UH closing in on its first Rhodes scholarship, administration says
Thirty Rhodes Scholars have walked through the halls of the University of Texas at Austin, seven at Texas A&M University. Some Rhodes Scholars have gone on to become senators, governors and Supreme Court Justices.
The University of Houston has never had one.
The Rhodes Scholarship is one of the most prestigious scholarships a student can win. Only 32 students from the United States earn the award every year. Students who earn the Rhodes Scholarship receive full funding to study at the University of Oxford in England.
“One thing I do want over the next five years is for us to have a Rhodes Scholar here at the University,” said Provost Paula Short. “I think we got students that are highly qualified to receive that award, and I’d like to see us have our first Rhodes Scholar.”
Over the past several years, the University has successfully increased its efforts and support to have more students win nationally competitive scholarships. Many involved with helping students earn nationally competitive scholarships say now it is only a matter of time before UH has its first Rhodes Scholar.
The road to Rhodes
The Office of Undergraduate Research at the Honors College works directly with students to help them earn nationally competitive awards, including the Rhodes Scholarship.
The Rhodes Scholarship requires nomination by the University as part of a seven-step application process. Another part of the application includes five to eight letters of recommendation.
Honors College Dean William Monroe, who has helped interview students for nationally competitive scholarships in the past, said there have been some Rhode Scholar finalists to come out of the University.
“All the stars have to align before a student wins one of these major awards,” Monroe said. “In order to increase that likelihood, you have to keep getting students into the finals.”
Establishing the College of Medicine and having the University’s first Rhodes Scholar are two of Short’s goals over the next five years, she said.
Last year, the Honors College hired Director of National Fellowships and Major Awards Ben Rayder to help more students earn nationally competitive scholarships.
“There is a real concerted effort in the Honors College to increase those numbers,” Short said.
Students can be recommended by a professor or their college, or they can come apply on their own for a nationally competitive scholarship, Rayder said.
The first UH Rhodes Scholar would signal and inspire students at UH that they too can become a Rhodes Scholar, he said.
For most nationally competitive scholarships, Rayder helps students with their application. With the Rhodes Scholarship, however, he nor anyone else can help with a student’s application materials.
Even if a student doesn’t win the award they applied for, the application process itself is worth going through, Rayder said.
“Working on an application for a program like this takes months, and it really forces you to reflect on your life, your values and what you want to accomplish,” said Kyle Karinshak, who spent 10 months doing research in Germany after earning his Fulbright Scholarship. “Reflection like that is always going to be a valuable experience.”
This past year, the University broke its own record with six students earning Fulbright awards for research or teaching English in a foreign country. The University now has 41 Fulbright Scholarships awarded to UH students, according to University records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Daniel Mendiola, 2017 Fulbright Student Research award winner, was a doctoral candidate studying history and working on his dissertation when he applied for a Fulbright scholarship. He needed access to Costa Rica’s National Archives to help write his dissertation.
“In this archive, they have these sources that no one else has, don’t exist anywhere else, and they’re going to take months and months to read because they are thousands and thousands of pages,” Mendiola said to professors when applying for the scholarship.
Mendiola began applying for the Fulbright Scholarship in the summer of 2016. He went through six distinct drafts of his personal statement and received feedback on every single one of them from faculty and staff in the Honors College, he said.
“We’ve always had great students at UH,” Mendiola said. “Now we are strategically providing additional support to put them in position to get scholarships.”
Mendiola successfully defended his dissertation last spring. He is now the Mellon Research Scholar’s Coordinator for the Honors College, helping undergraduates do research in the humanities.
There has been a tripling of students who are competing for nationally competitive scholarships in the last five years, Monroe said.
In the University’s history, there has been one Harry S. Truman Scholarship and two Marshall Scholarships awarded to UH students, according to University records obtained through a FOIA request.
“Sooner or later we will have our Rhodes Scholar,” Monroe said.
Mendiola, with the near two dozen Mellon Scholars he works with, thinks some of those students have the potential to win a Fulbright Scholarship or even become a Rhodes Scholar.
“There’s really no risk going through the application process,” Mendiola said. “Anyone who is thinking about applying to it, you should just do it because it will just benefit you.”