Remembering our Rhodes -jcr -dlh

Emily Passey

Founded in 1903, the Rhodes scholarship is one of the most distinguished in the world. The Rhodes selection committees look for that essential combination of intellectual excellence and personal excellence, maintaining on their website that the scholarships are “investments in individuals.” The two-year stint at Oxford is given to about 32 American scholars, applying from over three hundred American universities each year. Though most people usually think of the recipients of Rhodes scholarships as grads from Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the like, even good old LU has had its share of them. The recipients aren’t nerds at all *********– it takes a well-rounded person to receive a scholarship. Professor James Merrell, of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is one of them.
Merrell began his LU years with no particular goal. He started out in the biology department but after a series of failed labs decided it wasn’t for him. He moved to history which has been his career ever since.
What Merrell says about his LU life sounds pretty much like what any Lawrentian, of any decade, might say *******– he spend time at the library, the gym, and College Ave. “establishments.” He was also on the tennis team and worked with elementary school kids as a Big Brother. Although he doesn’t think he was a nerd, he remembers that after interviewing him about his achievement, a writer for ****The Lawrentian**** remarked, “Gee, you’re not at all the grind I expected you to be!” Apparently everyone has the same ideas about Rhodes scholars!
At the beginning of his senior year, Merrell’s professor Anne Schutte, now at the University of Virginia, suggested he apply for a Rhodes scholarship. He admits that he hadn’t even considered it. Once his application was in, he received a lot of encouragement and enthusiasm from professors who knew him well or who knew Oxford well. They even helped him with practice interviews before the real thing.
Once in Oxford, Merrell lived up the Rhodes experience. He admits that he felt a little intimidated by the scholars coming from larger universities and international universities. Once he got over it, he had a great time. His Rhodes class even included Senator Russ Feingold and quarterback Pat Haden, who interrupted his Oxford years to play in the NFL.
During his time at Oxford, Merrell continued his studies in “modern history,” remarking that, “I thought it would start about 1800. But it turns out that in Britain, ‘modern history’ begins with the Romans! This was my first lesson in historical perspective.” He then went on to Johns Hopkins to get his graduate degree in Early American History, something he’d been interested in since his Lawrence beginnings.
Merrell is now teaching history at Vassar College and relates that it’s exactly what he wanted to do since his junior or senior year at Lawrence. Merrell remembers a “typical Rhodes” conversation he had in Oxford with some of his fellow scholars, “The answers were very much along the lines you would expect from the stereotypes of the Rhodes: running for president, U.S. senator ******– I don’t remember if Russ Feingold was in the room *******– my answer was paltry by comparison: teaching early American history at a liberal arts college. But it was true.”
When asked if he had any advice for future applicants from Lawrence he said that getting a scholarship is “100 percent good luck and good fortune. There are so many qualified candidates that it’s impossible to claim one was more worthy than the others.” It doesn’t take a nerd to get a Rhodes scholarship, just a diligent person with a breadth of knowledge, and the incentive to give it a shot.