BOSTON – The honor of winning a Rhodes scholarship carries extra weight for Neil Alacha. It will help connect him to his Middle Eastern roots.
A senior at Harvard University, Alacha was among 32 U.S. students announced Saturday as winners of one of academia's most prestigious awards, which will send them to England's University of Oxford. He plans to pursue a master's degree in modern Middle Eastern studies, inspired by his father, a Syrian immigrant.
During his childhood, Alacha grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as his mother. He played in the same park she had. Her family's old home was across the street. But his father's early life was largely a mystery to Alacha, a gap he credits with sparking his curiosity about the Middle East.
"I've never been to Syria. I have no idea what the sights and sounds of my dad's childhood were," said Alacha, 21. "I had a lot of questions."
After graduating at the top of his class from the elite Brooklyn Technical High School, Alacha headed to Harvard and began exploring his heritage. He took Arabic language classes and spent two summers studying in Jordan, one of the few Middle Eastern countries U.S. colleges deem safe for student travel.
At Oxford, he plans to examine whether Western notions of human rights are compatible with Islamic law. He's now writing his senior thesis at Harvard on human rights and the Syrian refugee crisis, and he spent last summer talking with Jordanian officials about balancing the interests of local communities with those of refugees.
It's a personal topic for Alacha and his family. His father grew up in Damascus, Alacha said, and still has two brothers who live there.
His father, Michael Alacha, came to the U.S. in 1978 to get a college degree. He eventually found work as an engineer and became a U.S. citizen. His mother's family comes from a mix of European countries. As a child, Alacha said, he met relatives from both sides who spoke languages he had never heard.
"I saw that we're all driven by the same basic emotions," he said. "There's something that bridges us together past our national divide."
Those who know Alacha praised his ability to analyze issues from a wide range of standpoints, even if they differ with his own.
"What is particularly good about his creativity is that it's supported by a tremendous intellect," said Eric Malczewski, his academic adviser and a lecturer on social studies at Harvard. "He is a student who not only grasps the ideas, but he makes something new out of them."
Friends have called Alacha warm and genial. He's a roller-coaster fanatic who, in his spare time, has helped Harvard employees master English as a second language.
But he has a competitive streak, too. In eighth grade, Alacha won a New York City spelling bee. Last school year, he led the first Harvard mock trial team to win a national title.
He is president of Harvard's model congress, which runs government simulations for high school students around the world.
Still, on Saturday, after an interview at a ritzy New York club before a panel of esteemed academics, Alacha was overwhelmed to learn he had won the Rhodes scholarship. He was among 2,000 students across the country who had asked their colleges to nominate them for the coveted award.
Afterward, he and his parents celebrated over a nostalgic dinner at Sancho's Restaurant in Brooklyn, one of his longtime favorites.
Next year, he leaves for Oxford and a chance to study some of the biggest problems in the Middle East.
"I doubt that in a two-year master's I'll have any sort of answer," he said, "but the most important thing is that I and others are able to understand different perspectives."