Though Yale could not beat their perennial rivals at the 135th edition of The Game, the Elis bested Harvard in a different category last week — the number of students awarded Rhodes scholarships. Three Yale seniors, Eren Orbey ’19, Rayan Semery-Palumbo ’19 and Riley Tillitt ’19, are among this year’s cohort of Americans awarded the Rhodes Scholarship, according to a Nov. 17 announcement. Two Harvard students won the prestigious scholarship this year.
The scholarship covers all expenses for two, three or, in some cases, four years of study at the University of Oxford in England. One hundred students — 32 Americans and 68 internationals — were selected for the award, said Elliot Gerson, the American secretary of the Rhodes Trust, in a press release last week. The press release lauded the American cohort, stating that it “once again reflect[s] the extraordinary diversity that characterizes the United States.”
According to the press release, first-generation Americans or immigrants comprise almost half of the American class. This year’s list of awardees includes 21 women — more than ever before — and one undocumented student whose status is covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. This is the first year DACA recipients are eligible for the scholarship, according to the press release.
“The class overall is majority minority … [and] these Scholars plan to study a wide range of fields across the social sciences, biological and medical sciences, physical sciences and mathematics, and the humanities,” Gerson wrote. “They are certain to enrich our future.”
Rebekah Westphal, the director of the Office of Fellowship Programs, said that this year, Yale had the largest number of Rhodes finalists in over a decade. Seventeen Yale students were selected by the committees to be interviewed, Westphal said.
“This is a major recognition of the high levels of academic scholarship and leadership presented by our Yale applicants, but also of their dedication to lives of service” she said.
Orbey, one of the three Rhodes scholars from Yale, currently double majors in computer science and English language and literature. At Oxford, he is planning on pursuing two master’s degrees — one in global and imperial history and one in world literatures in English.
Orbey is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and has worked as a software engineer at Microsoft. Having witnessed his father’s murder in Turkey when he was just three years old, Orbey is currently working on a book that “melds memoir, history, and contemporary reporting to create a portrait of his father and his father’s killer,” according to his profile on the Rhodes website.
“I’m thrilled to have been elected a Rhodes scholar,” Orbey told the News. “The award is a testament to the quality of the education I’ve received at Yale and beyond. I hope that my studies at Oxford will bring further context and clarity to my thinking and writing. I can’t wait to join the other scholars, whose commitment to the public good inspires me.”
Semery-Palumbo — a global affairs major who said he plans to study comparative approaches to poverty alleviation by pursuing a master’s degree in international relations at Oxford — echoed Orbey’s appreciation of his Yale education. In an interview with the News, he said that growing up, he could never have imagined being associated with the Rhodes, Oxford “or frankly even a place like Yale.”
While at Yale, Semery-Palumbo has pursued reforms toward greater inclusion and support of first-generation, low-income college students. He was the only undergraduate recognized by the Yale Jefferson Awards and the Yale Alumni Association this year for “innovative, outstanding, and sustained contributions in service to the greater good,” according to his Rhodes website profile.
Tillitt, who is double majoring in history and ethics, politics and economics, is the Yale chapter president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and served as a policy advisor for Connecticut Governor-elect Ned Lamont SOM ’80. At Yale, he was also the president of the Yale Model Congress and director-general of the Yale Model United Nations China.
At Oxford, Tillitt is planning to study public policy and criminology. He said he hopes to use “this incredible opportunity” to work toward reforming drug policy and the criminal justice system in the U.S.
“As of right now, I’m still in shock and disbelief about the whole thing,” he told the News. “After meeting the other finalists in my district and seeing how incredible and inspiring they all are, I’m humbled and genuinely surprised that the selection committee chose me.”
Yale, Princeton University and Duke University all saw three seniors awarded the scholarship, each more than any other American institution.
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