Friday, November 25, 2005

Rhodes Prep Not An Accidental Process

  Blue and Gold Officer Katherine Szerdy spotted this one for us.
  An informative article that takes a quick peek at the hidden mechanisms and inner workings of the Rhodes Scholarship process.
  BTW, one factor in the success of our academic results over the past approx. seven or eight years is our Academic Dean Bill Miller.  Bill is Class of '62 and brought a combination of bona fide military experience and significant achievement in civilian academic administration to our academic culture.  (In the interests of full disclosure I'm proud to say that I played a tiny role in helping to bring him aboard.)
  One last comment -- admittedly rough -- you can buy Prof Fleming's tales of academic woe or you can buy four Rhodes Scholars.  There is no such thing as perfection, but I view the Rhodes Scholars as more indicative of where we are academically.
  OK, OK, this is for real the last comment -- there is no conflict between producing Rhodes Scholars among the Brigade and developing core combat leaders.  M/M America want smart, educated people leading their sons and daughters in combat.  A few Rhodes Scholars along the way is just icing on the cake.
    Live for Life, John Howland,1,2428562.story

Colleges driven to take Rhodes

Academy, other schools prepare assiduously for award process

By Bradley Olson
Sun reporter

November 24, 2005

The U.S. Naval Academy's success in landing seven Rhodes scholarships in the past two years - more than in the previous decade - might have surprised some. But it was not for lack of preparation.

Before this year's four winners and another finalist trekked across the country for final interviews last weekend, they had met once a week for two months to read the classics and discuss current events. They had practiced interviews with faculty to hone their talking points and detail how they would use two years at Oxford to "fight the world's fight."

They had dined and held cocktail-party rehearsals with military bigwigs, including the academy's superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, to prepare for cocktail parties that the Rhodes selection committees hold the night before interviews.

The process is not unusual, with some universities prepping candidates from their freshman year for applications for prestigious fellowships. The academy, along with other elite schools, has been doing it for decades.

But the preparations reflect a growing focus at universities on winning Rhodes scholarships to enhance stature. A national association was formed to help smaller schools level the playing field, and several college presidents have added fellowship wins to strategic growth plans aimed squarely at college rankings in the news media.

Academy officials say they haven't changed their approach, and are not sure why the military college has won more Rhodes awards in two years than in the previous eight years, when the academy received four.

"I gave up a long time ago trying to find out what the Rhodes committees are looking for in any particular year," said Thomas Brennan, one of two history professors who shepherd the midshipmen through the process. "There is a sense of sympathy for the armed services right now, a pride in the armed services. I have to guess that played a role."

'Best and brightest'
Nick Allard, the secretary of the Rhodes committee district that includes Maryland and Washington, said post-9/11 fervor might play a role, but he also said he believes the Naval Academy might be attracting better students than the other service academies.

"The Naval Academy is justifiably attracting the best and the brightest," he said. "They're also offering a top-caliber university experience, not just military training, but a vigorous and challenging intellectual experience."

The Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point are perennial favorites for the Rhodes grants and other fellowships that provide a free ride to elite British universities.

Rhodes interviewers and Brennan, who has been involved in the academy's fellowship preparations for almost 15 years, say that's because the cadets and midshipmen are involved in challenging programs that force them to excel in academics, athletics and leadership, as well as commit to five years in public service after college.

The guidelines for the scholarships - set up when the Rhodes Trust was created more than a century ago by British diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes - call for academic excellence, leadership, integrity, physical vigor and commitment to public service. The grants provide for two or three years of study at Oxford, valued at $40,000 a year.

Most universities that regularly land Rhodes scholars, including the Naval Academy, have a thorough internal process to winnow prospective applicants well before the October application deadline. The academy's U.K. Scholarships Committee, made up of about 10 professors, interviews between 40 and 50 midshipmen to come up with a group of 20 who will apply for several highly competitive grants to study in England, including some sponsored by alumni.

Candidates are picked based on grades, seriousness about graduate school and commitment to a military career. This year, several of the 20 dropped out because they lost interest or didn't want to delay deployments to the Middle East.

West Point, which has had six Rhodes scholars since 2001 and 82 overall, has a similar internal application process. At Harvard University, which has had 19 Rhodes scholars since 2001 and 313 overall, applicants are coached by graduate students assigned to their dorms.

Rhodes applicants have to submit eight letters of recommendation with the application, along with a 1,000-word essay about their career goals - an essay often polished by applicants and faculty mentors.

Allard, the Maryland Rhodes committee member, said the Naval Academy has always sent detailed recommendation letters.

"That makes a difference," he said. "Unfortunately, there are some very fine candidates from some very fine institutions that we just don't get enough data about. The Naval Academy is extremely forthright and honest as well. If a candidate has a blemish, we hear about it. Frankly, having a blemish explained often helps a candidate."

The applications go to 16 regions, either where the applicants are from or where their university is located. Regional committees selected about 200 finalists this year from about 900 applicants, and those finalists were invited to interviews last weekend. After the Friday night cocktail party, finalists have 15-minute interviews the next day, and some have follow-up interviews. At about 5:30 p.m., they are brought to the committee and told if they have been chosen or not.

Mock cocktail parties
This year, the application deadline was Oct. 3, but the midshipmen prepared during September and October by poring over Reading Lolita in Tehran, among other books and publications, and discussing certain parts of it with professors, Brennan said. The process, which can sometimes include practice questions, helps Mids prepare to speak confidently about the classics, current events and, most importantly, their futures.

They also have a pizza party as an informal practice and then more formal get-togethers with top academy officials, Brennan said. The mock cocktail parties - which are held at most universities that prepare students for the Rhodes interviews - are frowned upon by Elliot Gerson, American secretary for the Rhodes Trust.

Allard said he didn't think such practices help.

"The committees are very good at peeling the wrapper off the packaged candidates," he said, noting that candidates from several Ivy League institutions - which he declined to name - often seem overly polished. "The candidates who are genuine and real do much better."

Brennan said he tells students that making it to the finals is a major accomplishment, reflective of a great college career and application. After that, because of a wide-open interview process, it's anyone's guess who's going to win. Several fellowship advisers said they have heard of questions as esoteric as "Beethoven or Wagner? Go."

"It's completely out of their hands," he said. "It's almost random, even a crap shoot. What we're talking about is a selection made on the basis of only 15 minutes of interviewing. There's no way a student can control that, prepare for that or have any influence at all. I just tell them to be relaxed and be as genuine as they can."

This year, Rhodes winner Paul J. Angelo, a senior midshipman from Ohio who focuses on Latin American studies at the Naval Academy, received questions about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, President Bush's visit to Argentina this month and U.S. military anti-drug efforts in Colombia, all areas in his specialty.

But senior Midshipman Nicholas M. Schmitz of Bethesda, who is majoring in political science and economics, got questions about whether torture is justified and on the merits of the Iraq war.

Schmitz said the questions were a little more focused than he expected, given his preparation.

Other academy candidates to win were Jacquelyn R. Hanna of Lisbon, N.D., and Ensign William R. Kelly of New York, who graduated in May. Two Potomac residents attending Duke University also were among the 32 winners.

Gerson said the trust discourages universities from using the fellowships to market their academic influence, because the awards are given to individuals based on their accomplishments, not to institutions.

But Schmitz, who turned down another prestigious grant to accept the Rhodes, was happy to praise the academy. Said Schmitz of the school: "Obviously, we must be doing something right."

Copyright © 2005, The Baltimore Sun


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