Yale News

Mary Orsak ’22 hid in the Pierson College seminar room on Nov. 20, shielding herself from the Yale-Harvard game festivities while she found out which applicants received this cycle’s prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

She won.

Orsak and three other Yalies — Liam Elkind ’22, Kate Pundyk ’22 and Shreeya Singh ’22 — were awarded the Rhodes, which funds one to three years of studies at England’s University of Oxford. Elkind, Orsak and Singh are three of 32 Americans selected for the Rhodes Scholarship, while Pundyk, a former SciTech editor for the News, will join 10 other Canadians at Oxford in October 2022. 

A majority of each Rhodes Scholarship cohort is female this year. There are 22 American women and seven Canadian women preparing to move to England next fall, compared to 10 American men and four Canadian men.

“The Scholarships recognize a set of timeless virtues — intellectual excellence, strength of character, energy to strive, commitment to serve and instinct to lead,” said Richard Pan, the Canadian Secretary of the Rhodes Trust and the Chair for the Rhodes Scholarships in Canada. “We are proud of the opportunities that the Scholarships provide to our most talented, passionate and charismatic university graduates.”

Last year, three Yalies won Rhodes Scholarships. For the second consecutive year in its century-long history — the application process was conducted entirely online. Still, Elliot F. Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Trust, said he hopes to return to in-person selection next year.

Though he described the online process as “weird,” Elkind said that he found it less nerve-racking to participate in virtual panel interviews.

Elkind took a leave of absence last year and founded a non-profit called Invisible Hands, which delivered necessities such as food and groceries to those most at risk during the pandemic. Invisible Hands grew exponentially, he said. At one point, a New York City hotline referred hungry residents to Invisible Hands, which then used Elkind’s personal phone number.

“It seemed unacceptable that we as a society are reliant on these patchwork mutual aid groups,” Elkind said. “Even New York City’s food system relied on a 20-year-old answering his phone. Why is it that government isn’t filling these roles? Why is it that government isn’t able to help people in meaningful and effective ways?”

At Oxford, Elkind is looking to study comparative government between the United States and the United Kingdom — specifically reform, campaign financing and voting rights — before returning to the U.S. and strengthening American democratic infrastructure. 

For Orsak, the Rhodes Scholarship is about service. 

“Everyone who gets involved in this — at some level — wants to see change in the world,” she said.

Orsak, who studies Russian at Yale, will pursue a master’s degree at Oxford to learn from eminent professors in East European studies. She said that she aspires to teach Russian and Czech at the university level in the future.

In one of her Rhodes interviews, Orsak said, a panelist asked her why she is “just going to be a professor.” Orsak responded that as an academic, she will make her impact by educating the next generation and adding scholarship to a smaller field.

Similar to Orsak, Pundyk shares a value for education and credited Yale and Wellesley College — where she completed her first two years of undergraduate studies before taking time off to work for the Premier of Alberta and then moving to New Haven — for preparing her for the scholarship. Still, she emphasized that she is excited for “a new adventure.”

Pundyk, who has wanted to matriculate at Oxford since she was 11, studies technology’s role in crimes against humanity. She said she wants to join Canada’s “strong” group of technology policy scholars and activists to “amplify Canada’s role in discussing how technology is changing conflict and humanitarian crises.”

The Rhodes Scholarship requires applicants to examine the values underpinning their accomplishments, Pundyk said.

Singh partook in the application process for several prestigious programs this year, earning finalist spots for both the Marshall and Rhodes Scholarships, though she only won the latter. 

“[The Rhodes] is one of those impossible dreams,” she said. “Throughout the entire process I never internalized it as a real possibility.”

Singh, who was born in India before immigrating to the U.S. as a child, examines Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim policies in her native country. She said she is excited to pursue her graduate degree, to meet the international cohort of Rhodes Scholars in her class and to begin paying forward the “kindness, love and wisdom” she received during her application.

Singh said anyone can win a Rhodes Scholarship.

​​“It’s one of those things that people look at like you have to be perfect or like there’s a certain type of person who wins the Rhodes,” Singh explained. “They’re an athlete, and they have perfect grades, and they have everything together. This isn’t true. So much of it is luck and hard work and the people around you. There is no one type of person who is a Rhodes scholar. If you’re thinking of it, I encourage you to throw your hat in the ring.”

Rebekah Westphal, assistant dean in Yale College and director of fellowships and funding, called this year’s class “incredible and inspiring,” though she emphasized that all the students who received Yale’s nomination were “absolutely stellar in terms of their academic success and accomplishments.”

Westphal, who Singh describes as “a wizard,” meets with every Yale student interested in pursuing the Rhodes.

“I think a lot of people don’t apply because they think it’s too hard, but the process of applying is an incredibly useful one in and of itself,” Westphal said. “Candidates always learn a great deal about themselves, they strengthen their networks and they get some great interviewing practice and support which is helpful for so many other things.”

The Rhodes Scholarship was first awarded in 1902. 

Jordan Fitzgerald serves as a University editor for the News. She previously edited for WKND and wrote about admissions, financial aid & alumni. She is a senior in Trumbull College majoring in American history.