Hélène Deacon could feel her heart pounding as she took her place at the conference table and faced her interrogators. There were five professors, two lawyers and a former senior bureaucrat, and they held the keys to one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. For 45 minutes in April, they peppered the 22year-old psychology student from the University of Prince Edward Island with questions. By the end, Deacon was sure she had blown it. Disappointed, she hit the road for the long drive home to Charlottetown from Fredericton. But less than an hour after walking through the door, the fateful phone call came: she had been selected by the blue-ribbon panel as a Rhodes Scholar for 1999. “I started to cry,” she says. “It was one of those phenomenal experiences when you get something you’re not expecting and it just promises so much.”
In keeping with tradition, Deacon shares the prestigious award this year with 10 Canadian students, chosen by region. Thanks to Cecil Rhodes, the British empire builder and diamond magnate who made provisions for the scholarships in his 1902 will, 86 university graduates from around the world will head to Oxford University this fall for up to three years of paid study. The scholarships are worth up to $100,000 each, including a $ 1,670-a-month living allowance. But the value is much more than monetary. “It can be a hugely lifealtering thing,” says Eileen Gillese, an Ontario Supreme Court judge and one of the first women to be awarded the scholarship when, by an act of the British Parliament, it went co-ed in 1976. “It expands the scope of your dreams.”
Not that the typical candidate is any shrinking violet. The program calls for graduates, under the age of 25, with “proven intellectual and academic attainment.” But it takes more than top marks. To build leaders who could ad-
vance the empire, Rhodes wanted students with impeccable integrity, a concern for humanity, leadership skills and energy—shown particularly through success in sports.
Over the years, however, the emphasis on athleticism has diminished.
Montrealer Marco Gualtieri, 20, who graduated with a degree in mathematics and physics from McGill University this spring, is an avid whistler who once competed at the annual International Whistlers Convention in Louisburg, N.C. Sara Kreindler, a 20-year-old psychology grad from the University of Manitoba volunteers with Choices, a Winnipeg social justice group. “They look for passion in different areas,” says this year’s B.C. Rhodes Scholar, Murray McCutcheon, a 24-year-old triathlete and physics major who graduated from the University of British Columbia last month with a 91 average. “But because the scholarship carries such an aura, a lot of people write themselves off.” Considering the program’s prestige, the number of applicants is surprisingly small: about 200 a year for 11 positions.
Applicants must submit six letters of reference, and the interviewers take particular delight in firing questions from left field. Says Kreindler: “They have at least one designated heavy hitter who argues with basically anything you say.” Since 1904, about 1,200 students have made the cut in Canada, 580 of whom are still living. The recipients include former prime minister John Turner, journalist Rex Murphy and renowned neurologist Wilder Penfield. Tiny Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., lays claim to producing the highest number per capita in
the Commonwealth, 41 to date.
At 87, James Gibson of Welland, Ont., is one of Canada’s oldest surviving Rhodes Scholars. Gibson lived up to the expectations of leadership: having graduated from Oxford in 1934, the career academic went on to become the founding president of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., in 1963. While the gentlemanly octogenarian seems to epitomize the Rhodes tradition, he says the scholars of today are a far cry from those of his generation. “Many people today have taken a year off—they’ve explored the Galapagos or they’ve been storefront lawyers,” says Gibson. “I had never been off the continent.” For Hélène Deacon and the rest of this year’s scholars, the adventure has just begun.
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