US Rhodes Scholars for 2021 include UM student

Kim Kozlowski and Jasmin Barmore
The Detroit News

During her four years as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, Amytess Girgis has worked on campus parity issues , community organizing and legal advocacy in immigrant communities in between her studies.

Next year, she will be among the 32 Americans named Rhodes Scholars for 2021.

The oldest and prestigious international award comes with a scholarship to attend the University of Oxford in England, ranked the No. 1 university in the world in some global rankings. The award brings together leaders from around the globe "who are impatient with the way things are and have the courage to act," according to the Rhodes Trust website.

Amytess Girgis said she is hoping to learn "both from the classroom and the people around me" when she studies at the University of Oxford.

"Viscerally, I am aware of the fact that this award represents an incredible opportunity and an incredible responsibility," said Girgis, 21, of Grand Rapids. "When you have the opportunity to enter halls of power ...  you have to make sure that other people’s voices are in those rooms even if they can’t physically be there. And that is what I intend to do."

Girgis is the 29th UM student to land the scholarship since it was first awarded in 1902. She is a Stamps Scholar, a UM merit scholarship bestowed upon outstanding undergraduate freshmen, and is currently president of the Michigan Stamps Scholars Society. She will graduate in spring from UM with a degree in political science with minors in urban studies and anthropology. 

"Amytess represents the best of what the scholarship and the University of Michigan are intended to promote — a civically minded, big-hearted and thoughtful young person who has the potential to help us build a world that is kinder, gentler and more inclusive,"  said Abdul El-Sayed, DeRoy Visiting Professor at UM who worked with Girgis when he ran for governor in 2018 and was a Rhodes Scholar in 2009.

While at Oxford, Girgis plans to earn a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy, politics, and economics then go to law school and spend her career "amplifying the experiences of the marginalized to rectify past harms.” 

This year's scholars were elected virtually for the first time as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe..

The Rhodes Trust announced the winners early Sunday, which include 22 students of color. Ten are Black, which ties the record for the most Black students elected in a single year. The winners include 17 women, 14 men and one nonbinary person.

“This year’s American Rhodes Scholars — independently elected by 16 committees around the country meeting simultaneously — reflect the remarkable diversity that characterizes and strengthens the United States," said Elliot F. Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Trust.

Girgis is writing an honors thesis on informal community aid groups that formed in Detroit.

She has worked on student organizing in labor, connecting undergraduates and community constituents with UM's Lecturers’ Employee Organization, AFT Local 6244. She also has been a law clerk with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in Ypsilanti, working with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, undocumented residents and those seeking asylum in the U.S.

Some of her most high-profile work has been advocating on behalf of the One University Campaign, a grassroots group working to increase funding for UM-Flint and Dearborn. The campaign has also lobbied for adding policies and programs to ensure equity such as UM's Go Blue Guarantee, which offers four years of free undergraduate tuition to qualified, in-state students from Michigan families earning $65,000 annually or less. 

In all of her advocacy work, Girgis said a common theme has emerged: the disconnect between how political candidates operate, with so much time spent raising money for example, and people’s needs, particularly in low-income communities or for people of color.

"It’s one thing to study those in theory ... it’s another thing entirely to work directly with these folks," said Girgis. "I have learned more from them frankly than I will ever learn in the classroom. I am looking toward applying those experiences to academic work at Oxford."

Girgis, who is Iranian and Egyptian, said she was pleased to see a diverse class of scholars, including Black scholars, women of color and non-binary students — especially since she said the Rhodes Scholarship is aware that Cecil Rhodes, who established the scholarship, "as one of the most infamous colonists and eugenicists in world history."

"Working to rectify that while having his name next to mine is definitely attention that I will continually be working to reconcile," Girgis said.

Jin K. Park

The winners were chosen from a pool of more than 2,300 applicants — of which 953 were endorsed by 288 different colleges and universities to study at Oxford.

Sixteen committees from the Rhodes Trust invited the strongest applicants to interview virtually. The committees then made their selection of two students from each district.

Others who will join Girgis include Asma Rahimyar, a 20-year-old senior at Southern Connecticut State University, is the first-ever Rhodes winner from that institution. The University of California, Santa Cruz was also represented on the list of Rhodes Scholars for the first time.

The daughter of parents who emigrated from Afghanistan, Rahimyar was raised in Trumbull, Connecticut, and grew up listening to her parents’ stories of war-torn Kabul. She hopes to earn two master’s degrees, one in forced migration and refugee studies and one in global governance and diplomacy, with an eye toward a career in international human rights law.

Hattie Seten

Rahimyar said she was still marveling at having won the scholarship 24 hours after getting the call. “It’s all still very new and very surreal to me,” she said.

Hattie Seten, a senior at South Dakota State University, was the first Rhodes Scholar from her university in 68 years. She said she wasn’t sure “if I would fit what a Rhodes Scholar looks like” and felt some apprehension about applying from a public university in a mostly rural area.

But she focused her application on what she called “a strong moral sense of character” and highlighted the leadership she had taken on campus, including navigating the coronavirus pandemic.

When the selection committee named her one of the scholarship recipients on a Zoom meeting, she said, “I was so surprised, I started crying. I would have never expected something like this.”

Scholarship-winners expressed incredulity at hearing they would be Rhodes Scholars, a distinction that has launched the careers of famous politicians, academics, scientists and journalists.

“I think I’m still in shock,” said Brian Reyes, 21, of the Bronx. “It’s nice to actually see my name on the Rhodes website and have it confirmed that it’s real.”

Reyes, a history major at Yale University, is the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. He is a student counselor who has been living on campus this school year and taking his classes online. He is planning on a two-year degree program in comparative social policy and a career in government or the nonprofit sector.

Brian Reyes

Scholarship-winner Vijayasundaram Ramasamy has spent the last months as a policy advisor in the Kansas governor’s office, helping draft that state’s reopening plan during the coronavirus pandemic. The experience has given the 2018 Johns Hopkins University graduate a passion for public service through government, and he plans to pursue a master’s degree in public policy and a master’s in social policy.

But for the moment, he enjoyed how the virtual format gave him a chance to celebrate with his family.

“It’s actually kind of the silver lining of COVID. I was at home and my whole family was here — both of my brothers, my nieces — and we were all in one room together when they made the announcement,” Ramasamy said. “Coming from an immigrant family who came to the United States, being with them when it was announced was absolutely surreal.”

Detroit News wire services contributed to this report.