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Washington University Senior Wins Rhodes Scholarship

On Friday, senior Tori Harwell was standing in a room full of Rhodes Scholar finalists in Chicago, waiting for the announcement of the two names who would receive the grant. Harwell’s presence in that room required a significant amount of time, energy, and inspiration.

Harwell, majoring in African and African American Studies and Environmental Analysis, learned about the scholarship via Robyn Hadley, previous Ervin Scholars director and Rhodes Scholar.

“I think that just kind of sat in the back of my head. Like, ‘This Black woman can do it — there’s potential for me, too,’” Harwell said.

Then, in the spring of her junior year, Harwell had to request eight reference letters from instructors and mentors, in addition to writing personal and academic statements.

After that, Harwell needed to be endorsed by Washington University (another application) before officially applying to the national scholarship program.

Finally, after being designated one of 12 candidates in District 12 (which encompasses Tennessee, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri), Harwell had to find a means to travel to Chicago for one final 20-minute interview. They chose to fly to the destination and then take the train back.

Harwell’s scholarship honors Cecil Rhodes, the late 19th-century prime minister of the English Cape Colony (now South Africa).

Rhodes exploited his political position to enact stricter voting regulations and expel many Black citizens from their property. At the end of his life, Rhodes established the Rhodes Scholarship, which enables male learners from current or former British colonies to study at Oxford.

Harwell, who studied abroad in Cape Town during their junior year, witnessed the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign, which lobbied for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue on the University of Cape Town’s campus in 2015 and continues to raise awareness about institutional racism.

This Rhodes legacy, however, did not prevent Harwell from pursuing the scholarship. Rather, the complex history surrounding Cecil Rhodes piqued her curiosity.

“I think that’s what intrigues me,” Harwell remarked. “Many Washington University alumni who were Rhodes Scholars were Black Rhodes Scholars. And I kind of enjoy that subversive tradition.”

Harwell has often pursued her curiosity. They spent a month in Ghana conducting cocoa growing research before moving to South Africa to study. Over the course of several months, Harwell tracked cocoa from local Ghanaian farmers to the Cadbury Chocolate Company in the United Kingdom. This past summer, they researched at the University of Birmingham, diving into dense primary records regarding Cadbury’s internal history.

It was on that Friday in Chicago that Harwell discovered she would be traveling back to the UK: this time, for two years at Oxford University. Harwell expressed disbelief when her name was called as a winner. Then she called her father.

“He was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s cool,’” Harwell said, imitating his nonchalant response.

After they wished the other finalists farewell, reality set in.

“I ended up crying because it just seems so far beyond what both my living family and ancestors would have seen for me,” Harwell said.

Harwell will fly to Oxford in September to pursue two degrees: one in Nature, Society, and Environmental Governance, and the other in African Studies. Harwell is the 30th winner of Washington University’s scholarship, and the first since 2018.

Harwell is looking forward to reconnecting with old friends as well as continuing her education. During her summer research in Birmingham, she joined a book club and became acquainted with local jazz performers.

“I don’t play jazz,” she clarified. “I just like listening to it.”

Harwell intends to spend most of her time in the area before heading to Oxford. They plan to acquire a job in St. Louis this summer so they may spend more time with their college classmates. Of course, they have New Year’s resolutions to keep. They actually make up an entire bingo board. The goal is not to complete all 25 tasks, but rather to get five-in-a-row bingo.

To accomplish this, Harwell may learn to surf, spend a month without traveling, invite a stranger to lunch three times, travel around Asia, put on an art display, or approach an underclassman and become friends. And of course, graduate.

Harwell is unsure about her future after completing her two-year tenure at Oxford. She suggested community-based work.

“And, hopefully, take a break from school.”

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