Yale’s Rhodes winners defend Oxford studies

After a recent Harvard Crimson column warned future Rhodes Scholars about the miserable experience to be found at Oxford, current scholar Chelsea Purvis ’06 felt immediate indignation at the writers’ “attitude of ingratitude and entitlement.”

“There are problems at every university and imperfections in every city, but if the writers never even gathered realistic information about what Oxford would be like before they came, how is that anyone’s fault but their own?” Purvis said in an e-mail.

The Crimson op-ed has sparked an active debate about the purpose of the Rhodes scholarships and the effectiveness of universities’ advising programs in finding applicants who are genuinely interested in pursuing academic study at Oxford. But Yalies currently studying at Oxford largely dismissed the Harvard graduates’ objections and said Yale does a good job identifying applicants who are not only interested in the award’s prestige. The leap over the pond to Oxford, England, may be unpalatable to some, but Yale Rhodes and Marshall Scholars said a degree of introspection, a willingness to adapt to a different country’s culture and realistic academic and social goals are what it takes to have a meaningful experience.

The two Harvard graduates, Melissa Dell and Swati Mylavarapu, identified a range of problems with the program, including the inaccessibility of Oxford faculty, limited library resources and opening hours, and the early closing hours of bars, restaurants and shops in England. Dell and Mylavarapu said they wrote the Feb. 25 op-ed to warn students against applying for the Rhodes only to gain prestige or boost their schools’ rosters of winners.

“Before the Rhodes interview, the focus was on winning the scholarship, not on evaluating if Oxford was the right place for us,” they wrote.

Their column prompted an active debate on the comments section of the Crimson’s Web site, as well as a number of columns and letters in response. Some commenters agreed with Dell and Mylavarapu’s assessment of the programs, but other current and former Rhodes scholars — as well as the administrator of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust — defended the program.

Yale students and administrators said the International Education and Fellowship Programs Office works hard to screen for students who are applying for prestige and generally does not encourage students to apply just so Yale can produce more winners in a given year.

Mark Bauer, IEFP associate director for fellowships, said students may sometimes attempt to begin the application process without a clear sense of why they want to attend Oxford, but he tries to help them determine whether the Rhodes is right for them.

“IEFP doesn’t pressure anyone into applying for anything, although some students do feel pressured to apply for these fellowships,” he said. “They can feel a lot of internal pressure or pressure from parents or peers, and talking about that pressure and how to deal with it and whether it’s helping them see the world clearly and what they really want to do, that’s part of the conversations that I have with students all the time.”

The Rhodes provides winners with fully funded graduate study at Oxford. The Marshall Scholarships were created in 1953 in order to expand upon the Rhodes by including a larger pool of candidates and all universities in the United Kingdom.

Amia Srinivasan ’07, who won a Rhodes to study philosophy at Oxford beginning next fall, said she agreed that students should understand their goals before undertaking the arduous application process.

“I’m tempted to say that people who are motivated to apply for the Rhodes primarily because of its prestige factor, without a real desire to pursue a particular program of study with particular professors at Oxford, are setting themselves up for disappointment,” she said in an e-mail. “Everyone you speak to at Yale — advisers at IEFP, professors and former Rhodes and Marshall scholars — will be quick to tell you that you should have a real desire to study at Oxford before applying for these scholarships, an assertion that strikes me as entirely reasonable.”

But Rhodes Scholar Whitney Haring-Smith ’07 said that prestige is usually an inevitable factor in applying for the Rhodes or Marshall, simply because of the increased cachet such an award can lend to a resume.

“The advantage of the Rhodes, as well as the Marshall and the other scholarships, is that it builds credibility for those who are fortunate enough to be successful,” he said. “I think students who see it as an opportunity will find the process fairly gratifying.”

The biggest gripes the Crimson writers had with their Rhodes experiences involved the differences between life at Oxford and life at Harvard. In particular, they cited the early closing hours of academic and retail facilities, the inability to check books out of the Oxford library, the poverty of Oxford’s academic resources and the insufficient Rhodes stipends.

But Bauer said that while he has heard stories of students having to adjust to libraries closing at five p.m. and academics being conducted differently than at Yale, most students are able to view these adjustments as part of the larger context of their “substantive and satisfying, if quirky, experience.”

“In a lot of ways, reactions to studying in the U.K. are very similar to reactions from students who just leave Yale to do anything,” he said. “It’s no longer Yale, and they miss the support, the camaraderie, the familiarity and being in control and on the top of their game.”

Purvis said that although it is true that Oxford libraries do not allow students to check out books, the advantage is that the books are always available during library hours. In addition, while many shops do close at five p.m., restaurants, pubs and grocery stores are open later, she said. Perhaps most significantly, she said, London is only an hour away by bus, not two hours as the editorialists claim.

Current Marshall Scholar Dan Weeks ’06 said there are a number of differences between the English and American systems of education that require adjustments, but none of them should be wholly unexpected or detrimental.

“The Oxford system is much more independent than one is used to at American academic universities, and it’s probably even more independent for graduate students, since one is required to take much of the initiative oneself,” he said. “Some of these were points which were not unfounded in the Crimson piece, but to dwell on them to that extent is a bit exaggerated, at least in my experience.”

Sunita Puri ’02, a Rhodes Scholar, said many of the Crimson editorial’s statements were typical of students who undervalued the experience of living in the town of Oxford. In particular, she said, some students used their stipends more for pleasure than to enhance their education.

Bauer, who regularly visits former Yale students studying in the United Kingdom, said the tone of the Crimson op-ed was atypical, at least among Yalies.

“[On my last trip,] people were talking about their relationships with their professors and with the wonderful people they were meeting, papers they were writing that they were really excited about and travel and research opportunities,” he said.

Puri said she found the attitudes of some of her fellow American expatriates at Oxford to be disheartening in the context of the generous award.

“I’m sad that [the Rhodes] is seen for the title and the prestige and not for what I think it is,” she said. “This is not money that was acquired in a positive way, so for people to say they want more of it or are feeling entitled about what the Rhodes title means, let’s remember where it came from and use it for the right reasons.”

Thirty-two Rhodes Scholarships and 40 Marshall Scholarships are awarded to American students each year.

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