WashU senior wins Rhodes Scholarship
On Nov. 11 — a Friday — senior Tori Harwell (they/she) was standing in a room full of Rhodes Scholar finalists in Chicago, waiting for the announcement of the two names that would be awarded the scholarship. It took a lot — of time, energy, and inspiration — for Harwell to be standing in that room.
First, Harwell, who majors in African and African American Studies and Environmental Analysis, learned about the scholarship from Robyn Hadley, former Ervin Scholars director and a Rhodes Scholar herself.
“I think that just kind of sat in the back of my head. Like, ‘This Black woman can do it — there’s potential for me, too,’” Harwell said.
Then in spring of her junior year, Harwell had to request no fewer than eight recommendation letters from professors and mentors, as well as craft personal and academic statements.
After that, Harwell had to be endorsed by Washington University — another application — before officially applying to the national scholarship program.
Finally, after being named one of 12 finalists in District 12 — which includes Tennessee, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri — Harwell had to find a way to get to Chicago for one last 20-minute interview. They chose to take a flight there, and bought a train ticket for the return trip.
The scholarship that inspired all this effort from Harwell is named after Cecil Rhodes, who served as the prime minister of the English Cape Colony, now modern-day South Africa, in the late 19th century.
At the time, Rhodes used his political power to create more stringent voting laws and removed many Black citizens from their land. At the end of his life, Rhodes created the Rhodes Scholarship, with the goal of allowing male scholars from current or former British territories to study at Oxford.
Harwell, who studied abroad in Cape Town their junior year, observed the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign, a movement that advocated for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue on the University of Cape Town’s campus in 2015 and continues to push for greater awareness of institutional racism.
This Rhodes legacy, however, did not deter Harwell from the scholarship. Rather, the loaded history behind Cecil Rhodes sparked her interest.
“I think that’s what intrigues me,” Harwell said. “A lot of WashU alums who were Rhodes Scholars were Black Rhodes Scholars. And I kind of like that subversive tradition.”
Harwell has often followed her curiosity. Prior to studying abroad in South Africa, they spent a month in Ghana, where they conducted research in cocoa farming. Over several months, Harwell followed the path of cocoa from local Ghanaian farmers to the United Kingdom’s Cadbury Chocolate company. This past summer, they studied at the University of Birmingham, delving into dense primary documents about the internal history of Cadbury.
It was on that Friday in Chicago that Harwell learned she would be going back to the UK: this time, for two years at Oxford University. When her name was called as a winner, Harwell said she was in shock. Then, she called her dad.
“He was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s cool,’” Harwell said, imitating his nonchalant response.
After they wished the other finalists farewell, reality set in.
“I ended up crying because it just seems so far beyond what both my living family and ancestors would have seen for me,” Harwell said.
Harwell will board a flight to Oxford in September, where they will earn two degrees: one in Nature, Society, and Environmental Governance and the other in African Studies. Harwell is the 30th winner of the scholarship from Washington University and the first since 2018.
Along with her studies, Harwell is excited to be back amongst old friends. While researching in Birmingham over the summer, she joined a book club and became friendly with local jazz musicians.
“I don’t play jazz,” she clarified. “I just like listening to it.”
Until her trip to Oxford, Harwell has plans to stay mostly local. They hope to get a job in St. Louis over the summer to soak in a little more time with college friends. And of course, they have New Year’s resolutions to complete. A whole bingo board of them, actually. The goal isn’t to do all 25 things, but just to get a five-in-a-row bingo.
To do that, Harwell could learn how to surf, spend a month not traveling, take a stranger to lunch three times, travel around Asia, put on an art show, or approach an underclassman and become friends. And, of course, graduate.
After the prescribed two-year stint at Oxford, Harwell isn’t quite sure which direction life will take her. Maybe community-based work, she said.
“And, hopefully, take a break from school.”