Meet Brandon E. Turner, Rhodes Scholar

The biophysics major and rugby champ is the only African American to snag the coveted honor for 2012.

Brandon E. Turner (Courtesy of Wake Forest University)

African Americans dismayed by the paucity of their own chosen for the prestigious Rhodes scholarships each year were not encouraged when most of the class of 2012 was announced in November.

Only one African American -- Brandon E. Turner, a senior biophysics major at Wake Forest University -- gained entry to the select circle whose internationally coveted prize is two years of study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, on a scholarship worth approximately $50,000 annually.

African-American optimists, on examining Turner's sterling credentials, see an extraordinary scholar-athlete who is the first black person among the 12 Rhodes winners whom Wake Forest University has produced within the past 25 years.

The Rhodes Scholarship Trust, located in Vienna, Va., has announced more than 70 scholarship recipients so far this year, at least 12 of whom are of African descent.  

Each year, 32 winners are chosen from universities and colleges in 16 Rhodes districts in the United States. More than 80 scholars are selected from 14 "jurisdictions" worldwide. All of them must document volunteer service to schools, communities -- usually underprivileged -- and the nation. Many engage in volunteerism abroad.

Named for Cecil John Rhodes, an architect of British colonialism in Africa, the scholarship trust was established in 1902, the year of his death, with the millions of English pounds provided by his will. Rhodes scholars, he said, "should esteem the performance of public duties as their highest aim."

Students competing for the scholarships must be endorsed by their colleges or universities. Roughly 2,000 American students entered the competition, but only 830 received the necessary approval from 299 colleges and universities. Those 830 were interviewed by committees in the 16 American districts.

Last year only one African American, an Indiana University senior, was chosen. In 2009, four Rhodes winners were African American. The highest number selected in any year has been five, in the early 1980s.

The first black recipient was Alain LeRoy Locke, the widely acclaimed Harlem Renaissance literary genius who was selected in 1907. Thereafter, African Americans were completely shut out until 1963, when John Edgar Wideman, a University of Pennsylvania senior, and J. Stanley Sanders, at Whittier College, near Los Angeles, were chosen.

Other noted African-American Rhodes scholars include Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, and the youthful mayor of Newark, N.J.: Cory Booker.