Courtesy of Rachael Merritt

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LSA senior Rachael Merritt was recently awarded the Rhodes Scholarship, becoming the University of Michigan’s 30th recipient of the oldest and most prestigious international scholarship. Merritt, alongside 31 other American Rhodes Scholars, will study at the University of Oxford with all expenses funded by the scholarship program for the next two to three years.

At Oxford, Merritt plans to obtain master’s degrees in Russian and Eastern European studies and Social Science of the Internet. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Merritt said she is most interested in the intersection between the two topics, namely cybersecurity within the scope of Russia and Eastern Europe.

“I’m specifically interested in authoritarian practices in digital spaces and how those really don’t have borders anymore,” Merritt said. “There’s a real need to come up with new metrics and strategies to govern the internet internationally and hold countries like Russia or different countries in Eastern Europe accountable to.”

Merritt is currently double majoring in Russian and international studies. During her time at the University, Merritt said she visited Russia twice and worked with various Russian activists and journalists, including Editor-in-Chief of The New Times Yevgenia Albats, who is a distinguished lecturer in the University of Michigan’s Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies program.

“Yevgenia Albats came to Michigan, which was my intro into the world of investigative journalism in Russia,” Merritt said. “Since then, I’ve made a lot more connections with different journalists, and my interest in understanding media spaces online has been increasing.”

The complicated legacy of the Rhodes Scholarship has come into question in recent years and is something Merritt said she is still struggling to navigate. Cecil Rhodes, the grant’s founder in 1902, was a strong advocate for British imperialism and the eugenics movement. 

“The Trust has done a lot in the past decade or two to address the issue of a more imperialist or exclusionary cohort that it has been in the past,” Merritt said. “I talked to Amytess Girgis, who was the scholar from last year, and her year was the most diverse cohort of American Rhodes Scholars that had been built.”

According to the Rhodes Trust press release, this year’s class of scholars includes a record-setting 22 women with recipients from 24 different colleges and universities across the country. Of the 826 students endorsed by their respective schools, four finalists were U-M students: Public Policy alum Amanda Kaplan, SMTD senior Sammy Sussman, who works for The Michigan Daily, LSA senior Karthik Ravi and Merritt.

Henry Dyson, director of the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships, told The Daily the University looks for candidates who showcase academic excellence, demonstrate leadership potential, exhibit altruism and use their talents to the fullest. Dyson said these qualities are exemplified through research accomplishments, letters of recommendation, leadership positions, internship opportunities and overall character.

“Lots of Rhodes Scholars are what we might call ‘spiky’ in that they have spikes of talent and interests in various different fields,” Dyson said. “There’s a lot of different multifaceted interests and pursuits, which is a distinctive feature of the Rhodes Scholarship.”

What made Merritt stand out as a candidate, Dyson said, was her all-encompassing resume.

“It’s one thing to say that you have an interest,” Dyson said. “But it’s another to have a resume that demonstrates that you have pursued that interest through two or three different stages like Rachael has.”

Merritt said she had been working with Dyson over the past six months to prepare for the scholarship’s rigorous application process, which consists of eight letters of recommendation, a University endorsement and two virtual finalist interviews, one behavioral and one technical.

One unique challenge Merritt said she faced during the finalist interviews was the time-zone difference between the United States and Russia, where she is currently studying abroad.

“(The panelist interview) was a bit tricky because it was 2:00 a.m. in Russia, so I was excited and tired at the same time,” Merritt said. “I tried to switch my sleep schedule as much as I could the week leading up to it and just did a ton of interview prep.”

When Merritt first found out she won the Rhodes Scholarship, she said she was in complete awe, swarmed with emotions.

“It was an insane moment — there were a lot of emotions happening, and maybe one of the reasons is by the time they told me, it was around 3:30 in the morning,” Merritt said. “It was a moment where my life felt like it changed a decent amount.”

After helping coach Merritt through the application process, Dyson said he is proud of her and is excited to hear about everything she will accomplish at Oxford and beyond.

“I’m overjoyed for Rachael, it will be a life-changing experience for her,” Dyson said. “She’s going to have the opportunity to not only go to Oxford for two years but also to be at Rhodes House with these amazing scholars from all around the world in all different fields.”

In an email to The Daily, Nataša Gruden-Alajbegović, manager of the Program of International and Comparative Studies, expressed her excitement for Merritt, especially since she is the first student in the PICS program to win the Rhodes Scholarship.

“This speaks of the depth and breadth of our program which encourages students to put together their own International Studies curriculum within our four sub-plans, and which puts emphasis on learning a foreign language,” Gruden-Alajbegović said. “Students venture out of their comfort zone to learn in-depth the second language and about other cultures and people.”

Echoing Gruden-Alajbegović, director of PICS Robert Franzese said Merritt’s achievements speak to the rich curriculum offered by the program and will help inspire future generations of PICS students.

“As an international studies major, Rachael capitalized on our interdisciplinary, globally focused curriculum to develop and sharpen her focus on understanding contemporary global challenges and their address and redress,” Franzese said. “We know that Rachael and her tremendous success will inspire other brilliant, dedicated, globally motivated PICS students to apply for these prestigious scholarships, to pursue their goals and to make a positive difference in our gloriously interconnected world.”

After completing her studies at Oxford, Merritt said she hopes to first work with internet regulations at a non-governmental organization before moving into a more policy-based field.

“Eventually, I want to enter into a more policy perspective on international approaches towards the internet or towards Russia and Eastern Europe,” Merritt said. “But to start off, I want to be in a small team that’s more connected to people on the ground and learn more about what journalists are doing in different parts of the world.”

Looking back on her experiences at the University, Rachael said she wishes she could tell her freshman-year self to appreciate all the connections and friendships she’ll make over the coming years.

“One of the most rewarding things, now that I’m leaving Michigan, is knowing that I have a ton of friends, professors and mentors,” Merritt said. “Michigan is not a book chapter that I have to close because of those relationships.”

For those interested in applying to scholarships and fellowships, Merritt said she fully recommends taking advantage of the abundance of resources available at the University.

“Don’t count yourself out … you gain so many skills in applying, so don’t let the fact that you don’t think you’re going to get it dissuade you from applying,” Merritt said. “I feel like I know so much more about my interests, my beliefs, my ability to speak publicly.”

Daily Staff Reporter Evan Delorenzo can be reached at evandelo@umich.edu.

Editor’s note: Sammy Sussman, one of the Rhodes Scholar finalists, is an editor at The Michigan Daily. He did not receive the scholarship. He did not help edit this story.