Joe Jewell was sure his chance of becoming a Rhodes Scholar was zero after a difficult question in one of the preliminary interviews.
“I felt fairly awkward, stumbling over my words. I didn’t go to my classes the rest of the day, the first-year Rackham student said. They called everyone back at 3:30 p.m. I was not nervous at all, because I was pretty sure I had not gotten it. When they read my name, I was the most stunned in the room.”
Jewell, who will represent the state of Michigan, is one of 32 students nationwide who received the scholarship late last month. The scholarship covers educational costs and living expenses to study at Oxford University in England, which roughly amounts to $35,000 a year according to the award program.
With a 3.8 undergraduate grade point average from the California Institute of Technology and a diverse array of interests, Jewell had no need to be stunned. The Stephenville native of Michigan majored in aeronautics and medieval history while also participating in student government. He also played the timpani, a percussion instrument, for the Occidental-CalTech orchestra.
Despite his various talents, aerospace and science have always been Jewell’s main focus, his father said.
“When he was younger, he always wanted to be an astronaut. It was around the time of eighth or ninth grade I realized that it could be more than a dream for him,” said Stephen Jewell, editor of their hometown paper the St. Joseph Herald-Palladium.
He also added that when he heard the announcement decreeing Joe Jewell the winner, he temporarily was at a loss for words.
“I was so happy I could barely speak. I was very choked up. I’m still very proud,” he said.
Rackham Associate Dean June Howard shared the same sense of pride. “I am very pleased he will have the chance to study in Oxford. To me, Mr. Jewell seems a wonderful role model and very much a Michigan person, because of his diverse interests,” she said.
With a future brimming with options, Jewell still has difficulty deciding between his childhood dream and an academic lifestyle. “One of my dreams is still to be an astronaut. Yet, another option is to be a professor here at Michigan or Caltech.”
Before Jewell can even begin to sort out his career trajectory, he will have to complete two years at Oxford. Jewell’s main objective will be to explore the possibility of creating more effective supersonic combustion ramjets. According to Jewell, these “scramjets” could possibly function without moving parts by compressing pre-combustion air at high velocities. The potential for such a discovery would change the landscape of aviation technology. In a report he wrote titled “Scramjets: Propulsion for an Air-Breathing space Plane,” Jewell explained that this technology could cut travel time from New York to Tokyo to an hour and a half.
Jewell not only designs planes that reach incredible speeds, he also flies in them. Jewell flew aboard the “The Vomit Comet” three times. The KC-135 tanker received its nickname through the various stomach-churning flying maneuvers it makes to reach zero gravity. However, Jewell demonstrated a natural propensity to this gravity-free environment. “I never actually vomited. People did on every flight I was on, except the first flight. I’ve always loved roller coasters and stuff, so I was not surprised that I did not get sick.”
Like his interest in science, Jewell believes his interest in medieval history stems from his childhood.
“I grew up reading about knights in shining armor. When I was younger I used to love to read about English history. I used to be a pretty boring kid actually. It was a very romantic era, not in the love sense, but how we idealize it today. Yet, it used to be a very violent time where people were not in control of their destiny,” he said.
Warren Brown, a Medieval History professor at CIT, found Jewell to be well-rounded especially in comparison to the archetype of the “nerdy” CIT student. “Caltech students are sometimes quite narrow, as you might imagine from the nature of the place. Not every one is, though. I found myself having quite interesting conversations with Joe about music, religion, politics –– even on occasion his scientific work which he managed to explain so that I could understand it,” he said.
As hard as it is to believe with his staggering credentials, Jewell says that he has recently been getting behind in his classes. “Unfortunately I haven’t had as much time for that this semester as my advisor would probably like. The Rhodes process has kind of dominated my life for awhile,” Jewell said.
“I’m hoping my professors will understand about all the work I have to make up,” he added.
On an average school day, Jewell wakes up around 8:30 a.m. to dash to his first class by 9 a.m. According to Jewell, he rarely makes it in time and frequently shows up ten minutes late. “One of my main flaws is I am one of the least punctual people you’ll ever meet,” Jewell admitted.
In his 2002 gold Toyota Camry adorned with the license plate “TIMPANI,” Jewell next drives to North Campus where he will spend the remainder of his day attending classes and studying. Although on the surface this might seem like a normal day, Jewell takes five classes this semester which is two more than the average Rackham engineering student.
On Wednesdays from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., he attends orchestra practice where he plays the timpani. First year music doctoral candidate Benjamin Rous, who is also the student conductor of the orchestra Jewell plays for, insists that Jewell has a responsibility to lead the other members of the percussion section. “I think of him as a leader in the orchestra. He is an experienced timpanist who can take care of himself.”
He also recalls the impression Jewell cast upon him in his first interview. “I immediately had the sense that he had a list of accomplishments behind him. He actually came with a repertoire of pieces he could play. Nobody else had that, and even though it was a small thing he came across professional.”
Cecil Rhodes designated in his will for the creation of the Rhodes Scholarships in 1902 to be designated to individuals that demonstrate not only scholastic achievements, but also leadership qualities and community involvement. This fund also provides for 95 international scholars on top of the thirty two American scholars.
Jewell also said that he plans to travel around Europe on his brief vacations, because he has only been out of the country when he visited Germany.