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LSA senior Amytess Girgis recently became the 29th student from the University of Michigan to receive the Rhodes Scholarship, the oldest and most prestigious international scholarship program. Girgis was awarded the honor for her work in campus and community organizing and for her thesis researching the increase in mutual aid groups in the wake of the current pandemic. 

The scholarship funds all expenses for two to three years of study at the University of Oxford in England. In this year’s list of Rhodes Scholars, 22 of the 32 Americans chosen are students of color, 10 of whom are Black, which is the most chosen in one year, according to the Rhodes Trust press release. Nine of the winners are first-generation Americans or immigrants and one is a DACA Dreamer. Additionally, 17 of the winners identify as female and one as non-binary. 

Girgis is graduating in the spring from the University with a degree in Political Science. She will head to the University of Oxford in fall 2021 and told The Michigan Daily she is leaning toward getting a doctorate in philosophy, political science, sociology or anything that would allow her to specifically study social movements. 

Though she is honored to win, Girgis said she has some conflicting feelings about the scholarship and is still digesting what it means to be a Rhodes Scholar-elect. 

“My primary reaction is shock, I still haven’t fully internalized that this is really happening,” Girgis said. “My second reaction is feeling the responsibility of what it means to carry this title and to head to Oxford with all of the opportunities it affords and what it looks like to take that opportunity on behalf of those who never get a chance.”

More than 2,300 students began the application process for the scholarship this year, according to the Rhodes Trust.

As a woman of color, Girgis said she is also coming to terms with the complicated legacy of the Rhodes Scholarship. The grant was originally founded in 1902 by Cecil Rhodes, a vocal supporter of British imperialism and the eugenics movement. 

“I’m both celebrating & mourning the fact that the title ‘Rhodes Scholar’ next to the name of an Iranian-Egyptian-American woman has Cecil Rhodes turning over in his grave,” Girgis wrote in a tweet following the announcement that she had won.  

Though unsure what she wants to do in the long run, Girgis said she is excited to take advantage of the opportunities the scholarship presents and help create a more equitable future for people of all backgrounds. 

“At the same time, the Rhodes Trust has for a very long time now been really doing incredible work, and selecting incredible scholars and contributing to a more just world,” Girgis said. “But to me, that tension still exists between those two truths. And I look forward to working with other Rhodes Scholars and Rhodes alumni to keep working for reconciliation and reparations.”

Henry Dyson, director of the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships at the University, worked closely with Girgis during the application process for both the Rhodes Scholarship and the Truman Scholarship. 

Though Girgis did not win the Truman Scholarship during her junior year, Dyson said her candidacy set her up to eventually become a Rhodes Scholar-elect this year. He said he admires Girgis’s resilience and determination. 

“I think one big takeaway that I have with Amytess is that it takes perseverance on these things,” Dyson said. “In the case of Amytess, she is phenomenal, but even phenomenal students don't always get selected for these things.”

Additionally, Dyson said he believes Girgis makes a great recipient because of her dedication to many different commitments outside of academics at the University. Girgis is heavily involved in various organizing efforts with the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and the One University campaign

“I think Amytess is just emblematic of what the contemporary Rhodes Scholarship is trying to do, which is to identify future leaders who are going to work for greater justice, for greater equity and for greater inclusion,” Dyson said. “That’s been the heart of all of Amytess’s work. … She wants to really identify the stories of those who have been marginalized in our economic and political systems and to raise up their voices.”

LSA lecturer and president of LEO Ian Robinson said he has worked with Girgis in the past on LEO initiatives and the 1U campaign and is grateful for the impact she has helped make in the surrounding community. 

Last year, LEO and 1U led a campaign calling for the University’s Board of Regents to provide better funding and further access to resources at the U-M Flint and Dearborn campuses to encourage equity between the University’s three campuses. Robinson said Girgis was one of the activists who was instrumental in extending the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion funds to the Flint and Dearborn campuses. 

“Amytess played a critical role in informing and organizing her Ann Arbor peers to support the extension of DEI principles to students on the Flint and Dearborn campuses,” Robinson said. “Amytess’s many contributions to the 1U campaign have undoubtedly moved us further and faster towards our goals than we would have been able to do without her.” 

Abdul El-Sayed, a 2018 Michigan gubernatorial candidate and University alum, also received the Rhodes Scholarship as part of the 2009 cohort. El-Sayed served on the Truman Scholarship and the Rhodes Scholarship naming committees and worked with Girgis personally during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign. 

“So incredibly proud today. The best part of growing up is watching the ones who come next grow & emerge,” El-Sayed wrote in a tweet.

Girgis advised other aspiring students at the University to not get caught up with the competitive nature of college and to instead pursue their passions. 

“The absolute most important thing I would ask anyone to do is to really ground themselves in the beauty of the community,” Girgis said. “Focus on who they are and what it is that they hope to accomplish, and also towards what end? Who are they helping? Why? I think if we can all ground ourselves in those facts, we’ll be okay.”

Daily Staff Reporter Lily Gooding can be reached at goodingl@umich.edu.

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