- Associated Press - Sunday, November 18, 2012

PHILADELPHIA — They’ve studied in countries from Ghana to China, speak languages from Zulu to Mandarin, and count everything from West African drumming to firefighting among their talents.

The 32 Rhodes scholars announced Sunday represent a diverse cross-section of U.S. students, hailing from New England to the Deep South, from Ivy League universities to small liberal arts colleges. However, the scholars, who will study at Oxford University in England beginning next October, are selected based on a core set of criteria: academic achievement, personal integrity, leadership potential and physical vigor.

Recipients reached by the Associated Press all described similar reactions: They were excited, humbled and at times in disbelief.

“I keep sort of checking my phone to see if this actually happened,” said David Carel, a Yale University senior and one of seven recipients from the school. “It’s so hard to believe I just sort of assume I dreamed the whole thing.”

Mr. Carel said he hopes to use his scholarship to study how health, education and economics intersect.

A trip to explore the South African roots of his family led to work in the KwaZulu-Natal region of western South Africa, where he joined Peace Corps volunteers and later a nonprofit working with at-risk youths who aren’t in school and don’t have jobs, trying to prevent widespread alcoholism, depression and other problems.

He is fluent in both Zulu and Hebrew, is a lead drummer in a West African dance troupe and teaches a form of Israeli dance.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright’s ambitions stem from her childhood in the impoverished Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

“I’ve seen the way that poverty robs people of their opportunity to explore their capabilities,” she said. The Yale graduate currently researches poverty’s effects on people’s access to a college education and hopes to one day help reform social welfare policy.

Christian Heller, a 21-year-old United States Naval Academy student, has a deep interest in Middle Eastern affairs and the effects of the oil industry. But his interest grew when he started seeing the connections between how the industry developed overseas and how the energy sector is developing in his home state of North Dakota, which is experiencing massive growth amid the oil boom there.

“That’s pretty much where I’m from and it was having a big impact on the people I know,” said Mr. Heller, who grew up about an hour southeast of the heart of the boom.

Others also described deeply personal reasons for their studies. Chris Dobyns of Highland, Md., said his grandfather — a Methodist minister — would preach at different churches, including a black church every Ash Wednesday. That exposed him to a variety of cultures during his upbringing in suburban Washington, D.C., and ultimately inspired him to pursue African studies at Cornell University.

“There are a lot of people who promoted that in my life, but it really started and ended, I think, with my faith,” said Mr. Dobyns, who also was a volunteer firefighter at Cornell.

For Rachel Myrick, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill student, a trip with a nonprofit to Cambodia inspired her interest in studying the causes and consequences of ethnic conflict.

“I learned a lot about genocide reconstruction,” she said. “It’s been an intellectual and personal interest.”

Rhodes scholarships were created in 1902 by the will of British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes and have a value of about $50,000 per year.

The American students will join an international group of scholars selected from 14 other jurisdictions around the world. About 80 scholars are selected each year.

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