The Road to Rhodes
While undergraduates, Carlos Castañeda and Jonathan Nomamiukor caught the attention of faculty early on, and with careful mentoring and rigorous preparation, the pair of COLFA seniors advanced to the final stage of competition for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship last fall—just the second and third UTSA students ever to do so.
Now in their first year of law school, both said the lessons they learned along the way in pursuit of that award have shaped their plans for life.
Competing for the Rhodes is an arduous, emotional process, said Ben Olguin, associate professor of English and assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships in the Honors College. It takes at least two years to properly prepare to apply for the scholarship.
First, students at the very top of their classes are identified and interviewed. Strengths and weaknesses of each candidate are identified, then a plan focusing on the students' lifelong interests is established.
"The most important part of the process is to get the students to link their personal interests and concerns to their academic and professional pursuits," he said. "Once this is done, I gauge the student's progress on their grades, advise them on pursuing eclectic combinations via double majors or multiple minors as appropriate to their evolving life mission. Then the culling begins."
Only the most accomplished students are selected through an in-house UTSA faculty review process to continue with the final stage of the application process, he said. "We select those candidates that have a realistic chance of winning based on their academic excellence, project viability and overall profile. Then the really hard work begins."
The students are mentored to tailor their academic plans to their best advantage. Also during that time there are meaningful relationships to foster with faculty, letters of support to gather and writing samples to refine into pitch-perfect shape through a workshop process intended to render a highly accessible, thoroughly readable personal essay.
No less than a dozen UTSA faculty participated in each student mentoring initiative, and each student had at least three outside professionals (e.g., politicians, judges, etc.) who also joined the team.
The Rhodes Scholarships were created in 1902 in British philanthropist Cecil Rhodes' will. Each year, about 80 scholars from around the world receive Rhodes scholarships, which cover all expenses at Oxford University for up to four years of study. Thirty-two of the 80 Rhodes scholars come from the United States.
Last year, 216 U.S. students from 97 colleges and universities reached the final stage of competition, according to a news release from the Office of the American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust. There were 17 finalists from District 8—Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. District referees include professionals such as judges, politicians and scholars, many of whom were Rhodes scholars.
Once Nomamiukor and Castañeda were selected as Rhodes regional finalists, grueling 90 minute mock interviews were conducted by Olguin and two committees, plus a more formal dinner interview was held with faculty and administrators.
"Jonathan and Carlos were put through a slow, painstaking and meticulous process of refining not just their applications, but their overall intellectual profile," Olguin said. "This involved serious discussion of their life goals and a sometimes painful revisiting of life experiences. The goal was to get an intellectual map of where they have been, where they are now and where they seek to go."
Both Nomamiukor and Castañeda initially required some persuading to compete for the Rhodes, Olguin said.
"I asked them to do some soul-searching. I asked them for core beliefs—political, social, personal. I had them really explore who they are," he said.
Associate professor Richard Gambitta got to know both Nomamiukor and Castañeda when they attended UTSA's Summer Law School Preparation Academy, part of the Honor College's Institute for Law and Public Affairs, which he directs. Gambitta compared his time working with the pair to coaching a prizewinning athlete—a "delightful task."
"It's really only a polishing of a jewel," he said. "Everybody needs some polish."
Competing for a Rhodes scholarship—even for those who ultimately do not receive an award—pays dividends indefinitely, Gambitta said.
"It's a life-enhancing experience," he said. "Both [Castañeda and Nomamiukor] have crystallized what they want to do in life.
Advancing to the regional finals gave San Antonio native Castañeda a boost of confidence. Now at the University of Texas School of Law, Castañeda spent the summer at the Homeland Security Summer Scholars Academy, part of the National Center for Border Security and Immigration at the University of Texas at El Paso.
"One thing I took away [from the Rhodes experience] is that I have to not be afraid of failure," Castañeda said. "What I learned is that sometimes you surprise yourself. Sometimes putting in a little more effort, more time, really wanting something—that really is the key."
While a political science major and Spanish minor at UTSA, Castañeda volunteered on medical missions to Oaxaca, Mexico, interned in the district office of state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, and organized a fashion show benefiting cancer research, featuring children with cancer as models. As a Bill Archer Fellow, he spent a semester interning at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
During Nomamiukor's four years at UTSA, he volunteered with the Rape Crisis Center helping juvenile rape victims, served as a Big Brother mentor, interned at the U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of Texas, and spent a semester interning at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., as a Bill Archer Fellow.
Nomamiukor said competing for the Rhodes helped focus his professional goals. He graduated in the spring with a major in English and a minor in African American studies. Now a student at Harvard Law School, he said he plans on a career with the Department of State fighting human trafficking "not just in Texas and the U.S., but in the world."
"I was exposed to a few cases about human trafficking and it just opened my heart," he said.
Making high achievement more accessible is the college's mission, said Honors College Dean Richard Diem. He believes the college's mission is to take talented students and equip them with the information and direction they need to succeed.
His message to students is clear: "We are willing to take the time to hone those skills—the ones you have—so you can do some really interesting things with your lives."
Diem also credits faculty for their work in helping students maximize their potential.
"The Honors College couldn't do this without the faculty," he said. "They work with these students. The faculty comes from every college in the university. If it wasn't for them, it wouldn't work."
That's a sentiment Castañeda shares when reflecting on what made him stand out among the many talented students with their sights set on Oxford.
"The thing that helped me most in my application process were the people supporting and encouraging me all the way," he said.
Both Nomamiukor and Castañeda stood out as potential candidates for the Rhodes, said Honors College Associate Dean Ann Eisenberg, who is also a COLFA psychology professor. Castañeda was academically accelerated, taking graduate courses his second year as an undergraduate. And Nomamiukor, she said, revealed strong leadership qualities early on.
To date, the only UT System school with a Rhodes scholar is the University of Texas at Austin. The last time UTSA had a Rhodes finalist was in 1984. To have two finalists in one year is especially noteworthy, Eisenberg said.
"It's particularly rare for any school to have two candidates reach [the final stage] in a given year," she said.
From where Olguin stands, the future for Nomamiukor and Castañeda is especially bright—as are prospects for the university's fellowship and scholarship program.
"We're already on the map by having these two finalists," said Olguin.