Seniors who are awarded fellowships look to the future

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Summiya Najam ’20 will study at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar for Pakistan. She attended the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford during the 2018-19 academic year. (Photo courtesy of Summiya Najam.)

As the spring semester ends, seniors awarded fellowships for postgraduate studies have already started to meet members of their scholar cohorts and prepare for their next steps, even as uncertainty remains from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still mourning the loss of their final weeks on campus and recovering from sudden journeys home, they have begun to cautiously look to the future. They have learned to go with the flow, with new friends in the same situation as them now available for moral support throughout the process. 

Summiya Najam ’20, who was selected as a Rhodes Scholar for Pakistan to study at Oxford University, said that the program is planning to move ahead as usual for the start of fall term in late September, though circumstances could change if the pandemic worsens before then. She was admitted to her first-choice constituent college, St John’s College, and she has secured in-college housing accommodations for the year. 

“It’s the most affluent college, so scholars get to save more of their Rhodes stipend — ideal for low-income students,” she wrote in an email to the Record. “Most of all, their post-grad accommodation is within the college, which is located pretty conveniently (one-minute walk from Tesco and my favorite kebab van).”

Najam previously studied in Oxford during her junior year with the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford (WEPO). She said she loved the experience, and it was one of the reasons she decided to apply for the Rhodes. 

Emmie Hines ’20, winner of the Donovan-Moody Fellowship for graduate study at Oxford, also attended WEPO during her junior year, while Joseph Moore ’20, winner of the Martin-Wilson Fellowship for Oxford graduate study, has previously studied in Bordeaux, France and Mexico City.

Summer-Solstice Thomas ’20, who was awarded a Luce Scholarship to study in Asia, is also hoping to leave by September, as the country that she is planning to travel to, Cambodia, has reported only 122 cases of COVID-19. According to a Reuters dispatch, the health ministry said last week that the last patient who was battling COVID-19 in the country has recovered and that no new cases have been found for a month.

The contrast between the response in Cambodia and the U.S. has frustrated Thomas, who is spending her summer learning the local language online through the University of Wisconsin rather than on the ground in her scholarship country. When she leaves for Cambodia ultimately depends on when the country decides to re-allow Americans to enter. 

Until then, she has quickly bonded with her cohort of Luce Scholars, a group of 18 recent college graduates all pursuing distinct opportunities in separate countries, over their shared interests and anxieties.

“My cohort and I have been playing Pictionary on Zoom almost every weekend,” Thomas said. “As I prepare to leave the Williams community, even though I didn’t get to say my proper goodbyes, I’m extremely lucky to be navigating this strange situation with a new community and able to lean on and learn from them until, and if, we ever get to be all together in person.”

National Science Foundation (NSF) Fellowship recipient Teresa Yu ’20, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Michigan, said that she could defer until a future year, but she intends to start in the fall, even if she cannot yet leave for in-person classes in Ann Arbor, Mich. She is eagerly anticipating the work that she will soon do in her new home city.

“I’m most looking forward to learning and doing research with the great faculty there and alongside other grad students (hopefully in-person!)” Yu wrote to the Record.

Jack Romans ’20, a winner of the Watson Fellowship for international travel, is expecting to defer until at least 2021. He is pursuing a project to work with theater companies in Australia, Indonesia, the Netherlands and South Africa, but live performances around the world have come to a halt with the spread of the virus. 

“Most of my contacts are being super flexible, since they’re all theater makers, and they’re all kind of taking things day by day, just like the rest of the world,” Romans said.

Large gatherings, which are a part of many fellowships in one way or another, have been particularly vulnerable to early cancellations. Najam noted that some departments at Oxford have decided that lectures, whether in-person or online, are no longer required for master’s students. 

“Academic departments are making slight changes to their fall curriculums,” Najam said. “For instance, some of the departments are getting rid of lectures altogether and relying completely on the tutorial system.”

Cambridge University, where Tania Calle ’20, Nicholas Goldrosen ’20, Grace Kromm ’20, Jake Rinaldi ’20, Suiyi Tang ’20, Meklit Tesfaye ’20 and C.J. Salapare ’20 will study on the Dr. Herchel Smith Fellowship for graduate study, announced Wednesday that lectures will remain online until summer 2021. The changes mean that the tutorial system, already the central feature of education at the Oxbridge schools, will take on even greater importance.

Najam reflected that COVID-19 has made her realize how fragile the world around her can be, as she had to leave the College for her home in Islamabad, Pakistan, as soon as the campus closed and did not get to say goodbye to many of her friends and professors.

“If anything, I feel a lot more grateful for having an opportunity like Rhodes that will allow me to once again immerse myself in an international community of scholars and intellectuals,” Najam said. “I am not wasting a single waking moment as a Rhodes scholar.”

Thomas has also tried to focus on the positives while trying to protect herself from the disappointment of potentially losing another opportunity that she worked hard for or not having the experience she originally imagined. She said she had expected to join a weightlifting club, travel to neighboring countries and take cooking classes, but recognized that some of those activities will now be impossible. Still, she is excited to immerse herself in a new community.

“I’m really curious to see how a different culture deals with COVID-19 and how they place themselves in the global community,” Thomas said. “A silver lining to the whole situation may be that I have to stay within my city and see select people, which may produce super close-knit relationships with people and place.”

She expressed gratitude for the people she has already met and for the security provided by her fellowship. 

“I’m extremely lucky to have a paycheck secured through this year no matter what and to be promised to learn and grow — even in ways very different than I may have initially imagined,” Thomas said. “It may not turn out to be the fellowship I once imagined, but I am just grateful to have such an amazing opportunity and to be a part of a cohort of such incredible people.”