LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - On Saturday in Indianapolis, University of Louisville graduate Monica Marks, 23, was named the latest Rhodes Scholar. The Eastern Kentucky native stopped back in Louisville Sunday to celebrate with U of L staff.
University of Louisville President James Ramsey was like a proud parent. He said getting word that Marks had won the Rhodes left him "just overwhelmed."
"That's what we were shooting for," he continued, adding that U of L has had several Fulbright winners and various other distinguished students. However, Ramsey said having a Rhodes Scholar--one of only three or four ever to come out of U of L and the first female--is even better than winning a national championship.
"We're proud of our student athletes," Ramsey says. "But at the end of the day, it's all about undergraduate education."
With only 32 Rhodes Scholarships given out per year in the United States, the group--which includes names like former President Bill Clinton, or former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Penn Warren--is a who's who of the nation's elite. The prize itself is a two year scholarship to England's Oxford University, awarded to a person excelling academically, committed to philanthropy and social and civic causes.
For Marks, it a long way from Rush, Kentucky, a small Eastern Kentucky town without a public library. "It was difficult to pursue a middle school education, a higher high school education" explains Marks. "The hills of Eastern Kentucky are beautiful, but they often have a way of trapping their residents, and getting beyond them was never an assumption."
That journey beyond the Eastern Kentucky Hills was made even more challenging by the fact that her parents were Jehovah's Witnesses. Marks said, "Jehovah's Witnesses, have unfortunately, pursued a rather antagonistic stance towards higher education of their youth." She added that they tend also to denigrate women in general.
Still, Marks credited her father, an elder in his church, with cultivating her love of books and travel. She credited the tight knit community of Rush as having brought her ultimately to where she is today.
"It motivated me to travel," she says. "It motivated me to seek a broader understanding of the world through books, through education, really."
Marks applied to many colleges outside of Kentucky before ending up at U of L and admitted it wasn't her first choice. She "settled" for the school she could afford and initially, during her first few months of college, was somewhat unhappy. She said she quickly found a support network of friends and professors, many of whom were instrumental in assisting and guiding Marks through the Rhodes Scholar application process.
Marks was actually in Istanbul, Turkey studying on a Fulbright Scholarship when she initially applied for the Rhodes. She heads back to Turkey on Monday.
In the meantime, and throughout the entire process, her U of L mentor, Patricia Condon, has been there for her, helping in every step, from preparing Marks for interviews, to helping her select a suitable outfit to wear. As Marks was unable to reach her father when she first found out she had won, Condon was the first to get the news.
"I'd been praying for it," Condon said. "I was sitting here with all the ingredients for the celebration dinner ... but didn't dare say anything until we knew for sure."
Condon said Marks natural drive coupled with her intelligence and her ability to learn languages are all keys to her success in the Rhodes process, and in life.
"Two of the people who interviewed her said she was one of the best candidates they had ever interviewed," Condon said. She added that she knows Marks is headed for great things--perhaps one day even mentoring and teaching Middle Eastern Culture and Law at a university.
"We talked about that," Condon admitted, when asked if it was possible for Marks to follow in fellow Rhodes winner Bill Clinton's footsteps. "She said Secretary of State was the perfect job."
For now, one of the most decorated graduates in U of L history is just trying to absorb what it all means, and what it might mean for the future, not just for her, but for other young women in Eastern Kentucky towns, or other children of Jehovah's Witnesses.
She said she hopes they see now that all things are possible. "It's so encouraging for me," said Marks. "It was a group of six former Rhodes Scholars who looked at me and they said, its possible. You can do it.".
Dr. Ramsey said Marks winning sends a message. "The message that, students from all over the country can--the very best students-- can continue their education and have a world class educational experience at the University of Louisville."