't compare well with the Duke at Oxford summer program. "The seminars were not brilliantly led; discussion seemed almost nonexistent, and if it did exist, it was discouraged or stymied by leading questions. The typical lecture would have a few students sitting at a table scribbling all the while as the professor recited a carefully prepared lecture. Certainly in lectures, questions were not expected of students. I've seen professors thrown off by student questions."

He also found the scholarly direction limiting. "Originality is valued less than acquiring a wide overview of existing scholarship," he says. "Theory is looked at askance by a large number of teachers of English. The approach to literature is traditional and conservative, and the apparatus of scholarship is applied to untangling textual histories, to looking at everything around the text rather than what the text is saying. That's useful and necessary. But there was a disjunction between the way literature was taught and what I wanted to do with literature."

Wenthe got less enjoyment from his Oxford thesis than from his undergraduate thesis, which was on the British poet Gerald Manley Hopkins. "I was spurred on by that most effective of goads--the need to get the degree. But I was coming to the conclusion that I didn't see myself as a medievalist. I had stumbled into medieval literature, had allowed myself to be taken over by it, and had found great resources for it here at Oxford. But the more I got involved with it, the less I liked it."

For next fall, the Rhodes couple is New Haven-bound. His wife will begin a Ph.D. at Yale. He may go the Ph.D. path for the fall of 1999, after spending a year in a writing job.

Even before the Rhodes honor went his way, Eric Greitens '96, had a rŽsumŽ that could hardly be more eclectic or substantive. An A.B. Duke Scholar, he had a self-designed major in ethics, with an emphasis in public policy studies, philosophy, and religion. "I wanted answers to deeper questions about ethics, policy, and public justice," he wrote in his statement for the Rhodes. "And I thought that my college education should have something to say about private meaning as well; I've sought answers in the classroom as well as outside of it." He was chairman of the Honor Council and chairman and founder of the Mayor's University Advisory Council, which was designed to improve relations among Duke, North Carolina Central, and the community.

Greitens spent the summer of his junior year working in Kigali, Rwanda, and Goma, Zaire, with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees Regional Support Unit for Refugee Children. During the previous summer, he spent six weeks in Croatian refugee camps with Bosnian Muslim refugees, and worked with the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a private humanitarian agency. And between his freshman and sophomore years, he worked and studied in Changchun and Beijing, China. He lived in a worker's dormitory with Chinese men and women who had participated in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. "I was myself arrested for speaking about human rights in my English class," he noted in his Rhodes essay.

Greitens has had his photographs published in nine journals and newspapers; among those photographs is documentary work from his summer encounters. He also did a documentary photography project in the Durham Boxing Gym--appropriately enough, since he competed in the North Carolina Golden Gloves Novice Championship in his junior year at Duke and the national Collegiate Boxing Association events as a senior. He now boxes on Oxford's team.

In the most recent annual match between Oxford and Cambridge--held before "a wild, intense crowd of a thousand fans packed into the Oxford Town Hall"--he won his fight with a first-round technical knockout. He says, "The whole season is geared toward the Cambridge match. It's like the NCAA basketball championship, but it's a several-hundred-years-old tradition." Later this spring, he earned the Gold Medal at the British Universities Sporting Association National Boxing Championships. In the national tournament --with boxers from all over England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland--he won, again, with a first-round technical knockout. "I've just figured out that I've spent about the last fourteen weeks training, often twice a day, for a grand total of two minutes and forty seconds of boxing."

His trainer during his Duke days, Ariel Blair, was one of Greitens' recommenders for the Rhodes; a member of the selection committee declared that it was the first time in thirty years that he had received such a letter. "I've never met anybody like him in my life," Blair says today. "I had no idea of the intensity he possesses. He's like a crab: When he grabs hold of something, he will not let it loose." Blair named his son "Eric" after Greitens.

Out of the ring, Greitens has been studying at Lady Margaret Hall, concentrating in development studies, international relations, and international human rights law. He earned his M.Phil. degree in June; he'll probably stay at Oxford for his Ph.D. His thesis feeds off his summer experiences and examines the efforts of international institutions to protect children caught up in war. Retreating to a cottage in southern England, he is also plugging away on a novel.

With Oxford's calendar of eight-week terms and long interim breaks, he has enlarged on his travel and documentary repertoire. He has visited Israel to photograph Palestinian refugee camps, India to photograph one of Mother Teresa's houses for the dying, and Mexico to photograph the Indians in Chiapas. For the most recent interim period, he visited Cambodia. There he did a documentary-photography project for the Cambodia Trust, which works with land-mine victims and child polio victims.

"Oxford is primarily an undergraduate university; undergraduate education is what it does really well," he says. It's also a place that can impose maddening bureaucratic impediments, like a several-days wait for a requested library book. "American Rhodes Scholars may come here and find themselves deeply dissatisfied or at least marginally disappointed. That's because they wanted to be Rhodes Scholars; they didn't want to be graduate students. For the American Rhodes Scholar, Oxford can deal out a lot of cards that aren't going to ease the academic transition--bad food, phones that don't work, cultural differences, a level of teaching that may not be comparable to what they had in the States, the recognition that this place operates with an internal logic that will take a while to figure out."

What's important for graduate students, as he sees it, is to identify and exploit Oxford's strengths. For Greitens, key among those strengths is the refugee studies program and the related library holdings. "This is probably the best place in the world to be doing this thesis topic." It's not a setting, he adds, that will cater to the ego needs of Rhodes Scholars. "I work very hard at what I do. But I've always done that. The majority of people here don't even know what a Rhodes Scholar is."

Greitens: in the annual Oxford-Cambridge boxing match, he won with a first-round technical knockout

Marking his first year at Oxford, John Sauer '97 is indulging in Oxford's undergraduate offerings. Although he planned to focus strictly on electrical engineering, Sauer discovered philosophy at Duke and added it as a second major. For a university hymn-writing contest, he wrote lyrics based on the Old Testament's "Song of Solomon" to fit the final segment of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the "Ode to Joy." He earned second place (losing out to top honors only because most congregations would find it difficult to sing)--and expressions of surprise from the judges that he wasn't a divinity student. A devout Roman Catholic who was taught by Benedictine monks in high school, he was active with Duke's Catholic Student Center and tutored Hispanic children; in his hometown of St. Louis, he spent one summer working with prisoners and another teaching inner-city children. And he was a walk-on wrestler on the varsity team.

"Try to be the kind of person who loves truth and seeks truth with eager curiosity," Sauer advised future Rhodes hopefuls from Duke. "The Rhodes Scholarship is not an award, it's a scholarship to study in England where the weather is gloomy, the people are gloomier, and the food is gloomiest of all. So if you want prestige, bug off and don't apply--you'll be happier doing something else. The most annoying thing is the press interviews afterwards. But the hubbub lasts about an afternoon, and all your friends realize that you're still the same bozo."

Now at Oriel College, Sauer is working on a two-year bachelor's degree in theology. His notable out-of-the-classroom involvement, he says, is playing soccer. "I get a lot of time 'riding pine,' as the saying goes, and when I do get on the field, my play has been described as 'running around like a chicken with its head cut off.' But that's a kickin' chicken."

Sauer: "If you want prestige, bug off and don't apply -- you'll be happier doing something else"

Sauer is doing eight tutorials for the degree--in areas including the philosophy of religion, Christian doctrine and interpretation, the history of medieval theology, and the world of Saint Augustine, each of which corresponds to a final exam at the end of the two years. He'll also finish with an extended essay. The topic "will probably be something like 'Occasionalism and the Administration of Grace in Medieval Accounts of Sacramentality.' "

The tutorial system is "good for the undergraduate degree that I am pursuing," he says. "I think that in my case it lends itself a little better to learning than the class-based system in the United States." But he doesn't consider the Oxford avenue toward a degree particularly more self-directed than Duke's system. "The weekly topics are pretty rigorously defined, the reading lists don't leave much to your investigative imagination, and there's probably almost as much chance to slack off, if you figure out how to work the system. Obviously, I haven't figured that one yet, because I work harder here than before!"

Quite apart from his own working habits, Sauer sees little pressure to succeed created by the Rhodes honor. "Mr. William Jefferson Clinton provides the classic example of a Rhodes Scholar who didn't even sit for his final exams at the end of his stint. And nobody really cared. I hear that Bill Bradley got a Third in politics and economics, which is as bad as you can do without failing, like graduating from Duke with a 1.0 GPA or something."

ne of John Sauer's predecessors as a Rhodes Scholar from Duke is John Board B.S.E. '82, M.S. '82. Now the Bass Associate Professor in Duke's departments of electrical engineering and computer science, Board had an undergraduate major in electrical engineering and a second major in French. He completed his master's in electrical engineering before leaving for England. At Oxford he earned a doctorate in the theoretical physics department. In 1982, "this was a bit of a compromise choice for them," he says. "They were not sure what to do with someone with little formal training in physics interested in what we now call computational science."

The Oxford immersion made an early-career impact, he says. "The overall pleasant experience of graduate work did cause me to seek an academic position immediately--at Duke, as it happens--rather than work in industry for a few years first, as had been my grand plan at the outset. The decision I made at the front end of the Rhodes--to do graduate work in physics rather than engineering, even though I intended to probably come back to engineering when I was done--was important, and something I could not have done (at least not easily) via the traditional graduate-school route. That experience confirmed for me the notion that many of the most interesting scientific questions are on the interfaces between 'traditional' disciplines--a philosophy I espouse here by doing, for instance, work in computational structural biology from the electrical engineering department."

Although an Oxford enthusiast, Board is not excessively enamored of such international honors. He points out that some 200 Rhodes Scholars may be in residence at Oxford at any one time. The United States accounts for thirty-two Rhodes Scholars per year, but there are another forty or so from other parts of the world, and many extend their stay beyond the standard two years.

Those numbers have a "humbling" effect, he says. A prestigious international scholarship doesn't so much contribute to the urge to excel, he suggests, as it validates the urge to excel. "People with the gall to apply for the Rhodes are already as a group rather self-pressuring."


Valenza: a newly-minted Mellon Scholar, she's found avenues for applying her double-major in computer science and English
Photo: Andrew Florides

Among the graduate students in England with recent Duke pedigrees, one with an especially eclectic set of interests is Robin Valenza '96. At Cambridge, Valenza is concentrating in computer speech and language processing. Of the twenty students in the program, only one other is female, and about half are international. It covers, in Valenza's words, areas ranging from "digitizing and manipulating analogue speech signals to analyzing and generating 'natural' language for human-computer dialogue."

Valenza's particular concern is with using computers to ease access to data through the use of natural language. "When we have several hundred hours of radio broadcasts, or handwritten documents, we'd like to be able to use this data without having to scan through all of it every time you need a particular bit of information," she says, "and without having a human being sit down and index it all by hand." The research team is aiming to develop a "recognizer" that could run over the speech or handwriting and generate a transcription; the goal entails automatic indexing and summarizing capabilities as well.

A double-major in computer science and English at Duke, she came across a description of the Cambridge program in the spring of her senior year, when she was browsing through the Web. By then, she had decided to study eighteenth-century English literature in a Ph.D. program, but she was drawn equally to the idea of deepening her knowledge base in computing.

Valenza began at Cambridge in the fall of 1996, right after completing a Duke in Oxford summer program. After one term, she realized she needed a break from school. She traveled in the U.S., developed hobbies like painting and fencing, and worked at Duke's Digital Scriptorium. One project steeped her in a database encompassing tens of thousands of nineteenth- and twentieth-century documents--some of them one-of-a-kind--collected by Guido Mazzoni, an Italian bibliophile. She developed software to make the Mazzoni index available via the Web.

On her own, she began another electronic-retrieval project. That one involved the late-eighteenth-century journals and letters of George Staunton, who as a child served as page to his father on the first official English embassy to China.

She returned to Cambridge last January and will complete her M.Phil. in September. (She explains that with a little bit of paperwork, a British student can get an M.A. attached to his or her B.A. degree three years beyond the B.A.; the "Phil." signals that there is an original research component.)

"Since students here specialize in their chosen field beginning in high school, my background in two fields is even more unusual here than it is in the United States," says Valenza, whose project is a collaboration with Hewlett-Packard in Bristol, England. "If nothing else, I've strengthened my abilities to 'explain' the function of humanistic studies to engineers. Perhaps more importantly, I've also learned how to think constructively about applying, and teaching, computing technologies to more wide-ranging fields--and my background in English and history has certainly helped here."

This spring, Valenza learned that she had received a Mellon Fellowship in Humanistic Studies to study English literature at Stanford, which is also supporting her with a long-term fellowship. She'll be concentrating on Restoration-era English writing, especially, she notes, "writings that today people might not quite think of as (polite) literature--journalistic pamphlets, conduct and assorted other instructional manuals, cookbooks, and handwriting manuals." She may continue her computing work on the side, and perhaps take some time off to do a digitized manuscript project.

Valenza's long-term goal is to become an English literature professor who is "an advocate of humanities computing alongside traditional humanities education," as she puts it. "For the most part, what Cambridge has done for me is to expose me to the science and engineering culture in another country, and forced me to be quite open about why I am rejecting a highly lucrative field--speech and language engineering--with a very prestigious degree in that field, for interests much closer to my heart."


Thirty-two Scholarships are assigned annually to the United States of America. The states of the Union are grouped into eight districts for the purpose of making these appointments. In each state a Committee of Selection may nominate applicants to appear before the District Committee. Each District Committee then selects from the nominated applicants not more than four who will represent their states as Rhodes Scholars at Oxford. The names of Scholarship winners will be announced at the close of the District Committee meetings. No alternates are selected.

After the successful applicants' election to Scholarships, the Rhodes Scholarship authorities in Oxford seek places for the Rhodes Scholars-elect in Oxford Colleges, following the applicants' preferences insofar as possible. Because the Colleges make their own admissions, there is no guarantee of a place. The award of the Scholarship is not confirmed by the Rhodes Trustees until the Scholar-elect has been accepted for admission by a College. Rhodes Scholars elected in December will enter the University of Oxford in October of the following year.

In considering applications, Committees of Selection will have regard to those qualities which Cecil Rhodes expressly listed in order to define the type of Scholar he desired. Proven intellectual and academic achievement of a high standard is the first quality required of applicants, but they will also be required to show integrity of character, interest in and respect for their fellow beings, the ability to lead, and the energy to use their talents to the full. Mr. Rhodes believed that the last of these qualities was best tested through participation and success in sports. Participation in varsity sports is not essential if applicants are able to demonstrate in other ways the physical vigor which will enable Rhodes Scholars to make an effective contribution to the world around them. Such a contribution Mr. Rhodes clearly expected in expressing the hope that Rhodes Scholars would come to "esteem the performance of public duties as [their] highest aim." Financial need gives no special claim to a Rhodes Scholarship. The will lays down that "no student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a Scholarship on account of race or religious opinions."

--from the Office of the American Secretary, The Rhodes Scholarship Trust (http:www.rhodesscholar.org)

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