Young, Gifted & Black Series
By Taki S. Raton
“They are among the best of the best,” writes Steve Miller of CBS Channel 2 Chicago News. Each year, 83 students from over 20 countries are selected to receive the Rhodes Scholarship offering two to three years of study at the University of Oxford in England. Eight of the 32 are from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut – five undergraduate and three recent alumni.
She is young, gifted, and Black. Rhiana Gunn-Wright recently on Sunday, November 18, 2012 was among Yale’s celebrated 2013 Rhodes Scholars awardees. Representing the most prestigious awards for international study, the Rhodes Scholarship, writes Chicago Sun Times columnist Mary Mitchell, is an award for some of the top students in the world.”
The Rhodes Scholarship was named 110 years ago in 1902 for Cecil Rhodes, an English-born South African businessman who founded the diamond Company DeBeers and was a strong advocate for British colonialism. The award provides all expenses for those students who best exemplify “academic achievement, integrity of character, a spirit of unselfishness and leadership potential” according to a Yale published account.
Inclusive of Rhiana, awardees in this annual selection are not only a record number of Yale students chosen in one year, but Yale now boast the highest number of U.S. Rhodes Scholars for 2013.
“I had serious doubts about even applying because I didn’t see people who reflect my experiences, the places I had come from, the things that I am interested in pursuing,” said Rhiana in the November 19 Mitchell writing. And no wonder, the now 23-year-old grew up in Chicago South Side’s Englewood community.
“My mom wasn’t a lawyer or a doctor. My parents aren’t professional. My great-grandmother was a laundress in Mississippi. I actually struggled to apply for the Rhodes because I was like, people like me don’t win awards like this,” as noted in the Sun Times.
With the help at home of her grandmother, Rhiana was raised by a single mother, both of whom were able to blossom a magnificent rose amidst a crime ridden field of concrete, thus defying in Mitchell’s words “the negative labels that often stigmatize Englewood students.”
But our now Rhodes scholar has a different view of Englewood. She says in Mitchell: “Personally, it makes me sad. One that the violence is happening, and two, people make Englewood sound like the ‘Seven Circles of Hell,” and it is not.” She adds that “there are families and friends there, and people still care about each other. There is still honor and sun and light and not always darkness.”
Founder of the nonprofit youth agency Urban Solutions, her mother, Karen Gunn, notes Mitchell, “navigated the public education system” to access the best opportunities for her daughter. Such a pristine effort on the elementary level landed young Rhiana in the prestigious Ted Lenart Regional Gifted Center. Located in Chicago’s South Side West Chatham neighborhood, Lenart is a Chicago public school providing an advanced and enriched program for gifted students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
In eighth grade, she filled out an application that would help pay for her high school studies, the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship. As quoted by Gunn, “There are only 35 given in the entire country. Rhiana was one of them,” she says.
According to their web page, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s scholarship program is designed “to encourage and support outstanding students who work hard and have a financial need.” The Cooke Foundation’s Young Scholars Program is founded on the belief that if you give high-achieving students with financial need the guidance and resources necessary for them to excel during high school, college, and beyond, “their greatness will emerge.”
And young Rhiana proved to be a mirrored reflection of the Cooke Foundation vision. At 14, she was accepted into the internationally acclaimed Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), known for its reputation of developing creative, ethical leaders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
A boarding school located in Aurora, Illinois, IMSA, according to a web brief, has been consistently ranked by Newsweek as one of the top high schools in the country for math and science. Its students have moved forward to become leaders in a variety of fields.
“Being a Jack Kent Foundation Young Scholar has provided me with the opportunities to develop the confidence and perspective that have made me the person that I am,” she says. It is further noted in a published biography that “My mother always taught me that responsibility and opportunity come in a package. With my opportunities, I must give back to my community.”
Her IMSA English teacher Dr. Grace Glass says of her dedication that: “Of all the students I have encountered, Rhiana stands out as perhaps the most caring and engaged. Her intellect will never be divorced from her integrity.”
She graduated from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in 2007 and four years later, she graduated Magna Cum Laud from Yale University with a double major in African American Studies and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. While at Yale, she was also the recipient of the Williams Pickens Prize in African American Studies for her senior essay, “Breaking the Brood Mare: Representation, Welfare Policy and Teen Pregnancy in New Haven.”
Rhiana is currently serving as the Miriam K. Chamberlain Fellow at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) in Washington D.C. Her interest is now focused on the complex causes of inequality and poverty. She plans a career in public policy to create more opportunities for the disadvantaged and for women, particularly women of color.
Her plans are to study comparative social policy when she attends Oxford in the fall. “I want to help make the policy more humane. People aren’t just poor because they are lazy or shiftless,” she is quoted in Mitchell. “How do we structure programs that respect poverty as something you can get into for any number of reasons, and most of those reasons aren’t under your control.”
The Yale alumnus attributes her success at Lenart Regional Gifted Center, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and at Yale to her mother who, according to the Sun Times feature, always showed her “the bigger picture.”
“She would take me downtown Chicago to see the lights every Christmas and take me to Cincinnati when she visited a friend from college,” Rhiana recalls. “She wanted me to know the world was much bigger than what I saw around my house.”
Rhiana views her Rhodes Scholarship award not has an ultimate achievement, but as a “steppingstone” per Mitchell’s notation. And as a resounding echo to the observation by Grace of her traits as caring, engaged and a person of integrity, she is further quoted in a Caroline Dobuzinskis profile article on her advice to incoming IWPR fellows: “Be mindful of remembering that you really are working to better the status of women. It’s easy to get caught up in work tasks, but you are working on a daily basis to make things better, more tolerant, and more loving.”
Looking ahead towards her envisioned contribution in public policy, she says in Mitchell that “I want to create policy. I want to do the work. This is not the end. This is just the beginning because there is so much work to do.”
Perhaps the strongest advice, however, is her comment in a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation blog where she says of her years to date: “I have learned that a person may only find his or her identity once they embrace all of their potential” – a memorable thought for us all as we cherish this bigger picture from a still blossoming rose from Englewood.