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Almost Half Of This Year's Class Of U.S. Rhodes Scholars Are First-Generation Americans

The diverse group of winners also includes the first transgender woman to be selected for the scholarship.

This year’s class of American Rhodes Scholars isn’t just remarkable for their academic achievements and talents, but also their “extraordinary diversity,” the Rhodes Trust said, announcing the 32 U.S. winners of the 2020 scholarship. 

Minorities make up the majority of the group of American students chosen to attend at least two all-expenses-paid years at England’s prestigious University of Oxford, starting next fall. Nearly half the group are first-generation Americans, according to the trust. 

The winners also include Hera Jay Brown, the first transgender woman selected for the program, as well as two people who identify as nonbinary.   

“This year’s American Rhodes Scholars ― independently elected by 16 committees around the country meeting simultaneously ― once again reflect the extraordinary diversity that characterizes and strengthens the United States,” Elliot Gerson, the American secretary of the Rhodes Trust, said in a statement. “They will go to Oxford in September 2020 to study in fields broadly across the social, biological and physical sciences, and in the humanities. They are leaders already, and we expect their impact to expand exponentially over the course of their public-spirited careers.”

Brown, a graduate from the University of Tennessee and a Fulbright-Schuman fellow to the European Union, said on Twitter that she was “humbled” by the opportunity. 

In an interview with NBC News, she added that she hoped her achievement would serve to empower other transgender people and combat discrimination. 

“I knew that there had never been a trans woman selected to the Rhodes scholar program and that this was an incredible opportunity to show that we as trans women have contributions to offer, in a time when many parts of society and our country are trying to suppress the reality of our identities and existence,” Brown told the network. “Knowing that this is a form of validation, not only for my work but my legitimacy and the legitimacy of my community is breathtaking.”

As NBC noted, Brown is the first trans woman to be awarded the scholarship but not the first transgender person to win the award. In 2016, Pema McLaughlin became the firstly openly transgender American Rhodes scholar; and last year, Calvin Runnels, a transgender man, was among the group of U.S. winners.

Other recipients of the 2020 scholarship include Kristine Guillaume, the first black woman president of the Harvard Crimson; Daine Van de Wall, a brigade commander at West Point; Wanjiku Gatheru, a first-generation American of Kenyan descent and the first Rhodes scholar from the University of Connecticut; and Yale senior Liana Wang, who was the first in her family to attend college.  

The Rhodes Scholarship was created in 1902 by British businessman and Oxford alum Cecil Rhodes.

According to the Rhodes Trust, 963 U.S. students were nominated by their schools to be considered for the scholarship this year. The winners were then chosen by selection committees based on academic excellence, as well as “great personal energy” and a commitment to making “a strong difference for good in the world.” 

Well-known Rhodes Scholars include MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson and former President Bill Clinton. Two current Democratic presidential contenders — Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg ― were also recipients of the esteemed scholarship.

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