CHICAGO – Ian Desai was so curious about maps he found in a book that he retraced the ancient voyage of Jason and the Argonauts, one of the most enduring Greek fables. Now, not surprisingly, he'll immerse himself in modern Greek and Oriental studies at Oxford University after being named among America's 32 Rhodes Scholars.
The scholars, chosen from 904 applicants from 341 colleges and universities, will enter Oxford next fall. The scholarships fund two or three years of study in England.
The American students will join scholars selected from 18 other nations. About 95 scholars are selected each year.
"I'd really like to look back on the past through a modern lens," said Desai, a University of Chicago (search) graduate. "What I'm trying to understand is how the past comes to influence current political and social realities."
For six weeks during a study abroad program in Greece, Desai walked, took buses, rode a motorcycle and sailed with a group of Turkish fishermen to better understand Jason and the Argonauts.
"I was looking to retrace this journey and get a kind of current perspective on this ancient myth," he said.
The Rhodes Scholarships were created in 1902 by the will of British philanthropist and diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes (search). Winners are selected on the basis of high academic achievement, personal integrity, leadership potential and physical vigor, among other attributes.
Past scholars include former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Supreme Court justices Byron White and David Souter, singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson, former presidential candidates Bill Bradley and Wesley Clark, and James William Fulbright, creator of the Fulbright Scholarships.
This year, Harvard University (search) had the most selectees with five, followed by the U.S. Naval Academy (search) with three — the most for that school in one year since 1929, said spokesman Cmdr. Rod Gibbons.
Another winner, Jennifer Howitt, who lost the use of her legs in a hiking accident when she was 9, plans to study development and to continue work to improve conditions for the disabled in developing countries.
"I'm still having trouble putting into words how it feels," said Howitt of Georgetown University, a member of the U.S. wheelchair basketball team that won a gold medal at the Athens Paralympic Games. "In a lot of ways, it felt kind of like winning the gold in Athens. It kind of put this smile on my face that I couldn't take off."
Others selected include Jeremy Farris, a senior at Georgia Tech who discovered a pathogen to help control kudzu (search) and plans to study political theory at Oxford, and Andrew Kim, a University of Chicago graduate who plans to study international relations, particularly conflict resolution and refugee issues related to Africa.
Justin Mutter, one of two Rhodes honorees from the University of Virginia, has been working in public health in Haiti and plans to study how global religious communities confront problems like poverty and disease.
"Everyone experiences shock, not really having known what to expect, and all of a sudden hearing your name called out," Mutter said. "After that, it's this sense of gratitude, not only for being offered a scholarship but for the community, the experience of the whole process."