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.
In an exclusive statement to The Root, Barbee Myers Oakes, Ph.D., assistant provost for diversity and inclusion at Wake Forest, said, "Brandon is a testament to the power of vision. Through his hard work and drive to excel and simply seeing himself in places well beyond his current conditions, he's a shining example of how vision can lead us to achieve the unexpected."
Turner, who has a double minor in chemistry and sociology and is a 2012 All-South Rugby player, "is exceptional," said Oakes. "I hope that through his leadership, others will start to envision themselves at the helm of their greatness."
Turner, who said that he is deep in study for midyear examinations, responded to several questions The Root sent to him via email.
His Rhodes scholarship, Turner said, "presents a humbling opportunity and an equally humbling dilemma."
Armed with the Rhodes, Turner said, he "intends to use my experiences and what I've learned as tools to promote black scholastic success."
In that vein, he contemplated the plight of less fortunate African-American youths, especially those who are locked in poverty and despair and lack hope and step ladders out of those circumstances. "A lot of sociological work points to having a strong social network of support for our kids as a tool to combat many of the challenges that make academic success difficult," he explained.
Not only is that network critical in students' scholastic achievement, Turner told The Root, but "health also plays a strong role in the ability to achieve, [since] racial disparities persist in our health care system."
He continued, "it's easy [for despairing youth] to become enclosed and perhaps even stake out identities in various kinds of boxes." Nevertheless, he said, "African-American youth must resist this temptation and begin to redefine themselves; this means excelling in multiple areas."
At Wake Forest, Turner, a Fontana, Calif., resident, "conducts research on the molecular structure of proteins," according to an article written by the university's chief of communications, Cheryl V. Walker. Turner, Walker wrote, "intends to pursue a Master of Science degree in global health and another master's degree in public health."
Turner, who won a Carswell Scholarship to attend Wake Forest, "combines biological, biochemical and computational knowledge to analyze proteins to aid in the discovery of new drugs," according to Walker's article. "He was awarded the 2010-2011 American Physical Society Scholarship for Minority Undergraduate Physics Majors."
"His contributions to my research and to the lab group," said Jacquelyn Fetrow, dean of Wake Forest College and Reynolds Professor of Computational Biophysics, "rival those of graduate students."
F. Finley McRae is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.