Confronting A Legacy, and Creating Her Own: Meet The First Black Rhodes, Truman, and Udall Scholar

Like many 21 year olds, Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru is on Twitter. And on Nov. 24, 2019, one of the University of Connecticut senior environmental studies major’s tweets went viral.

No, Wawa didn’t absolutely body the latest TikTok dance craze, nor did she create a top-trending hashtag. Instead, she tweeted out news that would earn her congratulations from the ranks of Cory Booker to Bernice King, and strangers alike: She was a Rhodes scholar for the class of 2020—and that was just one part of her incredible news. With that impressive achievement in tow, Gatheru became the first black person ever to receive three of the most prestigious scholarships available—the Rhodes, Truman, and Udall.


And despite being wildly proud of herself and her accomplishments, Gatheru says there is a part of her that now regrets the tweet.


“Within 140 characters, there isn’t enough room for me to provide a nuanced [overview] of how my story, yes, can be flipped as exceptionalism,” she told The Root in a sit-down interview.

As the daughter of Kenyan immigrants who moved from their home country to the United States—and again once in the US from a largely African community in Worcester, MA to the incredibly white, small town of Putnam, Connecticut—all in the hopes of attaining a better education for their children, Wawa’s aware that her narrative can be interpreted as proof positive for the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ crowd that hArD wOrK aLwAyS pAyS oFf.

That’s why the environmental justice advocate says it’s crucial for her to be mindful about how she talks about her story and how others do, too.

“We need to be really critical about how we simply uplift people for their association with things because that perpetuates a very hierarchy that we’re talking about dismantling,” Gatheru said.


Wawa shares the importance of grappling with the Rhodes legacy as an African person, what it means to make space for other marginalized voices in environmental spaces, how she feels being the first black person to hold three major scholarship titles, and more in the video above.



Congrats! Obviously a brilliant mind and she sounds levelheaded. Let’s hope she does not get seduced.

My cynical side: I always cringe when black folks are awarded and accept the Rhodes scholarship. Cecil Rhodes hated black people and is a bona fide genocider, that scholarship should be put to rest. I mean, just imagine a Mussolini or Hitler scholarship, would we accept such a criminal absurdity?

“I am because of others.” I am glad she carries that awareness. Too many of us who share a heritage from other parts of the diaspora too often forget much of the success & benefits we attain on American soil are due in large part to the struggle of Black Americans (ADOS?). That awareness & acknowledgement makes us a stronger collective/people!

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