Three Yalies win Rhodes Scholarships

Brian Reyes ’21, Alondra Vázquez López ’21, and Jackson Willis ’20 are among 32 Americans to win the highly competitive scholarships to study at Oxford.

Two Yale seniors and a 2020 graduate have been named Rhodes Scholars in the first-ever virtual selection process, necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The three — Brian Reyes ’21, Alondra Vázquez López ’21, and Jackson Willis ’20 — are among 32 Americans to win the highly competitive scholarships, which provide all expenses for two or three years of study at the University of Oxford in England, and may allow funding in some instances for four years. The American winners will join an international group of Rhodes Scholars from more than 60 countries around the world.

The scholars are chosen for their academic excellence, ability to work with others and to achieve their goals, their commitment to making a positive impact in the world, and their concern for the welfare of others, as well as their awareness of inequities.

This year, more than 2,300 students began the application process and 953 were endorsed by their 288 different colleges and universities.

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, the American secretary of the Rhodes Trust. “They are leaders already, and we are confident that their contributions to public welfare globally will expand exponentially over the course of their careers,” Gerson said.

Profiles of the Yale winners follow:

Brian Reyes

Brian Reyes

Brian Reyes, of Berkeley College, is majoring in history. He is a first-generation college student from New York and the son of Dominican immigrants. He has served as longtime staff member at La Casa Cultural, Yale’s cultural center for Latino students, and is the co-president of the Dominican Students Association. He has also been an organizer for Connecticut Students for a Dream — a statewide organization of immigrant youth, their families, and allies — which campaigns to make state financial aid available without regard to immigration status. He plans to work on policy and legal issues at the intersection of economic and racial justice. He previously pursued that interest as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and an intern at Prosperity Now. At Oxford, he will study for a Master of Philosophy degree in comparative social policy.

I'm just incredibly appreciative, both of the ‘village’ that helped me get here and the opportunity that the scholarship presents,” said Reyes. “More than anything, I want to prepare myself to produce bold and innovative policy ideas to combat racial and economic injustice in the United States.”

Alondra Vázquez López

Alondra Vazquez Lopez

Vázquez López, of Grace Hopper College, is majoring in ethnicity, race, and migration (ERM). Her senior thesis, which includes an exhibition of her own art, explores modern illicit migration corridors in the Americas. She is a founding member and president of an undergraduate chapter of the Estamos Unidos Asylum Project and is an active advocate for undocumented migrants. She also serves as vice president of a nonprofit dedicated to creating portraits for children internationally who have endured significant adversity. Vázquez López, who hails from the San Francisco Bay area of California, worked directly for asylum clients in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, and studied Arabic in Morocco. At Oxford, she will pursue Master of Science degrees in migration studies and in refugee and forced migration studies.

Vázquez López credited the ERM major for leading her “to think critically about scholarship” and her professors for encouraging her to “re-center the voices of people of color in history and art.”

“Other than shock and thinking I had misheard my name, there was a lot of crying with my parents afterward as I tried to explain in Spanish what Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarship were — very unsuccessfully so,” she said. “Both my parents made it to fifth grade in Mexico and Guatemala, so Oxford is going beyond anything my family and I could have ever imagined.”

Jackson Willis

Jackson Willis

Jackson Willis, who was a resident of Berkeley College, studied economics and humanities. On campus, Willis participated in Directed Studies and the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, a year-long course that addresses large-scale, long-term strategic challenges of statecraft, politics, and social change. He served as chair and a volunteer for the Yale Hunger and Homeless Action Project and was on the Dwight Hall board of directors. He was a student curator and gallery guide at the Yale Center for British Art. He previously worked for the Ramsar Convention as a Robin Berlin Fellow and in the Yale Investments Office, as well as for the Dali Museum on a U.S.-Cuba art exchange. He has also created public murals in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. Willis took a one-year leave while at Yale to join the Peace Corps and the NGO Osez Innover in Guinea, working to improve youth employment outcomes. He will pursue Master of Science degrees in economics for development and in global governance and diplomacy at Oxford.

I am overwhelmingly grateful to receive this life-changing scholarship,” Willis said. “Having gone through the process, I realize winning a Rhodes is a tremendous group effort. I am indebted to the support and guidance of my Humanities professors, Yale mentors, Berkeley Thundercocks, and incomparable friends as well as YHHAP volunteers and Dare to Innovate (Osez Innover) entrepreneurs. This variety of remarkable people has helped me pursue my interest in economic development at Oxford.”

Brian, Alondra, and Jackson have worked so hard during this process, and I’m absolutely delighted for them all,” said Rebekah Westphal, assistant dean and director of the Office of Fellowships and Funding. “Yale had a wonderful group of finalists for the Rhodes this year, all of whom were stellar candidates. This year’s cohort was diverse, academically outstanding, and truly representative of what the Rhodes Trust looks for: truth, courage, moral force of character and instincts to lead, and an interest in one’s fellow beings.”

Applicants in the U.S. can apply either through the state where they are a legal resident or where they have attended college for at least two years. They must first be endorsed by their college or university. Committees of Selection in each of 16 U.S. districts then invite the strongest applicants to appear before them for an interview. 

It was the first time that a class of Rhodes Scholars was elected entirely virtually, with all candidates and selectors participating “safely, independently, and digitally.”

The Rhodes Scholarship was created in 1902 by the will of Cecil Rhodes. To date, 3,548 Americans have won the award.

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